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  • Writer's pictureH. Paul Putman III, MD

The Survival Pledge 2, Part 2: Meaning and Values

Updated: Sep 2, 2021

(The Survival Pledge is an eight-point plan to refocus each of us on taking responsibility for our own thoughts and behaviors in ways that benefit ourselves and each other.)


There is no universally agreed upon meaning to my existence. If there is a meaning, I cannot be certain of what it is. I will take full responsibility for the consequences of choosing to assign a meaning to my own existence. I will never assign nor compel others to assign a meaning to their own existence.


So far, we have examined how our brains manufacture assessments or judgments (accurately or not) to enhance our safety, and how we rely upon this mechanism, though sometimes with inadequate oversight and review. We saw how the mechanism for assessing safety can extend itself to unnecessarily assessing the thoughts, feelings, attributes and behaviors of ourselves and others. We have also introduced the harmful consequences of meaning which we can arbitrarily and unconsciously attach to feelings and behaviors of ourselves and others. In this day of values clarification, can meanings have any value?


Meaning is often ascribed not only by the individual, but also by societies at large through organizations, movements, sometimes by governments and nearly always by religions. The process these entities use for assigning meaning is little different from that of the individual, in that it is unconscious and usually not intentionally malicious. There are examples, of course of malicious attempts to manipulate people and control power using meaning: the Nazi Party of the twentieth century, for example. Other organizations’ efforts are more ambiguous, especially when religious. When religious organizations appear to seek to do good through the attribution of meaning and subsequent attempts to control the behavior of individuals, values compete: the good, which the organization defines, versus the freedom of the individual to choose.


Our society seeks values as though they are valuable. We have values clarification seminars and honor colleges and universities for teaching them. Organizations such as the World Scouting Movement exist to instill values in our youth. Lord Baden Powell, in founding the Boy Scout movement, listed the Scout Law, repeated endlessly by boys all over the world for the past century: Trustworthy, Loyal, Helpful, Friendly, Courteous, Kind, Obedient, Cheerful, Thrifty, Brave, Clean and Reverent[1]. Few would argue that these goals are not worthy ones for the boy and society, and girls are now welcome as full members. How helpful values are, though, depends not only on what they are, but upon the individual and societal motivation to use them; how they are applied to the self and not just expected of others.


Values, though often considered desirable, are seldom enough examined objectively or studied to determine true impact (though the John Templeton Foundation has recently begun to support study of Character Virtue Development[2]). Be prepared certainly sounds like a reasonably good plan, but where is the research supporting it as a valuable guide to life and for society? The historian Stephen Ambrose described in his book D-Day: June 6, 1944 – The Climactic Battle of WWII[3] the different behaviors of American and Nazi German men during the assault on Omaha Beach. He felt this example demonstrated the disparate values stressed by each society. Clawing their way to the beach and then clinging to the tentative ground attained, Allied soldiers hunkered down initially as officer after officer was blown to pits or shot by heavy Nazi artillery. Eventually, though, solitary men, one at a time and without coordination, made the decision to move forward. When order, structure and authority disappeared, Allied individuals were still able to work toward their original mission. The Nazi soldiers, however, incurring their own losses and disruption of communication with higher authorities, were unable or unwilling to take individual initiative and make the tactical changes necessary to win their battle.


Ambrose described this distinction as the Boy Scouts vs. the Hitler Youth. Boy Scouts were, and are still, trained to think for themselves and learn to solve problems, one at a time, to reach a goal. Flexibility, individual initiative and problem solving, when necessary, are key values of Scouting and the societies that utilize the program. Boys raised as scouts, or even just in the societies that embraced Scouting, were able as men and soldiers to act independently and courageously without direction or authority, and claimed Normandy. Adolph Hitler, though, closed Boy Scouts in Germany and German controlled countries in 1933 and replaced it with Hitler-Jugend (Hitler Youth). Founded in 1922 as Jungsturm Adolph Hitler, this organization valued all allegiance and loyalty to the state, specifically the leader of the state, Hitler himself. Recruiting posters proclaimed “Youth serves the leader[4].” Management was “top down” and orders were expected to be followed without deviation. Men raised as boys in this system feared the harsh consequences of taking any unauthorized action; they valued total loyalty to authority, even when it was obvious that it was not adaptive to their situation. This, among other things, cost them the battle of D-Day.


In this example, the values chosen by two societies largely helped determine the outcome of a world war, eventual world order and the lives of millions of citizens. Examples back throughout history echo this observation…. Athens vs. Sparta (open democracy vs. military oligarchy), Pax Romana (aggressive expansion followed by cultural inclusion), the Thirty Years’ War (Catholic and Protestant states battling, at least initially, for religious domination), colonial expansion (at the expense of native peoples worldwide) - up through the 20th and 21st centuries as Communism battled Fascism and Democracy.


Values are defined mostly by society and promoted as of value to the individual, directly or indirectly. As we see from this example of Nazi Germany, though, they can be set to serve the state but not the individual, and therefore not necessarily the society. Robert Reich in his illuminating The Work of Nations[5] helpfully delineates the evolution of societies through their emphasis on operational values. Tracing at least western civilization from monarchy to imperialism to nationalism to global societies, we can see how the conception of what societal structure is best for the individual has changed completely throughout human history and will be likely to continue to change. The description of the good society differs in 1450, 1750, 1850, 1920, 1970 and 2020. Structures have varied from devotion to an individual, willingly or passively, to lassie-fare self-reliance. The prevailing conception, or value, will dictate the structure of society, but also the behavioral expectations for each individual within in.


We are not discussing here simply an effective response to the Nazi Party, the Cambodian Khmer Rouge, or even how to counter evil, but rather how the genesis of evil is avoided. Evil is created, or avoided, daily in our lives by the way we treat each other. In his work on human evil, People of the Lie[6], psychiatrist M. Scott Peck defines evil not as a conscious and malicious plan to harm others, but rather as an unconscious failure to take responsibility for the negative effects our behavior may have on others. The book includes many chilling examples.


Small behavioral decisions at work, school, home, in the neighborhood, at stores and sporting events, at dance practice or a Little League game, even at churches and synagogues, are the fabric of our society; they build into the creation of a safe and free society or, alternatively, create evil. We can extend our survival by avoiding evil. We best avoid evil by avoiding its creation. Once again, the genesis of peace (and the avoidance of evil) begins with personal responsibility.


Future posts will further explore the tyranny, conscious and unconscious, that meaning may breed unless we consciously work to avoid this.


There is no universally agreed upon meaning to my existence. If there is a meaning, I cannot be certain of what it is. I will take full responsibility for the consequences of choosing to assign a meaning to my own existence. I will never assign nor compel others to assign a meaning to their own existence.

[1] Scouts BSA Handbook for Boys, 14th Edition (Irving, Texas: Boy Scouts of America, 2019) [2] John Templeton Foundation. Character Virtue Development. https://www.templeton.org/funding-areas/character-virtue-development Accessed July 27, 2021. [3] Stephen Ambrose, D-Day: June 6, 1944 – The Climactic Battle of WWII (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1994) [4] United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. Artifacts Gallery: Propaganda. Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division, Washington, DC. https://www.ushmm.org/propaganda/archive/poster-hitler-youth/ Accessed July 27, 2021. [5] Robert B. Reich, The Work of Nations: Preparing Ourselves for 21th-Century Capitalism (New York: Vintage Books, 1991) [6] M. Scott Peck, People of the Lie (New York: Simon and Schuster, Inc., 1983)


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