Essay IV: The Individual, the Valued, and the Valuable which it is argued that although an individual's values can be neither rational nor irrational, the individual may be able to change and hopefully improve-his values by a rational process.

1. Since what an individual values is not necessarily what he should value, his value system is potentially improvable.

2. Children acquire their initial set of values from other individuals in their environment.

3. However the fact that some values are acquired from one's environment does not mean that all values are so acquired.

4. Rational change of values is possible, but only with the aid of the individual's present set of values.

5. The "man of action" must assume that his present values are valid.

6. The "man of contemplation" must assume that his present values are at least partially invalid.


Paul deLespinasse

"Who dares to teach must never cease to learn."

---John Cotton Dana

"The passion to teach is far more powerful and primitive than the passion to learn..."

---Erie Hoffer

Human beings are both reasoning creatures and feeling creatures. We refer to this fact when we talk of a distinction between reason and emotion or between the head and the heart. There can be no doubt that all individuals act on the basis of a system of values and that we can gain some awareness of our own values by introspection and of other people's values by inferences based on their observed actions (including words). There can also be no doubt that different individuals have different systems of values, although the differences between the value systems of any two particular individuals may be greater or smaller.

The impossibility of proving all systems of values to be equally good or valid forces us to assume that what we value may not really be intrinsically valuable, that, we may prefer things we should not prefer. Of course it is theoretically possible for an individual to oper­ate on the assumption that all value systems are equally worthy (or unworthy) and therefore feel no need to wonder whether his present values are adequate ones, but there are probably few if any such people. There are probably many, however, who feel that other people should im­prove their values but who feel no such need for themselves. They may even be right, although on such matters people often have a tendency to give themselves the benefit of the doubt. But even a belief that other people should change their values for better ones is an admis­sion that some people's values are better than other's. This being the case, we must then inquire what an individual can do about it if he should come to doubt the adequacy of his own values. As we will see, the emotional nature of values raises problems in dealing with this question.

The agonies of a person who confronts the problem of the validity of his own values have been graphically described by John Stuart Mill in his Autobiography, and before proceeding with our analysis It be useful to quote his comments: "It was in the autumn of 1826", writes Mill. "I was in a dull state of nerves, such as everybody is occasionally liable to; unsusceptible to enjoyment or pleasureable excitement; one of those moods when what is pleasure at other times, become insipid or indifferent; the state, I should think, in which converts to Methodism usually are, when smitten by their first ‘conviction of sin'. In this frame of mind it occurred to me to put the question directly to myself: ‘Suppose that all your objects in life were realized; that all you are looking forward to, could be completely effected at this very instant: would this be a great joy and happi­ness to you'? And an irrepressible self-consciousness distinctly answered, ‘no!' At this my heart sank within me: the whole founda­tion on which my life was constructed fell down. All my happiness was to have been found in the continued pursuit of this end. The end had ceased to charm, and how could there ever again be any interest in the means? I seemed to have nothing left to live for."1

Although the relationship between the individual and the valued, which is to say what he actually does prefer, is fairly easy to discern, any discussion of the relation between his actual values and those he ought to have has always been the occasion for an immense amount of theoretical trouble. Many of the problems seem to center around the fact that values are not "intersubjectively transmissable." Although Mr. A. can state that he has a particular value, and someone else can hear and understand that statement and may even believe that Mr. A. is speaking truthfully, there is no way to prove or disprove objectively whether the reported value is a good one. Mr. A. may feel that it is a valid one, but his saying so does not prove to a skeptic that it is so; in fact, even if everybody were to agree that they do value something, it still would not prove that they ought to value it.2 Feelings about values thus are quite different from be­liefs about the consequences which certain actions will produce. Statements about causality are at least theoretically capable of sci­entific verification, so that two individuals can agree whether such a statement is true even though one person is pleased with the situa­tion and the other is saddened.

Efforts to get around the problems posed by the fact that values are not objectively verifiable have been uniformly disastrous. On the extreme some people have maintained that because nothing can be scientifically proved to be right or wrong, nothing really is right or wrong. Thus we find such profound conceptions of morality as the following: "This is a highly moral place. Nobody does anything they don't want to do."3 This approach cannot be taken seriously, since the whole point, of the concept "morality" is that we may want things we ought not to want and if this were not the case there would be no need to distinguish morality from rationality. At the other extreme we find those who simply deny that values are not objectively verifiable and then attempt to prove what we should value. Such efforts either fail, or employ bad logic, or (more frequently) manage to beg the whole question by covertly assuming the validity of some fundamental value and asserting that all other values can be deduced from it by pure logic. We thus find C. E. Ayres, for example, defining "good" as that which contributes "to the on-going life process of mankind", or to "bringing home the bacon."4 Unfortunately Ayres does not bother to prove that mankind ought to have an "on-going life process" or that bacon ought to be brought home.

As if the difficulties resulting from the non-objectivity of values were not enough, problems also arise because of the way in which individuals acquire their initial set of values. Although logicians warn us about the dangers of the "genetic" fallacy, many people assume either 1) that the way in which an individual acquires a value may negate its validity, or 2) that since the way in which a value is acquired determines its validity, values cannot be acquired in certain kinds of ways. Neither of these assumptions is tenable since both of them are based on the mistaken belief that a value's validity is a function of its origins. It is easy to sympathize with those who believe that values cannot have certain kinds of origins, however, because of the extreme and unpalatable conclusions to which some social scientists have; pushed their premises about the environmental origin of values in individuals. Indeed the idea that individuals initially acquire their values from their environment has probably suffered more at the hands of its friends than it has from the attacks of its opponents.

Undoubtedly children initially acquire most if not all of their values (which is to say their preferences or emotional response to situations) from the actions, words, and implied attitudes of those surrounding them. The process by which the child acquires values may take the form either of deliberate indoctrination or of unintended influence (on the part, for example, of people who do not practice what they preach). It is very easy to think of these environmental influences in rather mechanical and impersonal terms. But when we remember that the "social environment" of children actually consists of other individuals-parents, priests, pedagogues, peers-it becomes apparent that the process of "environmental determinism" is not nearly as impersonal and automatic as the words might imply.

The possibility that children may acquire values as a result of deliberate actions by other individuals forces us to ask whether such deliberate actions can be ethical. Bertrand Russell, to cite a prominent example, does not think so, and refers disdainfully to such behavior as a process of "stunting and distorting the minds of the young", a process which "is particularly dastardly, since it takes advantage of the defenselessness of immature minds."5 But Russell does not sound very persuasive if we remember that an individual can do no better than to do the best thing possible within the limits of a situation. A child's values do not just happen, and a person with scruples against indoctrinating his children simply leaves the door open for others to do so, and these others may well be people with far less desirable values to teach them. It would seem that, given the limits of the situa­tion, given the fact that children cannot acquire an initial set of values on their own, the individual who is trying to do the right thing should instill in his children or in those for whom he has some re­sponsibility the best values he has been able to come upon for himself. At best, we see, an individual's initial values are acquired by a non-rational process. The process is non-rational, of course, only from the standpoint of the individual acquiring the values his education may be the result of highly rational actions on the part of the adults involved. Nevertheless, this means that individuals are not entirely responsible for the equipment with which they begin their life; it means that there has always been a dependence on someone else, that individual behavior cannot be discussed in terms of a theoretically self-sufficient individual.

The fact that children are more or less pliable, more or less at the mercy of those who bring them up, has definite political implications. Any political system is made up of people, and the prevailing values held by the individuals of whom the system is composed have extremely important political consequences. This is obviously true in democracies, where the outcome of elections depends on the prefer­ences of the voters, but it is also true in more subtle ways in any kind of political system. Consequently control over what children will be taught to value may be an important means of getting (or keeping) political power. Since such power is probably too dangerous to be placed in any one set of hands, there may be a considerable ad­vantage in family as opposed to "professional" rearing of very young children, especially if "professional" is taken in the exaggerated sense that Plato proposed for the children of the Greek guardians. But other considerations can drive us to the same conclusion. It seems likely that a child has the best chance of acquiring a set of values he can live with if he is brought up in a manner dictated by reason and experience-potential characteristics of all adults-tempered by love. The political philosopher John Locke commented on this matter in the following words: "This is that which puts the authority into the par­ents' hands to govern the minority of their children. God has made it their business to employ their care on their offspring, and has placed in them suitable inclinations of tenderness and concern to temper this power, to apply it, as his wisdom designed it, to the children's good as long as they should need to be under it,"6 Since the family is small it is at least possible for it to be a Gemeinschaft in which the child can be seen as an end in himself, not just as a means to the ends of the observers. One of the dangers of the entirely professionalized approach to education is that when small numbers of adults have to handle large numbers of very young children it could become humanly impossible to see each child as an individual; as a result the teachers might begin making decisions on the basis of their own interest rather than that of the children. It is notable, however, that political regimes which have begun by attempting to destroy the family have found it expedient to end up by trying to strengthen family life, presumably because the alternatives do not allow for a viable and continuing society.

It is all very well to recognize that children pick up their initial values from others. Regrettably, however, some social scientists are not content to stop with this observation and insist on making the grand generalization that individuals continue to get all their values their environment as long as they live. Of course one cannot impeach the introspections upon which people who go around saying things like this presumably base their conclusions. No one would want to deny that some people continue to be at the mercy of their surroundings for their values even after they have presumably ceased to be children. But to say that no one can pass beyond this stage because some people do not is about as logical as asserting that it is impossible for anybody to learn to play the piano because some people cannot. Therefore we cannot rule out the possibility that some individuals may ar­rive at a stage in their lives in which they no longer are limited to passive and unconscious absorption of values from those around them, a stage in which they may actively seek to acquire values which are better than those they already have and than those of people in their im­mediate vicinity. But alas, if prevailing ideas about the "irrationality" of values are accepted, the poor individual has nowhere to turn, since it is impossible to prove the validity of values, either those he already has or those he might contemplate acquiring.

A great deal of the difficulty in discussions of values results from asking the wrong questions. No matter how thoughtful the analysis, the answers to wrong questions are apt to be worse than no answers at all-"Can knowledge have no bound, but must advance, so far, to make us wish for ignorance? And rather in the dark to grope our way, than, led by a false guide, to err by day?"7 To ask whether values are rational or irrational is to abuse the language beyond all repair. Either you are employing the term rational in the sense it is used in these essays, in which case the question is meaningless because a value is not an action but a state of affairs, or you are employing the term rational to indicate whether you believe the value is de­sirable, in which case it would be better to be honest about it and use the expressions "good" or "bad" openly.

There can be few greater mistakes than to try to discuss "values" without referring to the limitations of the situation in which any individual human being finds himself. For one thing, it is probably necessary to make a distinction between the short run and the long run problems an individual confronts concerning the validity of his values. For short run operational purposes the individual must assume the validity of his present values. He must assume his values are valid for the very simple reason that there is no other recourse; if he tries to abandon his present values the individual has no basis for making any kind of decision and will find himself completely at sea. If you must assume the operational validity of your present values, then we can formulate what may be the only proposition in which an "ought" is legitimately derived from an "is": you ought to do (the "ought") what you think you ought to do (the "is"). What you think you ought to do is a question of fact, not of value, though it is a function of your values. To argue that you ought to do what you think you ought not to do is to presume a lack of personal integrity and a total in­ability to depend on your own perceptions and feelings. To argue that you ought to do what someone else thinks you ought to may be correct, but it does not solve your problems, since there are many people will­ing to give advice; deciding whose advice to take is a moral decision in itself. Of course no one can claim that if you do what you think you ought to do you are bound to do the right thing-after all, you may have a faulty idea of the consequences your action will produce, or you may value the wrong things, or both. But any other rule is more likely to produce bad consequences, and it is also likely to pro­duce .difficulties in being applied consistently.

In the long run, on the other hand, the individual can with propriety and benefit doubt the ultimate validity of his present values. Rather than trying to replace them with "rational" values, however, which is likely to produce no end of self-deception or frustration, the individual will do well to concentrate on trying to change his values by a rational process. The fact that values are not objectively prov­able is quite irrelevant since changing one's values is an action and therefore susceptible to rationality. The point of course is that the individual who comes to doubt the ultimate validity of his values is not operating in a vacuum; he already has a value system before he is even capable of thinking about this problem. He need not begin from the beginning, he need not try to find values which are objectively valid, since what he needs to do is not to convince someone else to value something but to change the way he feels about things himself.

The rational change of values by an individual no more requires that values be rational than rational actions to change the way a government is organized mean that the organization is or will be rational. The value system of an individual, just like the structure of a government, is a state of affairs rather than an action, and thus can be neither rational nor irrational. Rational action, you will recall, is possible only in relation to an individual's value system. It turns out that the only value system available as a basis for an individual's change of his values is his own present set of values. Although one may wonder how it is possible to develop a more adequate set of values with the aid of a less adequate set, this is no more impossible than it is to reform a governmental institution by means of the inadequate procedures already established in it.

The process by which an individual can change his values with the aid of his present values is a fairly complex one. The individual tests the validity of a particular value that he either already holds or is considering holding by 1) trying to imagine the consequences of acting in accordance with it, and 2) evaluating these consequences. Of necessity, he evaluates the predicted consequences in the light of his total set of values at the given moment. The individual may decide that action based on the particular value in question would result in consequences which are uncongenial to his values as a whole, and he may consequently reject the value or keep it but shift it to a lower relative position in his total hierarchy of values. By a similar process, other values may be accepted or reinforced. The rational change of values is thus an inherently gradual process, and as a result of its gradualness most people are probably only dimly conscious of how it works. It may help in thinking about it, however, to remember that the rational change of values by individuals closely resembles the way political institutions can be changed by means of reform. A reform is a change implemented by the people and procedures accepted as legi­timate under the old way of doing things; for example, women in the United States acquired the right to vote as a result of legislation passed by legislatures controlled by men. But we will look into the idea of institutional reform in Essay VI.

Further insight into the relationship between the values an indi­vidual does have and those he should have can be gained by examining the contrast between the "man of action" and the "man of contempla­tion." The man of action confronts the need to make decisions and to act on the basis of his decisions; he is unable to avoid decision and action, because a refusal to decide is itself a decision and a refusal to act is just one form of action with its own particular consequences. The man of action, like our individual in the "short run" discussed above, must act on the assumption that his present beliefs about causality and his feelings about what is good and bad are correct. The assumption of correctness is necessary for purposes of action because decisions cannot be put off indefinitely while the individual tries to decide absolutely correctly. It is quite possible, of course, that his decision will be a wrong one, but it is almost certain that a decision taking the form of a refusal to decide anything will produce undesired consequences. The man of action cannot afford to wait for certainty; he must often act on the basis of incomplete information or before a matter can be fully thought out, he must be content with probabilities. But the alternative is worse: the man who cannot de­cide which shoe to put on first, and is therefore incapable of doing anything else, is certainly not an admirable figure.

In contrast with the man of action we find the man of contemplation. The man of action cannot afford to wait for certainty; the man of contemplation cannot afford to assume certainty. Where the man of action has to assume that his causal beliefs and values are right, the man of contemplation must assume that they are wrong or at least partially wrong. Only if he can make this assumption is it possible for an individual to improve himself; it is thus an assumption which is absolutely essential for the student and, assuming that one does not arrive suddenly at perfection on the day he receives a diploma, for the former student who desires to do justice to the potential that he has begun to realize as a student. Ortega y Gasset has sketched a deservedly unflattering portrait of the person who fails to make the operational assumption of the man of contemplation; "He is satisfied with himself exactly as he is. Ingenuously, without any need of being vain, as the most natural thing in the world, he will tend to consider and affirm as good everything he finds within him­self: opinions, appetites, preferences, tastes."8

"Take stock of those around you", urges Ortega, "and you will see them wandering about lost through life, like sleep-walkers in the midst of their good or evil fortune, without the slightest suspicion of what is happening to them. You will hear them talk in precise terms about themselves and their surroundingss which would seem to point to them as having ideas on the matter. But start to analyze these ideas you will find that they hardly reflect in any way the reality to which they appear to refer, and if you go any deeper you will discover that there is not even an attempt to adjust the ideas to this reality. Quite the contrary; through these notions the individual is trying to cut off any personal vision of reality, of his own very life. For life is at the start a chaos in which one is lost. The individual suspects this, but he is frightened at finding himself face to face with this terrible reality, and tries to cover it over with a curtain of fantasy, where everything is clear. It does not worry him that his ‘ideas' are not true, he uses them as trenches for the defense of his existence, as scarecrows to frighten away reality.

"The man with the clear mind is the man who frees himself from these fantastic ‘ideas' and looks life in the face, realizes that everything is problematic, and feels himself lost," continues Ortega. "As this is the simple truth-that to live is to feel oneself lost he who accepts it has already begun to find himself, to be on firm ground. Instinctively, as do the shipwrecked, he will look round for something to which to cling, and that tragic, ruthless glance, abso­lutely sincere, because it is a question of his salvation, will cause him to bring order into the chaos of life. These are the only genuine ideas; the ideas of the shipwrecked. All the rest is rhetoric, pos­turing, farce. He who does not really feel himself lost, is lost without remission...."9

All this is not to say that it is better to resemble the man of contemplation than to be like the man of action. Both of these men can live under the same skin without any risk of promoting a "split" personality, since it is entirely possible to assume (for purposes of immediate action) that you are right and simultaneously to assume (for purposes of long term improvement) that you are wrong. In fact the two outlooks may actually complement each other, so that the long run doubts about whether you are right serve to make you a better man of action by encouraging you to improve your values and ability to predict consequences, while your awareness that as a man of action you must act on your beliefs may force you to take your ideas seriously and not to change them as cavalierly as some "armchair philosophers" are prone to do. Of course neither the assumption you are correct nor the assumption you are wrong is likely to be completely correct. But for purposes of immediate action there is no alternative but to assume our values and beliefs are correct-they are the best we have and we must make do with them. And for purposes of improvement there can be no reason to seek change unless we assume at least a partial inadequacy in our present ideas and feelings, although as we have seen it does not do to assume a total inadequacy, since our present values are the only available tool with which to acquire different ones by rational means.

As we have already seen, any political system is made up of peo­ple, and the values held by the individuals of whom it is composed have important political consequences. The frequently unsuccessful efforts to transplant institutions such as democracy and republicanism, which function well in some countries, to countries in which radically different values prevail among the people are evidence that what the people value is not to be taken lightly.

Since what the people value has important political consequences in any country, it is inevitable that education of children, which may make more or less of an impact on their values, must tend to be a sensitive political issue and that political theory must deal with edu­cation as a part of political life. It is therefore not surprising to find that many of the great classics on politics-the works of Plato, Aristotle, Rousseau, etc. have also dealt with education. It is not surprising to discover that public education has often been a delicate issue and that there have been prolonged controversies over church-controlled education in many countries. We can have no doubt that the relationship between politics and education is a complex one, since politics is a matter which one can study but studying is also an action which is a part of political life since it may produce im­portant political consequences. In closing this essay, however, it must be reemphasized that although education, especially that received in early childhood, is a very important factor in the development of the individual, it is not all-important; what he becomes also depends heavily on what the individual goes on to do when he is capable of consciously seeking to improve his own values as well as his grasp of connections between actions and consequences.


1. John Stuart Mill, Autobiography (New York, 1937), pp. 56-57 (This is volume 25 of The Harvard Classics).

2. It is interesting to note the number of instances in this supposedly scientific age in which people who might be expected to know better attempt to treat evidence that a particular type of behavior is more widespread than it is thought to be (or used to be) as proof that some concept of morality is unfounded (or no longer valid) and should be discarded.

3. Time, July 8, 1966, p. 62,

4. Clarence E. Ayres, Toward A Reasonable Society (Austin, 1961) pp. 18, 29.

5. Bertrand Russell, Human Society in Ethics and Politics (New
York, 1962), p. 184.

6. John Locke, The Second Treatise of Government (New York, 1952), p. 36.

7. Sir John Denham, "Cooper's Hill", quoted by Edmund Burke, Reflections on the Revolution in France (Garden City, 1961), p. 131.

8. Jose Ortega y Gasset, The Revolt of the Masses (New York, 1960), p. 62.

9. Ibid., p. 157.