One of the words that permeate our ethical lexicon is the word ‘value’. We tend to overuse the word: e.g. Catholic Values, Family Values etc. As such it is a seemingly harmless word. Who can argue against it? But there is embedded in it a passive quality, an almost ‘guideline’ sense to it that says: this is what we are striving for, this is our ideal, always keep this in mind. Once again, there seems nothing wrong with that, except that it has no urgency or obligation connected to it.
Some of the family values do cohere and work together like forgiveness, duty, nurturing the young etc. But the problem comes about when these things become difficult. The tendency is to approximate the direction of that value and if it does not work to find a similar value to it. Value tends to (not always though) develop into a sort of ‘situation ethics’ where moral norms are expendable in certain situations. Values are sort of elastic, flexible enough to expand or contract based on the situation involved. Universal Moral Norms are anathema to this kind of thinking. The center of action is the individual and if the context changes so do the values involved.
But the word “virtue” has another and, I believe, better connotation. Virtue is embedded in the person. It has the sense of striving, with the emphasis more on the strength needed to conform to the will of God. Value is a mountain that can be climbed or not depending on circumstances. Virtue is the climbing. So there is no easy way out in virtue. When God calls us to be virtuous He is asking, really mandating, that we give it our all in the climb to accomplishing His will. It requires strength of character, determination, self-forgetfulness and the capacity to endure great privation and pain. Virtues are the living out of what God wills, and know of no exceptions or ways out.
The virtue of Courage has a very different feel than the value of Courage. One can admire the value of Courage, but the virtue of Courage needs to be practiced, even if it is in incremental phases beginning with small moral acts that define a person as someone of Courage and not someone who takes the easy way out all the time.
In Pope Francis’ recent Exhortation Laetitia Amoris (The Joy of Love), he goes to great pains in urging families to act in concrete ways to show their love. One can extoll the value of forgiveness in a marriage, but it is quite a different thing to say to a spouse, one’s child or one’s parent: “I’m sorry”. The saying of those simple words is the virtue of courage and of humility and of reconciliation. We often say “Actions speak louder than words”. When one says “I’m sorry” and truly means it, we are in the presence of the virtue of Courage. To say Thank You and truly mean it is a virtuous act of humility and gratitude. To say “Please” and truly mean it is an act of humility and generosity.
What I am trying to say is that when we actually accomplish a morally right action we are in the domain of virtue and not merely of values. This distinction is important. It is what is often implied in a negative sense when one says that they are spiritual (believing in all kinds of fuzzy values with no commitment or obligations to the wider community nor to God) but not religious (the domain of commitment, obligation and Virtue).
This is not new but like all basic principles it is often confused in real life. Think of how often the words “Don’t just talk the talk (i.e. Values) but walk the walk (i.e. Virtues)” ring so true in our daily lives.