If a company has a "values statement," it could be the culprit if the organization experiences an ethics scandal one day. If a church has a "values statement," it could explain why many believers have difficulty connecting Sunday to Monday. The key is in knowing when the idea of "values" surfaced.
Prior to the nineteenth century, business and the church used the language of virtues. It is rooted in the Judeo-Christian tradition characterized by four ideas: (1) how things ought to be, (2) what is – i.e., what are things really like in the real world, (3) what we can do to make things better, to fix or repair things, and (4) what things will be like some day. Virtues are rooted in the timeless and transcendent – they apply to everyone everywhere all the time. For hundreds of years, virtues provided a pathway for doing business and building the church.
But that changed in the 1800s, when people like Friedrich Nietzsche noted that the removal of God meant life no longer had any transcendent meaning or morality. All we’re left with is "values." Values bring with them the assumption that all moral ideas are subjective, that they are mere customs and conventions.
Values, as we now understand them, can be whatever any individual, group, or society chooses for any reason. This impartial, "non-judgmental" sense of values is now so firmly entrenched in our vocabulary that one can hardly imagine a time without it.1
The result, according to Harvard Business Review, is that business people "usually don’t act on their values" while at work.2 Instead, they view ethics training and values as similar to spending time in a parking lot – pulling them away from "real" work. "They talked about being derailed by these issues, not because they felt morally ambivalent but because dealing with these issues is simply not what they do."3
A further problem with today’s values is that, since the 1960s, we’ve been told no one’s values are better than anyone else’s. The philosopher Leo Strauss lamented this new relativism that denies there are things which are intrinsically high and others which are intrinsically low. Today’s values are squishy, like Jell-O. On the other hand, if we’re talking about product, personnel, and P&L statements – they’re solid, like trees. And as anyone knows, you can’t nail Jell-O to a tree. If ethics is going to be viewed as a pathway for our entire lives and not as a parking lot, businesses and churches (and educational institutions) are going to have to develop moral language that revives the idea of virtues. Here are two ideas.
A pathway for business.
We can return to the language of virtues by teaching history and philosophy to business people. I’m serious. Harvard Business Review suggests the answer to ethical lapses lies in broadening the scope of what colleagues understand to be a part of "real" work. This is exactly what Matthew Stewart, principal and founding partner of a consulting firm that eventually grew to 600 colleagues has been doing. According to Stewart, most of management theory is inane. If we want to succeed in business, he advises not getting an M.B.A. but studying philosophy instead (he earned a doctoral degree in nineteenth century German philosophy).4 This would help since most people in business lack a expansive understanding of the history of virtues and values – and how faith shaped work. As the HBR research indicates, "Managers who view their professional purpose in broad terms have an easier time with ethical questions."5
A pathway for churches.
Most business professionals say church programs (home groups & Bible studies) don’t help them connect Sunday to Monday. Similar to business ethics training, they view these gatherings as parking lots; not pathways. Churches ought to offer programs that help business professionals advance a biblical view of work in their workplace. This requires a no-nonsense understanding of the workaday world. The challenge is that research indicates churches fail to do this because they routinely employ "soft" language that collapses before the "hard" language of capitalism and business (the same criticism applies to education, the arts, and Oprah).6 That’s unfortunate and unnecessary. Under the influence of the Judeo-Christian tradition, business, education, and the arts flourished… but that was due to an emphasis on virtues, not values.
1 Gertrude Himmelfarb, "From Victorian Virtues to Modern Values," (Law and Order, May/June 1995)
2 Judith Samuelson and Mary Gentile, "Get Aggressive About Passivity," Harvard Business Review (November 2005), p.18-19
4 Matthew Stewart, "The Management Myth," The Atlantic Monthly (June 2006)
5 Judith Samuelson and Mary Gentile, "Get Aggressive About Passivity," Harvard Business Review (November 2005), p.18-19
6 Michael Barone, Hard America, Soft America: Competition vs. Coddling and the Battle for the Nation’s Future, (New York: Crown Forum, 2004)