On Defining Values
As I checked the final version of this new issue, I noticed how often the phrase "money and values" popped up, as in "money-and-values trade-offs" or "money-and-values issues." I think those terms are useful. On the other hand, when we repeat something without fully explaining it, on the assumption that all readers will get it, it's usually time to look it up in the dictionary.
I learn a lot from the dictionary, about ideas as well as words. When I feel ambivalent about familiar yet vague words, such as "values," I go the big book to get a sense of their lexical DNA. The roots, structure, and evolution of a word's usage help me grasp, at least intuitively, what it "really" means.
Perhaps you think you can forgive a friend but secretly keep your anger or grudge, for example. No, you have to give it up. Why? Parsing the word " forgive " might tell you.
Strangely, definitions are not definitive. They pose ranges of meaning. But when you're not sure what you mean by something, a dictionary is a good place to start.
"Money" is from the Latin moneta , for mint or coin. (Romans coined money in the temple of Juno, whose epithet was Moneta, thus coining a word to boot. It was called moneye in Robin Hood's day.) But money is no obvious word. We attach it to physical artifacts, such as dimes and drachmas. Yet money is also a type of symbol system denoting interchangeable units of agreed-upon wealth.
Money in a broader sense permits us to imagine, at least theoretically, an electronic transfer of the assets of the World Bank to some place that could really use them. Depending on the day of the week, I sometimes think that "money" has overtones of a religion in our society. (The vengeance of Juno, perhaps?)
But that ambiguity pales next to the fog swirling around "values." What are values? On one level, as I learned from prowling several dictionaries, they are internalized standards of conduct. One definition holds that values are qualities, characteristics, behaviors, beliefs and ideas that we deem to be intrinsically desirable.
They can often be stated in a word or two, such as fairness, truthfulness, respect etc. Such concepts can make "values" sound impersonal, as if they exist outside us.
When the term appears in this issue, however, the key thing is not what is deemed to be intrinsically valuable, but who does the deeming. You do. We all do. Values, I now see, are what we are emotionally invested in, what we value as individuals. They reflect what we care about, what we are drawn to. As Rushworth Kidder notes in his book Shared Values for a Troubled World , they grow out of a person's experience and interactions with others .
If a woman works so hard her personal or family relationships suffer, and if she does so primarily to earn money, she may have a money-and-values conflict. Why? Not because relationships are immutably desirable (although they may be). It's a conflict if that woman feels deprived of something she personally sets her heart by.
Several articles in this issue explore the ways in which we surface our values. In our cover story, sociologist Robert Wuthnow finds the American Dream to be a source of collective values-those we, as Americans, have historically deemed important. In this deeper meaning of the American Dream, these values, which include caring for one's neighbors, the rule of law and the public good, become ethical and moral polestars that influence and even restrain our economic actions.
Our articles on civic reflection explore a process for helping individuals clarify what has meaning and value for them in community life. In her essay, Elizabeth Lynn explains that civic reflection happens when people get together in small groups to read and discuss a common text in order to arrive at a clearer, more developed sense of their civic or moral values.
Lynn's essay echoes executive director Bob Kenny's observation, in his column, that the chemistry of groups and communities often illuminates for us what we really care about. Those would be our values.
Another article, on page 16, describes the Institute's money discussion groups. These small, intimate forums help their participants grapple with the tensions that inevitably arise in our lives between money and, yes, values. The groups, which meet monthly, are safe places where members and friends of this organization discuss their subjective and deeply held beliefs on a variety of topics, including money, that help shape their identity.
Having personal values is similar to believing in something. As I learned in divinity school, "to believe" does not mean to assent to a theological proposition. It comes from the German belieben , which still means "give allegiance to." For centuries, "to believe" meant to hold dear, to entrust oneself, to give one's heart, to make a commitment.
"I believe" in Latin is credo . One of its meanings was to entrust something of value to another person, such as money. Which is why, according to the good old dictionary, our word "credit" is a cognate of credo . This suggests to me that the act of valuing, committing and believing came first and "money" second-at least historically. I think I will keep the many variations of "money and values" in this issue. My search gave me a better intuitive feel for this phrase. May reading this issue bring you to a better understanding of the relationship between money and values in your own life.
A writer, editor, and former longtime Boston Globe reporter, Richard Higgins has edited three books and published numerous essays and articles in national and scholarly publications. He is a graduate of Harvard Divinity School and the father of three children.
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