Today, we see nationalism, selfishness, war and conflict spread around the world. Facing these challenges, focusing on what unites humanity seems even more important to us. Our vision to live in accordance with others and nature requires living and sharing values like love, empathy, self-responsibility and care for others, honesty and respect.
A profound set of values is the basis. Every human being upholds a mixture of values that make up their character. These ideals determine the unconscious actions. They show who we are.
Values affect us on three general levels: in our treatment of ourselves; in our interaction with other individuals; and in our behaviour in the society we live in. While these three layers are interconnected and inseparable, they differ distinctly. Human beings and their surroundings give each other their values bilaterally; one imprints the other in both directions. Because a society is made up of individuals that all have values, predominant values may distinguish themselves within a group of people. On the other hand shared values are what make people feel connected, and thus are one component of community. So do universal values exist? Can humanity grow together as a single community? Do we need to share the exact same set of ideals or is a common foundation sufficient? Or do we have to admit in the end that our differences are bigger than what unites us? And what’s next then?
On an individual level, values determine how we treat and view ourselves. The inevitable shine through on the other two, levels, the interpersonal and societal. In other words, our individual ideals shape our personality: what do I deem important? Sincerity? Independence? Civility? Kindness? Mindfulness? Our individual values form the basis of our conduct towards others and thus determine our social role.
Most directly, our individual values shape our attitude towards others. Those who value kindness and mindfulness will do what they can to assist those around them and maintain amiable relations to them; those who emphasize sincerity and independence mind find it more desirable to address displeasing points and opinions than to stay silent for the sake of peace. In this way, personal values become guidelines for our conduct. Kindness and mindfulness give rise to care for others, independence and sincerity grow into reflection and the strive to improve. However, different to the personal level, we are required to agree on the values we uphold with others. We can no longer decide on our set of values for ourselves; instead, we need to weigh the consequences for and their effect on others. This way, a consensus on how we treat each other can be formed. And only this allows us to treat each other with respect and care, appreciating others with all their thoughts and opinions.
The societal level is probably the most complex and abstract one. With hundreds, thousands or even millions of individuals interacting with one another, a common understanding is even harder to achieve. Commonly, the citizens of one state are assumed to be connected by a shared set of values providing the groundwork for their living together. On this level, it is all the more important, even inevitable, to respect others and their personal ideals, to consider their opinions and stances and to actively strive towards reaching a joint understanding of how society is intended to function with regard to all its individual members. And while a society will never provide specific, all-encompassing sets of values – joint agreement on something this complex is nearly impossible to achieve – it is possible to provide a framework of varying rigidity in which personal values develop and change.
Whatever the specific values dominant in an individual and society may be, they reflect and project on others. In contact to other individuals, a person may find that their personal ideals are shared, or that they are met with resistance and make it difficult to maintain amiable relations with others. Therefore, by constantly providing feedback on one’s actions, individuals and society as a whole check what values develop and prevail – dependent on what suits the individual preferences, social consensus forms and changes.
These social agreements can severely be challenged when the society upholding them changes rapidly. In the decades following the Second World War, West German politicians reached agreements with foreign countries’ representatives to allow labourers access to Germany in order to accelerate economic recovery. However, Italians, Spaniards and Turks lived in closed communities, maintaining their social agreements and not coming into contact with those the Germans agreed on by the Germans. Even today, many Germans tend to believe that especially those of Turkish, Eastern European and Balkan descent do not share “our” values, thus they do not belong to “our” community. The same way we might feel disconnected to other generations; the world we live in is different from the world of our grandfathers. They might not understand how we can feel lonely, if we are connected all the time, or how we can feel homeless, if we are just so mobile and cosmopolitan, how we can be afraid of the future, if we have all the possibilities.
To agree on a joint stance and include everyone into the process of determining the framework of our values, we must talk about our true feelings and about their sources. We need to remember that we have underlying moral codes, condensed into constitutions and laws over time. But these values have to be lived. And they cannot be filled without an individual reflection, and without a common debate: on an individual level, we have to reflect on the meaning of societal values for ourselves; on an interpersonal level, we have to discuss this meaning and ponder the relevance of the concepts shaping our lives; on a communal level, we need to be willing to evolve and adapt to new situations. Values unite us, but they often go hand in hand with classifications and boundaries: we tend to define ourselves by establishing borders to others, instead of focusing on what stands behind these polarizations: The common need to live in dignity. To live at ease. To love.
To live these values, we must provide an environment rewarding the keeping up of our convictions. In modern days, it is in parts deemed more important to achieve personal, mostly material success, upgrading egoism and (economic) performance rather than love and consideration. What we experience in economic and societal contexts contradicts the values we say we believe in. How can we focus on values like love in a world that rewards being selfish?
We can’t answer this question with certainty, but we experience that talking to each other about what concerns us already makes a big difference, even though many might be afraid to express what they truly feel and think. We need more spaces to express ourselves, where we feel that we’re really taken seriously and appreciated in all our facets and subtleties, with all our strong and weak sides. We need to work on ourselves and talk about our fears – our fear of change, our fear of showing courage in conflict with others , of being alone, of being singled out of the masses, of drowning in the masses of being unpopular, of losing our job… These fears can be bone-crushing. But if we manage to exchange, we will experience that we are not alone. That we will face these fears and problems together. And that we can change the world into a better place, if we do work together.
Maybe this is the first step towards living our values.