Value coherence

In Posts on April 8, 2011 at 10:16 am

I recently attended a lecture by Jerome Kagan, an eminent child psychologist, who spoke broadly on the nature of modern society. Parts of his presentation had an almost spiritual tone: he told us that modernity had seen the collapse of “value coherence”—“broad agreement on the same set of core values”—because of the decline of ethnic and cultural homogeneity and of monolithic religion. The result is paralyzing uncertainty, and a frequent default to materialism as a measure of value on which there is at least some consensus.

I agree with Prof. Kagan, and I think his perspective helps situate our materialism, nihilism, narcissism, and disaffectation in a context that makes sense of them as something other than some vague generational corruption. But what to do? How to reestablish “value coherence” without signing on to something silly—or brutally dangerous?

I think we’ll have to find shared meaning in commonsense statements about what makes life good, without looking for a profound reason why we’re alive in the first place. Compassion, for example, makes the world a better place, and we should direct a lot of our efforts toward cultivating it. Yes, maybe we could just as well be ax murderers if there are no gods to judge us; but at that point we’re thinking too hard.


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