We all have values, many of them strongly held values. If you press us on ethical issues, if you test us or challenge us, and if you go deep enough, there will come a point when we reach a point where we will say that we will (or won’t) do something because it is the ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ thing to do in that particular context. There is a growing body of evidence to suggest that these values are born with us: Matthew Taylor, Chief Executive of the Royal Society of Arts in the UK, in his excellent essay ‘Twenty-First Century Enlightenment‘, refers to recent research from the Yale University Infant Cognition Center, who discovered that even infants make “rudimentary moral judgements”: “In one experiment babies between six and twelve months old watched a simple coloured geometric shape – for example, a red circle with eyes – try to climb a slope. When other shapes intervened, apparently either helping or blocking the circle, the children’s responses showed a clear preference for the helping shapes.”
And yet we shy away from talking about our values. In part this is because the media of our times do not deal well with the complexity that an honest discussion on values would entail. Open any newspaper and you will tend to find judgements that are polarised into one view (right) or an opposing view (wrong). A wise person would smile at such simplicity of judgement; human life is far more complex. In a contrary but understandable juxtaposition, we have grown nervous of absolutes – two world wars in the twentieth century left their mark in this respect – and this has had the effect of making us fearful of anything other than moral relativity. We have taken tolerance to such an extreme that we are often afraid of questioning the values of others, no matter how appalling we may find them.
The circle of debate closes down when we are faced with such conflicting messages; it becomes too hard to explore our values and to test them out safely and in meaningful philosophical debate. No wonder that we give up and that the vast majority of visible and audible debate in our society revolves around the superficial … not that this makes the world any safer or better. Absence of strong and positive values translates very quickly into the pernicious and the amoral. Values are there for a reason – they are the framework on which we base our lives â€“ lives that I believe we want to be in large part good, valuable and meaningful.
We need to talk about values, and we need to find a space to engage with this discussion particularly as it relates to our children. Our children may be born with values, but the nurturing of these values is down to us as parents, and to the society around them. If we as parents do not spend time delving deeper into our own values, and finding ways in which to discuss and explore them in the context of the world in which we live, then we will find it harder to guide our children. Our children need our guidance – more so now than ever before, given this superficial backdrop to the world in which they are growing up.
So … we need to start a debate. Not a confrontational debate, where we seek to squeeze our understandings about values into an ‘either’ or an ‘or’. Not a debate in which we seek to justify our own understandings at the expense of the understandings of others. Not a debate which seeks instant solutions. Instead, we need a debate where we create spaces for parents especially to be able to reflect on the advice, guidance and wisdom about the world that they and others possess. Throughout the ages, human beings have sought enlightenment, and we know by now that this will not come in the shape of a blinding light or a ‘quick fix’ answer. Our enlightenment will come through openness, exploration, inquisitiveness and honesty.
This is one of the main reasons why I wrote my book. And we all owe it to our children to engage with our values.