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Vocabulary of Values

I was struck by David Brooks’ comments in his New York Times Op-Ed piece, The Service Patch, lamenting the utilitarian vocabulary that seems not just to describe our choices of profession and personal undertakings but to constrain those choices. Brooks says, “Many people today find it easy to use the vocabulary of entrepreneurialism, whether they are in business or social entrepreneurs.” Brooks goes on to assert that, “People are less good at using the vocabulary of moral evaluation, which is less about what sort of career path you choose than what sort of person you are… [We] convert moral questions into resource allocation questions; questions about how to be into questions about what to do.”

Alain de Botton’s most recent book, Religion for Atheists, addresses this absence of a values-based context for framing our discourse and guiding consideration of our professional and personal lives. Libertarian theorists, de Botton notes, argue that the public space should be kept neutral, yet he observes that a quick glance at any of our public spaces shows them to be overwhelmed with commercial messages, designed to manipulate our thinking.

“If we tend to think so often about lemon-scented floor polish or cracked black pepper crisps, but relatively little about endurance or justice, the fault is not merely our own.”

Reflecting on the meager breadth of our social discussion of fairness, equality, ethical living, being kind, happiness and so on might make one despair. Our prescriptive mantras are, as Brooks points out, based in the language of business, even that of social entrepreneurship. In that light, it was refreshing to read Tim Jackson’s New York Times Op-Ed article exhorting us to be less productive. Chasing efficient productivity is not always either good business or, more importantly, of real value. Would you, for example, rather have a doctor treat you quickly and with efficiency (i.e. as a “thing”) or with patience, flexibility and concern? As Johnson says, “The care and concern of one human being for another is a peculiar ‘commodity’…  It becomes degraded through trade… Even to speak of reducing the time involved is to misunderstand its value.”

Johnson’s recipe for better lives is plainly sensible, yet sounds heretical in a culture ensnared in a business-only narrative. It is time for us to have frequent and deep conversations about the authentic, human meaningfulness of life and the importance of our roles, activities and responsibilities, for each others happiness and our own.

3 Comments

  1. Pingback: Can Conversation Make You More Ethical? | squishtalks

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