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Making Sense of Values

by John Heenan

      Had we lived one hundred and twenty years ago we would not have heard the plural noun "values," meaning the moral beliefs and attitudes of a society. Until then the word "value" was used only as a verb meaning to value or esteem something or as a singular noun, meaning the measure of a thing, for example, the economic value of money, labour or property.

      The change came in the 1880's when the German philosopher, Friedrich Nietzsche began to speak of values as moral beliefs and attitudes. Nietzsche used the word "values" consciously, repeatedly and insistently to signify what he took to be the most profound event in history. His "transvaluation of values" was to be the final, ultimate revolution against both classical and Judaic-Christian ethics. Neitzsche believed that with their death would come the death of truth and above all any morality. There would be no good or evil, no virtue or vice but only values that were personal and subjective. Then, at last, Neitzsche believed, humanity would be freed from the prison of virtues and morality.

      Over the years Neitzsche's concept of values was absorbed unconsciously and without resistance into the ethos of modern society just as the word values was absorbed into the vocabulary. Values have become whatever any individual, group or society chooses for any reason. The old virtues have been demoralized and personalized to become values.

      With the growing use of the word values, the word virtues; those traits of character that aspire to moral excellence like honesty, compassion, courage and perseverance, fell into disuse. But contrary to Neitzsche's belief and hope, virtues did not die but become regarded as moral or objective core values.

      For this reason, today, any list of values is likely to include the old virtues.

      Values, as we now know them, can be either preferences or principles, which represent the opposite ends of the moral spectrum.

      Values that are preferences, like any other preferences, whether it is for tea or coffee, for long rather than short hair, are personal choices that are subjective and able to be changed at any time. On the other hand, values that are principles, like honesty and compassion, are consistent, universal, transcultural and objective.

      The greatest difference between the two types of values is that preference values are some thing "to have," in the same way as one may have a skateboard or a bag of marbles, while values that are principles, are something "to be." In fact, the most important thing to be, like, honest, kind, compassionate and responsible.

      Over recent years, as citizens throughout the western democracies have become aware of, and concerned about, the loss of social cohesion in their communities, the part played by values in the formation of character has been more closely studied.

      What Neitzsche did not understand was that virtues, moral or objective core values, worked in three interrelated parts; moral knowing, moral feeling and moral behaviour, that connect to good character.

      To possess the objective core value of, for example, compassion, one must first understand what compassion is and know what it requires of one's relationship to others. To be compassionate one must have moral knowledge, but that does not make one compassionate.

      That requires the addition of a moral feeling about compassion, being emotionally committed to it, having the capacity for appropriate discomfort when one behaves without compassion, and being capable of moral indignation when one sees others victims of suffering, exploitation or greed.

      But again, moral knowledge and moral feeling do not make one compassionate. One must behave with compassion; acting compassionately in one's personal relationships and carrying out one's obligations as a citizen to help build a caring and just society.

      Compassion, like all objective core values, requires the involvement of the head and the heart together with the hand.

      The three parts of an objective core value, moral knowledge, moral feeling and moral behaviour are directly linked to good character. Good character is the habit of knowing the good, the habit of desiring the good and the habit of doing the good.

      The teaching of objective core values like honesty, kindness, compassion, respect and responsibility by parents and schools is essential if communities are to restore and advance their social cohesion.

      Historically, education, in countries all over the world, has had two main goals. To help young people master the skills of literacy and numeracy, and to help them build good character. Societies since the time of Plato have made character a deliberate aim of education. They understand that to create and maintain a civil society there has to be education for character as well as intellect, for decency as well as literacy, and for virtue as well as for skills and knowledge.

      Until recent decades, major philosophers concerned with education stressed the critical role of moral education. They were almost unanimous in assuming that adults, as either parents or teachers, should bear the central authority and responsibility for shaping the character of the young.

      While we New Zealanders can be justly proud of many of our achievements, the reality is, that over recent decades we have not been teaching and replenishing those attributes of character that are essential for social cohesion, the maintenance of a civil society and the preservation of a liberal democracy.

John Heenan, a former school principal, is director of the New Zealand Foundation for Values Education Inc. and author of "Cornerstone Values - A Values Education Curriculum."

Published with permission of John Heenan,
The New Zealand Foundation for Values Education Inc.

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