From Talking "Values" to Living Them
Published on Saturday, December 4, 2004 by Common
From Talking "Values" to Living Them
by Jonathan Ingbar

George Lakoff, Thomas Frank, and others are awakening progressives to the need to reinvigorate our talk with a clear explanation of our moral vision. In his essay, "Our Moral Values," ( ) Lakoff writes, "If we communicate our values clearly, most people will recognize them as their own, personally more authentic and more deeply American than those put forth by conservatives. At the very least they will see progressives as having deeply held, traditional American principles." We must be prepared, though, to respond to challenges to our moral vision; here is a way to begin crafting that response.

In his book, "How Good People Make Tough Choices," Rushworth Kidder, Ph.D., the founder and president of the Institute for Global Ethics ( ), a nonpartisan research and training organization , spells out how to think and talk about the moral values we share. Across nations, cultures, organizations, religions, and socioeconomic boundaries, people consistently hold five ethical values as most central to their lives: Honesty, Respect, Responsibility, Fairness, and Compassion. You will find these same moral values espoused in Lakoff’s nurturant progressive families and in his strict-father conservative families.

The real question, then, is how these same five values—so universally espoused—come to be embodied or lived out so differently. Kidder describes four dimensions—four ways of thinking about and prioritizing what goes on in the world—that shape how we live out our values and give rise to the conflicting worldviews between progressives and conservatives:

  • Self versus Community
  • Loyalty versus Truth
  • Short-term Benefit versus Long-term Well-being
  • Justice versus Mercy

In a general way, the conservative worldview favors living out each moral value through the prism of Self, Loyalty, Short-term Benefit, and Justice. The progressive worldview tends to favor embodying each value in a spirit of Community, Truth, Long-term Well-being, and Mercy. The key point here is to realize that both worldviews are basically ethical ones, so we are talking about a conflict of "right versus right," not "right versus wrong."

Progressives must begin thinking through and crafting responses that highlight these essential differences with conservatives. We must develop an inspiring vision of a nation in which our principles aim at the good of the community and the individuals that constitute it rather than at amassing comforts for the privileged few; at the power of truth rather than at blind loyalty; at the far-reaching well-being of all rather than the short-term profit of the powerful; and at the freeing spirit of mercy rather than the punitive sword of retribution.

This is not to say that progressives should refrain from speaking out and acting when the words and actions of others violate the moral sphere. Far from it. Need we look any further than the torture of prisoners at Abu Ghraib or Guantanamo to realize that the Bush Administration has shattered the moral boundary? An argument for the immorality of torture and its violation of the basic values of respect, responsibility, and compassion will resonate with just about everyone, not simply those on the left.

imilarly, if our government truly values honesty, how does the Administration defend its insistence on secrecy and restriction of information? They will say, of course, that it is for our own good, our own protection. They will treat us, as Lakoff would say, as if we were children in need of defense from the evils of the world. Well, where is the respect in that formulation?

The good news and bad news in making a commitment to living out the shared ethical values is that each one opens out into all the others. Can you truly be fully honest and not develop as sense of responsibility as a consequence? If you embody respect, can fairness be far behind? And doesn’t compassion flow from both respect and fairness?

What this means, though, is that making a commitment to embrace a single ethical value, such as honesty, is a radical step. It means we are signing on to the entire ethical spectrum—and the consequences that will follow.

This is the real sticking point. It is the question of commitment to our progressive vision. It is the question of the choices we make when our own immediate self-interest conflicts with the principles we espouse. This is most evident, perhaps, in the conduct of our political leaders. But it is present in every decision we make, and it ultimately determines the world in which we live.

Most of us espouse the five core moral values shared around the world. It is when we try to live out those values that we may find our resolve wavering. When fairness means restraining my self-interest for the greater good, when responsibility means recognizing the ways in which I am contributing to ongoing problems rather than healing them, when honesty means admitting my own hidden agendas, when compassion means putting community before power—that’s when our convictions get tested.

There is no magic formula for living out the values we hold most dear. The willingness to do so derives from an individual choice to live according to certain principles. It is strengthened by the commitments that we make to each other. There will be costs and consequences for living according to a set of principles, but there are costs and consequences for not doing so, as well. It comes down to what sort of community, nation, and world we wish to inhabit, and what we are willing to do to bring that vision to life.

Having confidence in the moral force of a progressive vision and making a commitment to it is where our work begins.

Jonathan Ingbar is a psychiatrist and a fellow of the Institute for Global Ethics

Copyright © 2004 Jonathan Ingbar