Values in politics

    It has been held by political analysts that the 2004 US Presidential election was in large part decided by ”values issues”. The issues referred to are e.g. legal abortion, gay marriage and stem cell research, which an important minority (an estimated 20-30%) of the US electorate strongly opposes.

    It may hence be of interest to look at these issues more closely, trying to establish why they are said to be values-oriented.

A test issue

    Legal abortion may be chosen as a test issue. Keep in mind that here we are not interested in finding out whether legal abortion is a good or a bad thing. Our interest lies on a different, dispassionate level: an assessment of the semantic character of the opposing views. Are they based on ”ethical values”, or on something else?

Pro-life and pro-choice, in perfect agreement

    Opponents to legal abortion maintain that they are interested in ”preserving life”. Preserving human life is clearly an issue about ethical values, so here the term ”values issue” seems most adequate. But the opposing side also holds that it is interested in preserving life. So by definition this is not a disputed issue. Hence ”pro-lifers” and ”pro-choicers” seem to be in perfect agreement, at least about the ethical value of protecting human life.

Differences of definition

    Their disagreement must hence concern something else than the value of human life. Closer examination reveals the cause of their disagreement. It doesn’t centre on ”values”, but on different factual definitions of the concept of ”life”. One side holds that human life begins at conception, the other that it begins at birth. Reiterating the arguments for and against these definitions would be irrelevant.

      (Apart from noting the resemblance to Jonathan Swift’s tale of the disagreement over which end of an egg that should be cracked first.)

    Because the question here doesn’t concern ”appropriate” or ”inappropriate” definitions. For our analytical purposes it’s sufficient to note that what is at issue here is not an ethical ”values question" per se, but a factual disagreement regarding definitions.

Absence of “value issues”

    Hence the issue of legal abortion (and consequently stem cell research as well) can not justifiably be termed a ”values issue”. Similar analysis of the ”values” attitudes toward homosexuals and marriages comes to the same conclusion -- the disagreements don’t concern ethical values, but rather differences in factual assessments (statistics, biological / anthropological observations, etc) and diverging definitions.

    We might dismiss the idea that the decisive election issues in 2004 were about ”values”, were it not for one thing.

Time-honoured rhetorical tricks

    Because terming negative attitudes toward homosexuals, abortion and stem cell research as questions of ”ethical values”, is simply an act of propaganda. It represents the time-honoured rhetorical trick of making use of persuasive definitions. By applying the term ”values issue” to your particular views, you darkly imply that your views have a higher ethical status than your opponent’s. So the proper place for the entire complex of "values issues" would seemingly be the spacious bag of dirty tricks.