The need for values in an age of indecision

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The other day, at a conference for regional foundations here, I heard something so obvious and so illuminating that I sat bolt upright and wrote it down. ``If you know your values,'' said William A. Hall, president of the Hall Family Foundation, ``decisions become easy.''

Mr. Hall, as it happens, is not related to the family that assembled the foundation out of Hallmark Cards wealth. He speaks, instead, as a professional administrator picking among hundreds of worthy requests for funding. In the context of grantmaking, his maxim makes perfect sense: Adhere to a set of principles, and the choices become clearer.

There's a broader context, however, for his remark. Ours is an age of indecision. Which of us, reading the news of the day, hasn't been baffled and saddened by waffling political postures, wishy-washy educational standards, a zigzagging public morality, an on-again, off-again sense of commitment, and a flat-out refusal to step up to tough decisions? The graffito that sprouted up on campus walls in the 1960s is still relevant: ``Not to decide,'' it said, in reference to the apathy that plagued that age, ``is to decide.''

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The point, of course, is that decisions are made whether or not we make them - and that decisionmaking isn't easy. Little wonder, then, that so many theories have sprung up. Some encourage you to begin by listing the benefits and liabilities of each choice. Others counsel you to seek expert advice - or even to flip coins or read stars.

That's what makes Bill Hall's eight words so cogent. They remind us that we need to reawaken the inner ethic from which good decisions flow. They bring us back to the need to practice and teach values.

And that brings howls of protest - and a most devious trick question. Mention the teaching of values, and someone will surely whine, ``But how can you? Whose values are you going to teach?''

It's meant as a conversation-stopping rhetorical question, since few dare to reply, ``Why, mine, of course!''

But is it really so rhetorical? Look at the assumptions on which it's based. The first is that each subgroup in society has a unique set of values. The second is that, since these sets don't intersect, there's no common ground of shared values. The third then follows logically: Any values you teach will be those of a minority, necessarily offensive to the majority.

These assumptions are gravely flawed. In fact, most of Western society has a broad common ground of values. Most of us aren't murderers. We're not thieves and cheats. We don't typically espouse adultery, nor assert that envy should undergird all human interchange, nor preach that we should ignore parents, relatives, and friends in need.

Add a few others - that revenge is ignoble and plagiarism contemptible, and that you should do what you say you're going to do, respect others' ideas and freedoms, and treat your neighbors as innocent unless they are proved guilty - and you have a set of very widely held values. They've been so internalized by centuries of use, in fact, that we sometimes forget where they come from - that the first group is central to the Judeo-Christian Ten Commandments, and that the second echoes the mainstream of the Western cultural heritage. They're like the fancy millinery worn by the Victorian dowager in Boston who, legend has it, was asked by an admiring young lady, ``Where do you get your hats?'' ``My dear,'' came the arch reply, ``we don't get our hats - we have our hats!''

As with hats, so with values: We don't get them as much as have them. So whose values will we teach? Obviously the ones that most of us, most of the time, think are most central. There will of course be some divergence of views. But most of the difference will be at the margins. To be sure, the margins are important: That's where we find the dearly held individuality separating Republican from Democrat, Protestant from Roman Catholic, Southerner from Yankee. But what binds us together at the core - the common cement of shared values - is far more significant than what separates us around the edges. It's that core that we can identify, practice, and teach.

Unless we see that fact, I suspect, Hall's maxim will come back to haunt us. How will we be able to spot a society that has consciously decided not to teach values? Easy. Measure the level of its indecision.

A Monday column

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