Teachers today attach great importance to values. Previous generations talked about virtues. But virtues and values are not identical.
When asked to list their values in order of importance, people will instance either collectives, like ‘my friends’, ‘my family’ or ‘my church’; or experiences, like their freedom, happiness, security or success. But whilst the same items will appear on many people’s lists, the likelihood of everyone’s list being identical, let alone their order of importance, is remote.
Why? Well, for a start, everyone is different, so their tastes will differ. Secondly, every individual’s values change over time, so that what was once important to them is now less (or more) so. But the principal difference between the lists is due to the fact that all these values relate to, the interests of the individual embracing them, and demonstrate little, if any, regard for the interests of others.
Virtues, by contrast, start from a common point: the interests of others. Kindness, politeness, respect – the whole catalogue of righteous behaviour – consists in what we do, and attitudes we adopt, to our fellow humans.
Our personal values constantly change. Virtues tend to remain obstinately and boringly constant throughout history. The notion that a multiplicity of mutually irreconcilable moral codes has always existed is mistaken. What characterizes such codes is their remarkable similarity to, not their difference from, one other.
Of course a given generation or culture may attach excessive (or insufficient) importance to this or that virtue. Eventually, however, these anomalies become self-correcting, though in turn this correction may generate an equally faulty over-reaction.
Well-meaning attempts by teachers and others to inculcate permanent, universal values, however desirable these values may be, will always fail; instilling virtues, however, though it too may often fail, at least stands a chance of succeeding.
However, a necessary prerequisite of that success is for the critical distinction between values and virtues to be clearly understood and appreciated by all concerned – not least by the teachers themselves!