Valuism’s premise is that things are good to the extent they create value, and bad to the extent they destroy value. But what does this mean? Unlike the other isms, valuism has clearly defined terms and can actually be implemented:
- A mother creates value to the extent she raises children who work hard, are honest, and productive; a mother who raises children who are self-entitled, bullying, rude, and inconsiderate has destroyed value.
- A corporate CEO who leads his company to honestly and transparently make money while making a useful product has created value. A CEO who enriches himself while shareholders lose money has destroyed value.
- A volunteer or a philanthropist is only creating value to the extent that the cause they help creates value. A important tenet of valuism is that good intentions are not enough. As Aristotle said: “Thus, to give money away is quite a simple task, but for the act to be virtuous, the donor must give to the right person, for the right purpose, in the right amount, in the right manner, and at the right time.”
- An entrepreneur creates value if the products she creates help others create value. To create a restaurant that serves unhealthy food while employing lowly paid workers is not creating value, even if the restaurant is profitable. But a health food store that loses money may also be destroying value, because the price of the inputs exceeds the value of the production. A truly great restaurant is one that profitably serves healthy, tasty food at fair prices, while employing a reasonably compensated work force. This is extremely difficult to do, which explains why the failure rate for restaurants is so high.
- A lawyer who helps someone enforce a legitimate contract is creating value; a lawyer who defends a guilty white collar criminal is destroying value. The only true values in the criminal justice system are determining guilt or innocence and then applying justice. A lawyer suing on behalf of real and substantial copyright infringement of a novel with literary value is creating value; a lawyer filing a patent claim on behalf of someone who never intended to really develop the idea is destroying value.
- A doctor who helps someone recover from illness is creating value; a doctor who recommends the wrong treatment, even in good faith, is destroying value. A surgeon who gets rich doing breast enhancements has not created nearly as much value as a much poorer man who provides cosmetic surgery for accident victims. A doctor who maximizes his income through unnecessary treatments paid for by Medicare is destroying value; a doctor who accepts Medicare payments in order to successfully treat the deserving poor is creating value.
Generally speaking, anything can be described as “good” to the extent that is desired by a good man or woman seeking to be their best selves. Value is in the eye of the observer, but it makes all the difference whose eyes are doing the observing. The better the person, as evident through education, intelligence, taste, hard work, persistence, or other values, the more you can tell what value an object has. For instance, two men may both be willing to pay $20 for two different books, so in market terms the two books have equal value. But one buyer is an intelligent hard working man buying the book to further his understanding of the world; the other buyer is a bored, lazy man seeking momentary escape; to the extent that the two different books are equally effective at fulfilling each man’s desires, the author of the first has created far more value than the author of the second.
Creating value is so much harder than destroying value. Destruction in general is easy and cheap. On September 11, 2001 19 terrorists, having spent less than $20,000, crashed their planes into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, causing almost 3000 deaths, billions in damage, and years of lasting repercussions for American foreign policy. A captain falling asleep on the Valdez oil tanker caused a grand eco disaster, spilling millions of gallons of oil in Alaska and causing billions in damages. Cedar Fire in southern California was started accidentally by a single hunter who lit a fire because he was lost. It burned for more than 11 days and destroyed more than 2200 homes, burned 280,000 acres, killed 15 people, and became the largest single wildfire in CA history.
Even at the level of the individual body, creating value takes far more effort than destroying value. For instance, someone trying to lose weight has to confront the fact that a long hard hour long run might burn only 600 calories; in a few minutes you can eat a single 8 ounce bag of cheese puffs with over 1200 calories. Life is creation, and death is destruction, and the same cruel calculus that destruction is so much harder than creation also reigns in the animal kingdom even at the top of the food chain: For every lion adult who survives, 4 die before reaching the age of 3.
It’s easy for a simple act of carelessness or evil to destroy; to create value on the other hand takes tremendous work, thought, and effort; for every business that is started, many more will fail. For every book that is written, only a handful will become best sellers or have any broad impact. For every artist who tries to become famous, the vast majority will be lost in obscurity.
Valuism requires making value judgments, and in the modern age such judgments have become taboo. The reigning idea is that values are subjective, subject to cultural and historical influences, and that nothing is inherently “wrong” or “right”, as this implies some sort of discriminatory judgment. And it certainly does; one makes choices every day in life, and value judgments represent the most important choices one makes. Nothing is more empowering than making clear choices, and then living your life according to those choices.
Most people don’t have a problem making very clear choices on a vast variety of relatively petty things; which flavor of coffee they prefer, their favorite sports teams or reality show, the best jeans. However, on the choices that really matter, they have far less conviction, and this is especially true at the top of society. While the founders of America had very well thought out religious convictions, the same cannot be said of modern elites, who are much more definite in their opinions about the best cheese than God. The idea of making clear moral choices has become so repugnant that even the very worst serial killers are not put to death, as that would be too final and harsh a punishment, even for those who have molested and killed children.
If one is not willing to discriminate – to make choices based on values rather than just whimsical personal preferences – than anything goes, and this has been more and more the case since traditional values came under siege in the 1960s. This can be seen in many ways; perhaps most visibly in fashion. The social convention of formal dress – suit and tie for men and dresses for women – has devolved into a hyper-casual look, where men of all types and income dress equally badly; shorts, tee shirts, and baseball caps being the uniform of the day. At one time restaurants had dress codes, and one was expected to conform to those codes or be denied admission. Like dressing in a certain way, it was part of the social contract, and implicit admission that dining in public was a shared experience and the other diners were part of the overall environment which one came to enjoy. But now the social value is inclusion rather than exclusion; a chase for the lowest common denominator, in clothing, manners, culture, and morals. Now you can go to the fanciest restaurants in just about any city and see men in tee shirts or shorts.
It’s important to note that there is no natural stopping point for a fall in standards; whether those standards are in something as superficial as clothing or as fundamental as morals. Relaxed dress codes led to casual Fridays which led to casual everydays which will no doubt eventually lead to people objecting to having to wear anything but underwear in public. The value choice – what is appropriate clothing for any given public occasion – has given way to the personal preference: what will I feel most comfortable wearing. The social contract has been broken in many ways, apparel just being the most obvious. What this says is that nothing is more valuable than personal comfort and convenience – that is the social value of today.
Crimes such as rape, murder, and stealing were once seen as clearly worthy of the most brutal punishments, including death. But we have become a society of excuses that allow us to avoid harsh value judgments: perhaps men were driven to rape by early childhood traumas; perhaps DNA evidence would later show they were not guilty; perhaps they only stole because they were poor; perhaps it is society’s fault. Part of valuism is not just holding yourself responsible for making value judgments, but also holding others responsible for the choices they make. Choices imply values; you cannot choose between two alternatives without making value judgments. If you buy a tomato at a store, you decide that that tomato has more value to you than the money you will spend to buy it; every single action you take, no matter how small, implies some sort of implicit value judgment. Valuism presupposes free will, and that people are responsible for the consequence of their actions. If a rapist chooses the momentary thrill of his sexual crime, he has valued that pleasure higher than the pain of his victim. To choose the value of a few minutes of personal pleasure over the victim’s years of suffering is terribly wrong, and the person that makes that value judgment should be brutally punished.
Valuism asks the most basic questions: what is important to you? What is not important? What tradeoffs are you willing to make? When confronted with two competing values, which do you choose? One often thinks of these as choices between good and evil, and sometimes they are. But much more often, and much more interesting, are the choices between two competing goods. Most of us don’t really need to be taught what is good and what is evil, although choosing the former over the latter is a different matter. We know intuitively that stealing and rape are wrong. But modern society is filled with choices between competing goods:
- Is it better to work hard – a good value – or to spend a lot of time with your family – also a good value?
- Is it better to buy beautiful art – a good value – or to be prudent and save money – also a good value?
- Is it better to be courteous – a good value – or outspoken in defense of your values?
These are the choices – the value judgments – that we all have to make every day. These should be explicit judgments; decisions we arrive at after long, careful thought and observation. But they’re not. Most choices now are simply based on the great sea wave of popular consensus and, on the individual level, personal preference of the moment. This matters; the popular consensus has left America as a nation of fat slobs, devoid of moral conviction, chasing money in any way possible because that’s all they know how to do, in pursuit of an unsatisfying crass materialism.
The tendency to avoid big picture value judgments – and all that implies – also has psychological implications. Modern Americans seem both bored and anxious; bored perhaps because they avoid the most important decisions while focusing on the trivial, and anxious because they’re constantly careening from day to day with no firm moral anchor, avoiding the important decisions, and lacking the gravitas that comes from living life based on important value judgments. Most people long to find importance in their lives, something worth fighting for, and you can’t do this without making fundamental value judgments. The common escape from such judgments is hedonism, the pursuit of personal, often sensual pleasure. But even sensuality gets trivialized into Internet or TV pornography, because they’re easy, available, and convenient.
But if hedonism works, why don’t more people do it? There are millions upon millions of people who have more than enough money to retire and do nothing but seek this kind of pleasure, yet most of them don’t; they continue to run big companies, or pursue political office, or run nonprofit foundations, or invest to try to make more money. These people are not stupid, and they are well aware of their options, but they also know, sometimes from experience, that it is far more interesting to pursue some goal, some value, than to lie on the beach getting sunburned.
Modern Americans are fat because they seek easy quick fixes like fad diets over having to make a serious, long term commitment to exercise and moderate, healthy eating. This is just a way of saying they value their short term pleasure more than their long term health and appearance. Because they don’t have the satisfaction of being committed to important long term values in any aspect of their life, they are only willing to take the quick, easy fix. They try to make money through lotteries, lawsuits, easy debt, gambling, and get rich quick schemes because they don’t really believe in the idea of creating value. For someone who believes in creating value, other means of getting money are unhealthy distractions and temptations, like potato chips to someone who is committed to healthy eating.