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Virtues, not values.

By the time you read this, a federal election is likely to be upon us, and values will be in vogue. Have you noticed how politicians often sound off about "Canadian values?" Even educators and church leaders sometimes resort to this terminology.

But "values" is a weasel-word, a corrupting word for a corrupt society. Values exist only if there is someone to value them; they are self-dependent, self-referential.

On the other hand, virtues exist because they are attributes of a sovereign God. They are not dependent upon our existence. We do not create them. Virtues are inherently meritorious whether the speaker acknowledges them or not, whether a majority vote for them or not. Virtues are what you are, what you do; virtue is your character.

The Greeks taught us that there were four cardinal virtues: wisdom, courage, justice and temperance. The New Testament adds to that list what are called "fruits of the Spirit," which is another name for virtues: "love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control." Now here is my point: if we evaluate our successes and our failures not by "values," which the world creates, but by "virtues," which are attributes of God, applying these different criteria will produce different results. We shall see our victories and our losses in a different light.

The challenge is greater if we speak of virtues rather than values. Virtues are not boy-scout pledges or spiritual bromides. They do not derive from an ephemeral document like the Canadian Charter of Rights. Virtues are simple, they are uncompromising, they demand the highest of us.

When Paul Martin talks about "Canadian values," this is just oleaginous; he means being nice to minorities, embracing multiculturalism, not telling jokes that offend women. When the Bible talks about virtues it talks about the soul of a man, what he is with all pretence stripped away.

Virtues, note, are intimately tied to the idea of morality. If we refuse to talk of values and insist only on talking of virtues, we will assist in the recovery of a lost language--the language of morality. In our time, morality has become equated with sexual conduct, but it means much more than that.

Let me give an example. In Canada, we are drowning in debt. At the federal, provincial, municipal and even personal levels, we are bankrupt. But the interesting question is: why has this problem come upon us now? Why was Canada not bankrupt from having to finance World War I, and then recover from the great depression, and then finance World War II? Why was the deficit not an issue to our parents' generation?

The answer is: because we did not have a deficit to speak of. Now this is passing strange. When such huge burdens were put upon the State, particularly fighting two world-wide wars, why didn't Canada go massively into debt? Why?

Well, because men and women of a previous generation thought it "immoral"--note, please, not imprudent, or unwise, not economically unsound or politically incorrect--but "immoral" to go into debt. Because virtuous people thought it morally wrong to expect their children to repay their debts. When we lost this consensus on virtue, we ceased to balance our budgets, individually and collectively.

What does this mean? It means, at bottom, that economic questions, monetary and fiscal questions, are often issues of morality, they are issues of virtue, they are aspects of our character.

Now that example could be multiplied a thousand-fold: to ostensibly political issues such as crime, education, and law enforcement. It would be going too far to say that all issues, at bottom, are issues of morality. But very many are. If we learned that lesson, and refused to engage in political discourse except in the context of virtues, we would not only contribute to solving many problems but, equally important, we would rediscover the vocabulary necessary to discuss them intelligibly.

Ian Hunter is Professor Emeritus in the Faculty of Law at Western University in London, Ontario.
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Title Annotation:national values
Author:Hunter, Ian
Publication:Catholic Insight
Geographic Code:1CANA
Date:Jan 1, 2006
Words:664
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