Jun 18 2008

The Irish Values Debate: Part One – What Are Values?

Published by at 11:45 am under Blog,Movies,Overlooked Classics,Politics

For two reasons, I have decided to divide my thoughts on this topic into a few posts. Firstly, as we are now all well aware, I’m incapable of brevity and I have so much to write on this topic that it has to be divided across a number of posts. Secondly, this topic does seem to have some very definite chapters to it and I would like to get peoples opinions on different sections of the debate before delving into the whole thing head first.

Writers Festival ‘Debate’

As I have already said, the Irish Values Debate at the Project Theatre on Thursday evening, chaired by Emer Coffey, with Ivana Bacik, Roy Foster and Alan Gilsenan on the panel, was less of a debate and more a case of widespread agreement. There were so may issues that were not analysed and attacked to their fullest and there were yet more areas that were completely avoided. I said in my post on Friday that I would return to this topic as there was plenty I wanted to add to last Thursday’s debate but was unable (I’m not a Senator, Historian or Director, you know).

These views are simply my opinions. They are far from set in stone and my views and viewpoints are constantly shifting. This is healthy – it allows me to be persuaded by reasoned arguments and adds to my minuscule knowledge base. So, I opening encourage comments on this topic and would love to hear the views and ideas of the blogging community, from first time readers, from anyone who might be interested in where Ireland is and where Ireland is going, from a moral standpoint.

What are Values?

I suppose this is going to be the hardest part of the piece. Opinions are easily constructed, but facts, figures and solid explanations of the current state of affairs is harder to draw up. Each section of Irish society has its own set of values, from those who differ politically to those who differ socially and financially, from those who differ in religious ideas to those who differ in age and era in which they were raised. So, it would be a long and arduous task to list and compare all of these values, which is why, I think we need to look at the core values of the Irish, the set of morals and ideals that makes up our collective moral code.

There are values which are common to much of the civilised, developed world. Common decency is a term that was bandied about last Thursday but I’m not sure the panelists entirely understood what it meant. I’m not sure I do. It seems like such a vague concept and yet each of us probably has a defined concept of what ‘common decency’ means. The trouble is, my common decency may be your social faux pas. But surely there are points within this concept of ‘common decency’ which we all adhere to. Hense the ‘common’ part of it.

Be kind to others – or at the very least don’t go out of your way to cause harm to others. Immediately we have an element of selfishness creeping in. We would all like to to consider ourselves kind individuals, but how many of us are truly kind to those around us when we are in a hurry to catch the bus, when our favourite TV show is starting, when we’ve had a rough day at work. It’s far too difficult to bolt down a true definition of something as simple as ‘Be kind to others’. I think, for the sake of petty argument we will examine ‘aspirational common decency’. This covers the values that we each aspire to and for the most part seek to achieve. There will always be dips in the graph but the dips act as the exceptions that prove the rule.

Aspirational Common Decency

So, what comprises Ireland’s ‘aspirational common decency’? Yes, be kind to one another – not bringing harm upon those around you. Taking it further – help those in need. Ireland has a great reputation for charitable acts and, as a nation, we give generously. So, can we chalk this up as another Irish Value? I think so.

Is forgiveness an important part of the common decency package? I’m not sure – I don’t think so. In my limited experience forgiveness has rarely featured, with many people baring grudges for a very long time. Perhaps forgiveness is a virtuous trait afterall, above that of a common value. I doubt many people would rate being forgiving as an important facet of their character. I look forward to being corrected.

Religion and Ideologies

I do not want to bring religion and ideologies into it yet because there are many values and rules of morality that are particular to some religions, which make them no more nor less valid than other values, but I want ot focus of the common core values at present. But I would propose that for the most part, beleaguered beliefs and blind faith have been replaced with rationality and the scientific process.

I will briefly touch on the Ten Commandments, as I hope to return to the Church’s influence on our morals and our values in a later post. The Commandments (and many other Church teachings) provide us with a set of rules to which we should adhere.

1. I am the Lord thy God. Thou shalt not have false gods before me.
2. Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain.
3. Remember thou keep the Sabbath Day.
4. Honour thy Father and thy Mother.
5. Thou shalt not kill.
6. Thou shalt not commit adultery.
7. Thou shalt not steal.
8. Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor.
9. Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s wife.
10. Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s goods.

Needless to say, some of these we will discard as religious dogma for the moment (false Gods and the Sabbath Day are religious values and I will cover them in another post), some of these are more than a mere value-set. They are law. We should not kill, and yet capital punishment is still practiced in much of the Eastern world and in the very Western land of the USA. So, there is still some ambiguity even in this most obvious value.

It is illegal to steal and I guess the false witness thing could be construed as the origins of laws on fraud. But adultery, though frowned upon by many, is almost acceptable in today’s society. Coveting your neighbour’s wife and goods – surely ‘keeping up with the Jones’ is not just accepted but even expected in some circles? As for honouring thy father and mother – it is increasingly common for there to be no father in the family (I will accept that sometimes it is the mother that is no longer around too) and I have met some parents who absolutely should not be parents and deserve no ‘honouring’ whatsoever. When I was younger it struck me as odd that Commandment number 4 did not include ‘honour and respect thy children in return’.

Integrity, Respect, Diversity and Chivalry

The Irish value education and spirituality (not just religion) is part of our culture. Other values such as integrity, respect for oneself and for others, trust, honesty, a duty to bear the consequences of our actions and general politeness and chivalry are global values that we strive for to differing levels. In recent times, we have rapidly needed to incorporate diversity into our value system – cultural diversity and the acceptance of new people, ways of life and behaviours. But are these values that we strive for or are they merely foisted upon us without us having the opportunity to discuss and choose this direction? This raises the issue of collaboration with the new cultures, the question of social equality and unity through diversity. We need to ask ourselves if the acceptance of other cultures enhances or ‘muddies’ our own culture – we must decide if this is a good or bad thing.

National Pride has always found a place in Irish society. In modern times with GAA being in vogue, along with the Irish language (thank you Des Bishop) is Neo-Nationalism a core value of the Irish people today? And how does this (if it does at all) conflict with the influx of foreign cultures?

Recent times have seen ambition and an emphasis on social and financial success come to the fore. This has always been in existence but is certainly easier to see in Celtic Tiger and post-Celtic Tiger Ireland. We will need to ask if this emphasis on ambition has been to the detriment of creativity and amiability.

Environmental awareness too has seen much media attention in recent years, but do we consider it part of our value system? Should we? How much do we owe our descendants to look after our natural resources, our air quality, our landscapes?

I mentioned chivalry above and it’s fair to say that ‘chivalry’ is an old fashioned word, but does that mean chivalry is no longer relevant? Ladies and gentleman with ‘old-fashioned’ good manners, please and thank yous, punctuality, opening doors for people (not just women), modesty, being a good father/mother/husband/wife/partner, honesty, dressing tidily out of respect for others, genuine interest in others (not always talking about oneself), integrity and discretion – these are all aspects of chivalry. Some or all may be relevant, some may be pointless and antiquated. Think on this: is there such a thing as modern chivalry, where, out of respect for others, we excuse ourselves from the table before checking our Blackberry’s?

Is chivalry anachronistic and no longer a requirement in todays society? I don’t believe so, but it perhaps needs a redefinition.

Politics and Irish Life

Should we lump political duty into our developing value set? Politics may have once been a noble pursuit, but that idea has long been superceded by moral flexibility, naked ambition, manipulation and the pursuit of power. I have heard it many times that those who want to become politicians should never be allowed. Recent years has seen some awful political disgraces in Irish society, but for the most part we, as a nation, have just accepted it and moved on. So, while political duty and honesty within politics should be part of our set of values, I suspect it is not. I suspect most of us just don’t care.

The Debate?

These are my views on what Values are and, in particular, what values are relevant and should be under discussion when we look at the current state of our nation and the future of Ireland. But the questions that I hope to debate are firstly whether these values have changed significantly over my lifetime, over the past quarter of a century, and secondly has the change been a positive or negative thing for Irish society. Has our value system changed for the better – are we better people as a result, are we a better society as a result – or has our looser morals and loss of ‘traditional values’ made for a darker society – are we losing our identity as the friendliest people in the world, are we heading for ruin?

Over the few posts I put together on the issue of Modern Irish Values, maybe we’ll find the answers, but for the moment, I am asking the question, what are Values? Have I been too broad in my definition? Have I left something out? Are there any values which are quintessentially Irish or is our debate destined to be one of world values and global identity?

The Irish Values Debate – What are Values?

Update: In my next post on the subject, I hope to talk about The Role of Catholicism in Irish Values, looking at it’s past, the current situation and what role, if any, it will play in Ireland’s future.

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5 responses so far

5 Responses to “The Irish Values Debate: Part One – What Are Values?”

  1. Darraghon 18 Jun 2008 at 12:14 pm

    A long post on a topic almost impossible to write condesely and cohesively, so I congratulate you on the fine effort sir.

    Pedant that I am, I’d suggest “chivalry” be replaced with simple “manners”. I know a couple of feminists who hate the word, as it means “The qualities idealized by knighthood, such as bravery, courtesy, honor, and gallantry toward women.” whereas modern women may not “need a man to be nice to them”. Tis a fierce manly word and I don’t know if there’s a female equivalent.

    My temptation is to carry this forward with a blog response of my own at some stage. Still, I like it. It’s better than the debate anyhow!

    To answer your question though – Values – for me it’s how things SHOULD be done – how people, garda, teachers, politicians, doctors, nurses, service industry people and so on should behave to be part of society. Not by law, but my moral obligation and decency, to improve the society for all.

  2. B'dum B'dumon 18 Jun 2008 at 12:57 pm

    I honestly feel the catholic church in this country does a very good job establishing some form of moral code among children.

    I find people don’t say thanks enough.

    A lot of people in Ireland seem to show an aggressive resistance towards the possibility of actually tipping someone, I’ve a list as long as my arm of stories of people saying “I’m not going to tip you for that”… despite the fact I never, ever, seek a tip… it’s far more interesting to see how little people feel like tipping than actually getting tipped.

  3. Darren.. tooon 18 Jun 2008 at 2:35 pm

    I dont think values have ever really changed. Look at the 10 commandments and tell me (apart from the religious ones) where in an ideal society these values should not be upheld. Look at any major religion going back centuries and people always aspire to do the right thing. The thing is, what makes it a value is not that its the norm, but that not following it is inherently wrong.

    Getting very philosophical here but take your adultery concept. If nobody every committed adultery, there would be no need for a commandment against it. Therefor being present day or thousands of years ago, a loving faithful coupling was something to be valued.

  4. 73manon 19 Jun 2008 at 12:00 pm

    Hi Darren. A good post and very encouraging to see some open discussion on this topic. You’re asking some very serious questions here but I will email you about that directly if that’s ok with you.

  5. Richard Delevanon 30 Jun 2008 at 2:14 pm

    Sounds like the usual “debate” amongst a tiny group of Irish Times readers. Not sorry I missed it now. Thanks for that and for such a thoughtful post.

    I know you posted this a good while back, but to Darragh’s point, I always understood cultural values to be normative bits of relative ethics. You seem in many cases to be identifying potential virtues rather than values. And your list seems so expansive as to lose focus by the end.

    Could I suggest a very tight restatement of the “core values” you posit?

    Also, doesn’t your premise – that there is a discoverable set of immutable “Irish values” – prejudice the legitimacy of competing values or potentially universalisable values? I would have thought the topic was interesting precisely because Ireland is in values turmoil. To identifiy conflicting values, competing for adherents, is the map the terrain of what passes for public discourse in Ireland – which could sorely use some clearer thinking.

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