In the time of the “values voter,” there’s been tremendous controversy over what “values” might mean (other than shorthand for self-righteous intolerance). What are our values as individuals and as a people? Whether or not we are fully conscious of them, each of us holds values that affect our perceptions and actions. The challenge is to discern and explore values so that we can understand how deeply differences are rooted, how amenable they might be to dialogue.
Reflect on the original “Star Trek” series with me. The crew of the Enterprise was always getting into situations that made it necessary to invoke the “prime directive,” an anthropological principle that required the intrepid band of space explorers to observe “strange new civilizations” without deforming their development by introducing alien technology or customs. Some episodes dealt with societies experiencing major distortions due to past lapses in the prime directive: one I recall was based on a book about gang warfare in Roaring Twenties Chicago that had been left behind by a previous visitor. The captain and his crew had to dress in fedoras, sleazy suits, dark shirts and light ties, talking tough out of the sides of their mouths to introduce a new, corrective influence that would prevent the entire society from being decimated by rival gangs with submachine-guns.
Captain Kirk understood the importance of this chief Starfleet value, the prime directive, but he was regularly tempted to transgress it when situations evoked other values he held equally sacred. Compassion was one: if the Enterprise’s sick bay held a vaccine that could cure a suffering planet’s plague, what would be the harm in sharing it? Sometimes compassion prevailed and sometimes other considerations took precedence. It usually fell to First Officer Spock, the embodiment of pure principle, to point out when tough love would be kinder in the long run: withholding immediate aid, for instance, would allow a society to develop its capacity for self-help. Kirk’s other inclination was love: sometimes an alien temptress with elaborate ears and exotic pheromones prevailed on him for rescue. In those cases, it was usually Dr. McCoy’s job to remind the captain of his responsibilities. McCoy understood passion — indeed, he regularly excoriated Spock for his lack of it — but women brought out the skeptic in him, so he could usually be relied on to throw cold water on Kirk?s ardor.
Kirk’s overarching value — the thing he cared about most, the one that always made him most misty-eyed and stentorian — was duty. He felt keenly responsible for the men and women of his crew. As a product and representative of Starfleet, he held himself to a higher standard of conduct than ordinary civilians: his duty was not only to those in his immediate care, but to the generations that had preceded him and those he hoped would follow. If you knew these things about him — his valorization of duty, his loyalty to the prime directive, his compassion, his longing for love — you could often predict how Captain Kirk would react, regardless of how bizarre the next challenge might be.
In real life, we seldom have the learning opportunity afforded by a series of hour-long segments that test people?s mettle, pinpointing precisely what each person values. But life constantly throws up tests of one or another type. Some arise in archetypal form in the great writings of different spiritual traditions. For instance, one that I find extremely useful is the biblical parable of Solomon and the women who claimed the same baby, which was the prophetic reading assigned by the Hebrew calendar to December 11th this year.
The two women lived together in a house of prostitution; both gave birth to sons within a few days. One child died (because the mother accidentally lay on it). The first mother claimed that the other woman had switched her live baby for the dead one in the night; the second claimed the live son had been hers all along. Solomon adjudicated the case by calling for a sword to split the live baby in two, leaving each mother with half. The second woman accepted the verdict, saying, “It shall be neither yours nor mine; cut it in two!” But the first woman was “overcome with compassion.” “Please, my lord,” she cried, “give her the live child, only don?t kill it!” When Solomon saw this, he knew the first woman was the true mother and returned her child.
Then the Bible says, “When all Israel heard the decision that the king had rendered, they stood in awe of the king; for they saw that he possessed divine wisdom to execute justice.” What Solomon’s sword revealed was that the false mother elevated a point of principle (however twisted) over what he took to be supreme and fundamental values: compassion, caring for the defenseless, choosing life instead of destruction.
We know values through action. As Isaac Bashevis Singer said, “We know what a person thinks not when he tells us what he thinks, but by his actions.” As individuals, I think most of us would locate our values on Solomon’s side of the story. But our King George — who has sent over 1,000 Americans and thousands of Iraquis to death on a point of principle, or worse, of power — if we attend to his actions, rather than his words, what he means by “values” is sadly plain for all to see.