From “Virtues” to “Values”: A Lamentable Change in Terms

It is popular today to speak of Christian “values.” There are even organizations that use the word in their name to grab the attention of Christians and other traditionalists who are concerned with the state of the family and the moral and spiritual condition of the state.

-         Traditional Values Coalition
-         Family Values
-         Christian Values Network
-         Voices for Family Values
-         Values Action Team
-         American Values Network
 

Many other organizations, like Focus on the Family and American Family Association, don’t incorporate the word in their name but have a similar passion for traditional values. These groups, found in a number of countries, are usually socially, religiously and politically conservative.

While the word “values” is currently very popular, its use is a reflection that we have ceded an important word, and the loss to our culture is reflected in our  word choice.

Before the word “values” became popular, the word “virtue”—a Biblical term– was used to define the character of an individual and a nation. The Hebrew Old Testament uses חַיִל (ḥǎ•yil): “noble character, strong character, worthy person;” the Greek New Testament uses ἀρετή (arête): “virtue, goodness, excellence.” Note that both words are rooted in moral character and goodness.

Noah Webster did not include the word values in his 1828 dictionary

Lexicographer Noah Webster, the founding father of American education, developed an American Dictionary of the English Language in 1828. Webster was consciously functioning from a Biblical worldview as he defined the language for a new nation. In his dictionary, he defines virtue as “moral goodness; the practice of moral duties and the abstaining from vice, or a conformity of life and conversation to the moral law.”

Note a couple of observations about virtue. First, it has a standard – it’s about moral goodness. Also, it requires an action, i.e. the practice of being and doing good, and the avoidance of vice, i.e. conduct that is morally unfit. It’s a lifelong process of conforming to the moral law.

The word “virtue” requires moral discipline. Today it has mostly disappeared from the modern vocabulary. It’s replacement—a poor substitute—is the term “values.” Here is a word free of moral gravitas and responsibility. “Values” entails nothing more than personal preference: you have your values, I have mine. The shift from virtues to values has been titanic.

The word “virtue” was born out of the Judeo-Christian worldview, which acknowledges the existence of God and a moral universe. Human beings are made in the image of God as moral and rational creatures. Virtuous living leads to human flourishing.

The modern word “values” was born out of an atheist-materialist worldview. In this framework God does not exist and thus the universe is amoral. There is no right or wrong, good or evil. Human beings are highly evolved animals whose survival is determined by their fitness and cunning. The only law is kill or be killed, the ultimate goal is pleasure without boundaries. Values are subjective and relative. Our personal preferences can actually pit us against each other. A culture of death engulfs our lives.

The change in vocabulary is the result of a shift in worldview. Judeo-Christian theism built the freest, most just and civil society the world has  yet known. Alas, this has given way to today’s atheistic-materialistic worldview. It is this shift in worldview that brought the shift in language.

Friedrich Nietzsche, the German existential philosopher, coined the phrase “the death of God.” In 1820 Nietzsche sparked the revolution that reduced virtues—a term invested with biblical meaning, to values – a personal and sociological construct. Nietzsche realized that denying the existence of God would have consequences: everything rooted in God’s existence would die with Him. The concept of humans as God-image bearers died. The existence of objective truth and absolute morality died. Human beings were reduced to highly evolved animals, truth to opinion, and virtues to values. All that was left was the “will to power.”

These two worlds are very different. A world of virtues is a world of gravitas where people and ideas mean something. Human significance is derived from God. And because God is the author of goodness, beauty, and truth, there are moral absolutes. To live within the framework of the kingdom of God is to live virtuously.

On the other hand, a world posited by atheists is a world without weight, light as air. Values are personal, subjective, and relative. I have my values and opinions and you have yours. Our fitness and cunning will determine who survives.

American historian Gertrude Himmelfarb in the De-Moralization of Society, writes: “It was not until the present century that morality became so thoroughly relativized and subjectified that virtues cease to be ‘virtues’ and became ‘values.’”

Perhaps it is no coincidence that the word “value” is not found in Webster’s 1828 dictionary. A lexicographer defining the language of new nation from a distinctly Biblical worldview included virtue but not values. Only a virtuous people can build a free, just, and compassionate nation. A nation free from moral law, a nation of mere values, will not long be free, just, or compassionate. Replacing virtues with values gives voice to the Darwinist mantra “survival of the fittest.”

In his modern classic The Closing of the American Mind, American professor and classicist Alan Bloom chronicled the demise of virtue in the American psyche. There are no longer virtues, there is now only one virtue: tolerance.

Relativism is necessary to openness, and this is the virtue, the only virtue, which all primary education for more than fifty years has dedicated itself to inculcating. Openness – and the relativism that makes it the only plausible stance in the face of various claims to truth and various ways of life and kinds of human beings – is the great insight of our times.

Unfortunately, Christians have surrendered! We have capitulated to this erosion of language and subconsciously to the worldview of our culture. We are passionate about truth, beauty and goodness. We are concerned about the breakdown of our families and our cultures. But we have become trapped in the relativist’s language of “values.”

Writing in Total Truth, Nancy Pearcey succinctly says: “When we use the term values, we are broadcasting to the secular worlds a message that says we are only about our own group’s idiosyncrasies, which the rest of society should tolerate as long as it doesn’t upset any important public agendas (emphasis Pearcey’s).”

As Professor Bloom said about the modern mind, “A value-creating man is a plausible substitute for a good man.”

No, there is no substitute for a good man! And the West is reaping the whirlwind of a values-oriented culture, a society of lawlessness. To build a society that is good requires living virtuously. To live virtuously, we must know intimately the One Good, True, and Beautiful God.

-         Darrow Miller

 

  
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5 Responses to From “Virtues” to “Values”: A Lamentable Change in Terms

  1. Excellent, Darrow. So true.

  2. cam says:

    From “Virtues” to “Values”

    Thank you. This was very well expressed. Now to get “virtue” lodged in my mind and begin using it….

  3. I have been teaching this vital and important truth for years. Most pastors and leaders today just do not see the difference. Values are relative. Values tend to be person centered and relative to one´s own tastes. It is a modern humanist concept. Virtues proceed from God as the source of all virtue and thus stand firm and true over time. Thanks for pointing this valuable insight out and giving some of the historical background to the shift.

  4. Gary Schmidt says:

    I want to share this post with my Communications, Leadership and Organizations class. I have been trying to get them to understand that great leadership stems from who is leading, more than how they are leading. Philosophies, models and techniques, as good as they may be, are no substitute for character (and thus virtues) when seeking to inspire and motivate others.

    • admin says:

      Gary

      Glad you found the post helpful. Please feel free to share it with your class. Let us know how they respond.

      darrow

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