A Restoration of Principles in the Age of "Values"

One of the most popular phrases in political discourse is “American values.” Many believe that America is exceptional because our values are superior to the “values” of other countries. This is problematic, however, because values are based on social consensus rather than objective truth.

Instead of discussing American “values” we should focus on American principles. A principle is transcendent and points back to some good. It is not dependent on societal views while values only carry weight in the society which subscribes to it. A principle is true regardless of who believes in it. Equality is perhaps the most basic of principles. The Declaration of Independence states that “all men are Created equal.” This is not because Americans held this position but because “all men” are human beings with basic natural rights given by their creator rather than by another man. This principle of equality is the basis for self-government free from unrestrained rule of the stronger.

The American Founders established a government based on this principle of equality but we failed to live up to that principle. If it was merely a value then you could say equality for whites was what America believed in, but the principle of equality is not something true based our perception of it. The natural rights philosophy sources these rights to the divine creator, not to men. A society based on values is whatever we want it to be--good or bad.

Values are also problematic in the context of political discourse. If the goal of politics is to lead society toward the good, then there must be something absolute to aim towards. Values do not allow for this pursuit of an absolute good, so politics is debased. The goal of politics becomes something to act in accordance with our societal beliefs rather than something more noble. Furthermore, if there is no principle to appeal to then it is impossible to place judgement on what is better. Now we can say that the “values” of the East are just different--but not worse--than those of the West. An evaluation of principle can show us that Western Civilization is based on something better. The West advocates freedom and equality in a better way than the East. I can say this because I am evaluating a difference in principle not in values. The natural rights of equality and freedom are applicable to all people regardless of time or place and the society which protects them is superior to one which does not.

Principles are true regardless of our own views so we can make judgments on when they are violated rather than merely say their values are “different” than ours. Values allow for the possibility for us to have those which are immoral. Commonly held racial prejudice could have been termed a “value” held in the Civil War and Reconstruction Era. The principle of equality shows that racism is wrong even if the views of the day said otherwise. Values are only as good as the society which holds them while principles, rightly understood, are good absolutely. Perhaps rather than view issues based on societal norms we should appeal to something greater than ourselves--to principles which are true, good, and universal.