Our Society’s Common Values

If a society is going to hold together and not fall apart, it needs a values consensus; that is, a system of values that almost everybody in the society agrees with. It is not necessary that everybody’s behavior actually conform to these values. There will, of course, be a certain amount — perhaps even a large amount — of behavioral deviance from these accepted values. The important thing is that they be accepted — even by the deviant person, who will feel a degree of guilt or shame when he behaves in the “wrong” way. Imagine, for instance, a society in which chastity is one of the great values. Fornication and adultery and sodomy will not be rare in such a society, but your average fornicator, adulterer, and sodomite will feel guilty when he deviates from his society’s great value of chastity.
The United States once had a tremendous disagreement about basic values. One part of the country felt that slavery and secession were morally permissible, even admirable, while another part of the country felt just the opposite. As a result the nation came undone — quite literally — and it was put back together only at the cost of a colossal civil war. Can that, or anything resembling that, happen again as a result of our current “culture war” in which there is great disagreement between cultural/moral conservatives and cultural/moral liberals?

A moment ago I mentioned a hypothetical society in which chastity is a great value. The United States was once such a society, back in the days when it was de facto a Christian nation. Among the things almost everyone agreed on was that unmarried persons should abstain from sex, that homosexual conduct was unnatural or perverted, that abortion was a terrible crime, etc. But those days, as everybody knows, are long gone, and it’s unlikely they’ll return.
The United States is no longer a Christian country. Of course, most Americans, if asked by the Gallup Poll, would say they are members of one of the many variants or permutations of the Christian religion. But those who reject Christianity, not in the name of some alternative religion but in the name of no religion at all, while a numerical minority, are culturally very powerful. They tend to dominate the “command posts” of American culture, i.e., the national press, the entertainment industry, and America’s leading colleges and universities. Besides, many of those who claim to be Christian are little more than nominally Christian. They are “liberal” or “modern” Christians, adhering to a set of religious beliefs and values that bear only a slight resemblance to Christianity — whether Catholic or Orthodox or Protestant — as it was understood until rather recent times. Liberal/modern Christianity is a bizarre blending of Christianity with anti-Christian secularism, a blend worthy of a Monty Python skit. What can be more hilarious than a “Christian” church that ordains openly homosexual men and women as priests and bishops?
If the United States is no longer a Christian society, and is therefore no longer able to have a consensus morality based on Christian values, where does this leave us? Is it possible for us to find an alternative agreed-upon system of values? Or are we doomed to something resembling a second civil war?

I think not, for we Americans have a new consensus morality that has emerged. It can be summed up in four principles:

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Do not harm others — “harm” being defined as damage to health (including mental/emotional health) or wealth.

You are free to do whatever you like — provided, of course, that in doing so you don’t harm others.

You must tolerate the behavior of others who do what they like while not harming others.

Pursue wealth both for yourself personally and for society as a whole.

There is, of course, room for disagreement as to how to achieve these values. We agree on primary or basic principles, although we commonly disagree about secondary principles. Disagreements about primary principles can tear a society apart, plunging it into civil war or something very like a civil war. Not so when it comes to disagreements about secondary principles. Disagreements of this kind are normal in all societies, and they don’t threaten the fundamental cohesion of those societies.

People can differ, for instance, on the best ways to pursue personal and national wealth or health, and they can disagree as to whether or not same-sex marriage involves harm to another — all the while agreeing on the abstract principles of “wealth is good,” “health is good,” “do no harm to others,” and so on. And thus political fights about the degree to which government should be involved in the economy are not fights about a basic principle. Both sides agree on the primary principle — “wealth is good.” All they disagree about is a secondary principle: Should we promote wealth in a bigger-government way or in a smaller-government way? The same is true with regard to the primary principle “health is good.” Our fights are about nothing more than secondary principles: Should we have this health-care system or that? Should we act on the premise that climate change is man-made or not? Likewise with same-sex marriage. Everybody agrees that personal liberty is good, that tolerance is good, and that we must not harm others; these are basic principles. What we disagree on is the secondary question of whether same-sex marriage will or will not harm society.
I don’t say that a value consensus like this is ideal. In fact, I think it is far from ideal. It is a hedonistic-materialistic set of values — a set of values based, as Plato would have said, on the lowest part of our human nature. Eventually, I fear, it will destroy us.  


  • David R. Carlin Jr.

    David R. Carlin Jr. is a politician and sociologist who served as a Democratic majority leader of the Rhode Island Senate. His books include “Can a Catholic Be a Democrat?: How the Party I Loved Became the Enemy of My Religion” and “The Decline and Fall of the Catholic Church in America.” Carlin is a current professor of sociology and philosophy at the Community College of Rhode Island at Newport.

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