“Every soul pursues the good and does whatever it does for the sake of the good. It perceives that the good is something but it is perplexed and cannot adequately grasp what it is.”  ~ Plato

I’ve always felt a strange tension when I hear the word “values”. It is commonplace to talk about my values and your values, to ask “What are your values”, to say that a certain policy is “in line with my values,” and so on. Everyone is entitled to their values, and of course my values are no better or worse than somebody else’s. We don’t want people to impose their values upon us, and, if we are liberal-minded, we try not to impose ours on them. 

This way of conceptualizing values has deep historical roots, stretching back to philosophers of the 17th Century who, sick of relentless religious wars between the Catholics and Protestants in Europe, articulated the ideal of mutual tolerance. In a nutshell the philosophy of tolerance says, I may not agree with you, nor you with me, but this doesn’t mean we can’t live together in peace and harmony. It’s important to understand how radically different this concept was from what had come before in European history. It was the first time that fundamental differences of values and worldview did not automatically lead people to see themselves as enemies.  

Crucial to making this whole idea of tolerance work is what John Rawls, the great 20th century philosopher of political liberalism, called overlapping consensus. We don’t have to agree on everything, but we need to agree on certain shared values that allow us to live together, to accept each other as decent, upstanding, reasonable people. As long as this minimal consensus exists, we can allow a great diversity in beliefs and values to flourish. This is the backbone of modern multicultural democracies. 

Today, however, there are worrying signs of a breakdown in the overlapping consensus. In societies based on mutual tolerance the values of groups and individuals may drift apart with hardly a ripple in the social fabric. As many have noted the rise of social media filter bubbles has radically accelerated the process of fragmentation. A good example is vaccine hesitancy. Long before Covid, this movement grew in social networks, occasionally catching headlines with measles outbreaks in kindergartens. Many people were concerned about it, but it only affected a small number of people.  For the most part vaccine hesitancy was simply tolerated as part of the spectrum of private values allowable under our social consensus. Now with Covid it has become a serious threat to public health. Yet even under pandemic conditions, we rarely try to engage directly with the worldviews that underlie vaccine hesitancy such as the distrust of modern medicine. Instead, we focus on more indirect questions like the limits of free choice.

It is difficult to discuss such differences. Almost any real divergence of values one might think of is potentially explosive. We don’t want to offend. I don’t want to either, although I suspect that at least a handful of those reading this may feel offended. We avoid discussing what we really think, except with those who already agree with us. Friendships and even family can become fractured by an openly aired difference in values. The very discomfort this raises within us shows why it can be so much easier to speak in terms of my values and your values: never to publicly raise questions that would validate certain values and invalidate others. Yet, if we continue to avoid these tough conversations, I am afraid we will split increasingly into fractured and polarized tribes. The overlapping consensus that undergirds society will be stretched thinner and thinner, until it tears. 

I want to suggest that values are not just given to us like luggage that we must carry around for life. We form our values in relation to our living experience of the good. To give a personal example, I value knowledge, philosophy, and self-reflection. This is not something I decided one day. In my life I’ve had countless small experiences of learning, reading, thinking, discussing with friends, having insights big and small. With each of these experiences, I felt guided to seek more, oriented towards the good I perceived within them. Eventually, it became a pattern in my soul, a way of being, and only then was it something I could identify as a “value”. 

A number of contemplative traditions point to the important practice of discernment of the good. There is a subtle difference between discernment and judgement (actually, there has been a shift in language such that what thinkers of centuries past meant by the word “judgement” is now better expressed by the word “discernment”.) In effect discernment means consciously attempting to notice what is actually good. To do this well, we often have to strip away layers of beliefs and presuppositions about what is supposed to be good. We have to be on alert for what may only seem good such as shallow addictive pleasures or mere distractions which crowd out our efforts to seek what is better. 

In my meditation practice, I practice discernment by focusing on a word or phrase that names the good. In line with the Jewish tradition, I often use the Hebrew word “HaTov” meaning simply “the good”.  With this word as my anchor of concentration, I let my thoughts, emotions, and body sensations swirl around it. I feel my way into the events of my day or week, and attempt to sense how they are sitting in relation to the good. Often this leads me to new insights. Sometimes “a ha” moments in which I reach new clarity about my values, other times to subtle shifts in feelings or frames of reference.  

Talking this way about the good still feels rather vague and amorphous. I haven’t actually told you what the good is. I wish I could say what it is more concretely, but to do so would be to miss the point. As the philosopher Plato says, “[the soul] perceives that the good is something but it is perplexed and cannot adequately grasp what it is.” We perceive it, but we can’t grasp it. We can be guided by it, but we can’t give a full account of it. The good is a horizon that keeps moving as we walk towards it. This is what keeps our value system open to change, open to experience. By refusing to nail down our conception of the good, we ensure that our values are not set in stone. Values are theories of how the good is manifested in human life; it is our current best attempt to summarize our experiences of the good up to this point. Who knows what tomorrow will show us? 

Seeing values in terms of their genesis in our concrete experiences of the good, gives us a hopeful approach to span our differences. When I encounter somebody with quite different values from mine, I try to be curious about how they are experiencing the good, how do their beliefs and values help them articulate their underlying pattern of seeking the good in their own lives. This can itself be a contemplative practice. The practice of listening to others for their value words and more deeply for the way that the experience of the good shines through their values. This practice does not resolve our deep differences, but it allows us to start the process of building bridges across the chasms that divide us.