Wednesday, April 7, 2010

An Essay on Values

I have been thinking about values recently—not to the level of obsession, but certainly doing some heavy pondering. This has been spurred on by a few things.

The first was a debate I judged before I came to Korea. Though debates that I participate in or judge often make me think, and occasionally lead me to revise my views on their topics, it is rare for one to keep me thinking about it for months afterwards. This was such a debate. It was the final of the Lower Mainland West regional tournament, between two teams from WPGA—who are coached by one of the best coaches in Canada and are exceptional debaters.

The debate was on the export of democracy (e.g. in Iraq and Afghanistan), which meant they were talking about cultural relativism. The Opposition team was insisting that “we” could have Western values (i.e. democracy) in the West, and “they” could have other values in other places. The Prime Minister responded in his final speech, “but if these are our values, don't we have to value them everywhere?” Though not particularly deep analysis, this resonated with me for reasons I wasn't quite clear on yet.

The second influence on my deliberation on values was a TED talk by Sam Harris, which I have embedded here. It is well worth watching. Harris argues that moral questions, far from being unanswerable or completely relative to culture, can be answered through science—that a sort of mapping exists from the choices of an individual or society to the well-being of humans, and this mapping has mountains and valleys corresponding to various societal states.

I like this video not because I think Harris is 100% correct; I do not. Underlying his argument is a humanist assumption, that morality is related to the suffering and flourishing of humans and human societies, and one requires this unprovable (though acceptable) assumption to complete his link. No, I like the video because it argues convincingly and from a secular standpoint against cultural relativism. It is a devastating attack on the “all values are created equal” argument. It is the analysis behind the question in the rebuttal speech above.

Harris also discusses a topic that has factored recently in my thinking on values: corporeal punishment in schools. I generally approach this as a settled issue; after all, it is illegal in Canada, and, I think, rightly so. (I won't go into all the reasons here, but the gist is that it creates a negative environment based on fear, pain and humiliation, rather than the preferable educational environment based on engagement and rational consequences; also it violates a student's body, which I find impermissible.)

I have been learning that it is not so much a settled issue in Korea, and this is the third thing that has prompted my spate of values-related musings. Corporeal punishment in schools is permissible here (though apparently there is draft legislation prohibiting it) and much more socially acceptable than in Canada.

This hit home a couple weeks ago in class. I was very frustrated by the behaviour of one of my students, and must have let my ire be more externally visible than I wanted, because my student looked up at me fearfully and asked “Are you going to hit me?”

As I mention above, the question of corporeal punishment is settled in my values system. It is a related question that troubles me: what is my relation to these values. Could I in good faith work in a school that uses corporeal punishment? Would I, if required by my school, use corporeal punishment myself on a child? (For the record, these are yet hypothetical questions, and ones I expect or hope to face in reality. My school uses a North American model of education and is very different from the Korean education system. I feel, however, that as an educator and a curious person that I should at least attempt to answer them.)

My answers to these questions are less clear. To answer them, I have to turn to the thoughts I presented at the start of this essay. One thing that is clear to me is that I cannot “do as the Romans do” and set aside my values just because I am working in a different country and culture. I do not think, therefore, that I could bring myself to personally use corporeal punishment or to send students to an administrator if I were sure that would be the result.

More muddy is whether I would work at a school with a policy of corporeal punishment. The world, of course, is not a utopia formed from the mould of my values, and I recognize that to refuse to work (or eat, or live, etc.) anywhere that doesn't correspond exactly with my beliefs is foolish and counterproductive. (This touches on another inner debate about how I interact with people and cultures that have a problem with me being gay, but we'll save that for another day.) I also know that, were I to be in this position, any decision I would make would likely have zero impact on whether children were subjected to corporeal punishment or not, so there is no utilitarian calculus to lean on.

But! There must be some things that we refuse to be even a bystander to. If, for example, I found myself in a work environment that participated in [some sort of legally-sanctioned] murder, I would morally have to at the very least remove myself from that work environment. So, I ask myself, where would I draw this line?

Comments and debate are, as always, appreciated!


  1. Hey Steve,

    This is super interesting. I've been giving some of these questions some thought over time because I have come to realize that some of my personal beliefs/values are different from those around me in Canada (and Canadian ideals/beliefs were even more foreign to me when I first moved here). I have a couple of thoughts on it all based on my experience.

    The first is a question- do you believe that there are certain inalienable rights or freedoms that people have? Not should have, but that people actually have. Secondly, do you feel that even if we have certain beliefs, that we should impose them on others? I ask because I, like you, would never hit/spank a child, but do I have the right to then tell others not to do so as well? I ask because I wonder to what extent cultural relativism applies.

    Essentially, I feel that the reason we hold a lot of values isn't because they are in some objective sense true, but because we were brought up to reason in different ways. Some call it being more "progressive" or "liberal", but I think the question is more whether we consider our stances to be more legitimate. I think by virtue of thinking that something is better or correct, you assume the position of saying that it's also more legitimate and that others should do it- after all, if you don't think that it's good for others, then why would you do it yourself? But the flip side is that the same holds true for other beliefs. So then, when do you go against the cultural grain?

    I realize these are all more questions than comments, but I wanted to share anyway :)

  2. Steve, yes, it certainly is 'super interesting', thought provoking, and absolutely delightful to read your clear thinking and writing about such a vital topic and to find Sam Harris's very credible argument that the answers lie in science. I enjoyed your quibble that his assumption that morality is based on the well-being of humans is unprovable but, accepting that, he makes a whole lot of sense. From there I went on to another TED talk. Thank you very much for opening this door to me.
    The only thing I doubt is whether any decision you make would have 'zero impact'. I disagree. We are all like stones thrown in the water; the ripples make differences, small though they may be, in ways we'll never know.

    I also enjoyed your comments/questions Maria, and I particularly remember what you said in another section about mental illness in connection with city life.

    It would all make for a fine long conversation by candle light someday - perhaps after one of Steve's good meals?

  3. Maria, you ask: "The first is a question- do you believe that there are certain inalienable rights or freedoms that people have? Not should have, but that people actually have. Secondly, do you feel that even if we have certain beliefs, that we should impose them on others? I ask because I, like you, would never hit/spank a child, but do I have the right to then tell others not to do so as well?"

    Here are my thoughts:

    1. I'm not sure I follow the distinction between "have" and "should have" here. Rights and freedoms are fundamentally normative, which is to say that when I say one has a right, I also mean one should have that right... does this make sense?

    And yes, I believe that there exist certain universal rights, but that these can have many expressions. I'm speaking of rights such as education - I believe that everyone has a positive right to be educated to some degree, but that the satisfaction of this right can take many forms.

    2. This is a more tricky question, and the answer is yes in some cases, and no in others.

    First let me say that the proper mechanism for imposing any values on others is through a democratic system of government. I can't just walk to my neighbour's house and prevent her from spanking her two-year-old, but I may be justified in supporting a law (or voting for a politician who supports a law) banning spanking.

    In terms of when a democracy should impose values on people, I'd say that any activity where people are (1) making a non-coerced choice to participate, and (2) not imposing on the rights of others should not be regulated. Of course, this leaves enormous room for interpretation. Is following a cultural norm (such as women wearing a burqa) is a coerced choice or not? Are the activities of smoking and doing drugs infringing on the rights of others by imposing a social cost via increased health care costs? I'd say this is why we must debate each individual issue on its merits. (Also, it makes debate tournaments possible.)

    Now, Maria the argument I can see for banning spanking is that it violates a child's rights over their body, which are widely considered one's most inalienable rights - notice that we restrict mobility rights for criminals (jail) and students (detention) but no longer use corporeal punishment in those places. In addition, (1) parents too often get away with genuinly abusive behaviour under laws that permit corporeal punishment, and (2) it seems silly to try to teach kids to be upstanding, moral, non-violent people by threatening violent punishment if they disobey the rules.

    I don't completely buy these arguments, and I am acutely aware that I have no parenting experience, so my arguments are very theoretical rather than practical. But I do lean in that direction.


    Thanks for posting, GM! I'm glad that I introduced you to TED - it has been the source of many thought-provoking hours of edu-tainment for me. And I'm sure we'll have a good discussion of this over a meal at some point!