A Case for Teaching Objective Values

John Heenan

For some time there have been calls for schools to teach values. Indeed, the purpose of the March 1998, UNESCO Values in Education Summit was to encourage schools to review their charters in terms of values education. While the calls have been timely, few have attempted to define values or to explain why schools should teach them.

For these reasons, even though some of the calls come from prominent and influential New Zealanders, they are likely to be overlooked or seen as little more than another demand on schools.

Such a reaction would be unfortunate, because “values” can be defined and a compelling case made for having values education a central goal of schooling.

Our problem is largely one of language. The word values, in terms of moral beliefs and attitudes, has two distinctive meanings; personal preferences and objective principles.

Preferences and principles are opposites. Preferences are subjective while principles are objective. Values, that are preferences, are something to have, but values that are principles, are something to be.

The confusion over the use of the word values, in the context of moral beliefs and attitudes, is not surprising, given the comparatively short period it has been used in that sense.

Just over one hundred years ago the German philosopher, Friedrich Vilhem Nietzsche began to speak of values in a new way. He used values not as a verb, meaning to value or esteem something; nor as a singular noun, meaning the measure of something (the economic value of money, labour or property); but in the plural, meaning the moral beliefs and attitudes of society.

Neitzsche used the word consciously and repeatedly to signify what he believed to be the most profound event in human history. His invention of “values” was to be the final revolution against virtues. Values would be the death of morality and truth. There would be no good or evil, no virtue or vice. There would only be values. His purpose was to degrade virtues into values and to create a new set of values for his new man.

Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche photo

The Father of “Values”

Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche 1844-1900

Shortly after Nietzsche’s death, the sociologist Max Weber borrowed the word values. and used it matter-of-factly, as if it were part of the accepted vocabulary. Because it seemed so familiar and unthreatening it was absorbed unconsciously and without resistance into the vocabulary and ethos of modern society.

The new meaning of values brought with it the assumptions that all moral ideas are:

Values became whatever the individual subjectively considers, at the time and in the circumstances, to be right or important.

Over time this understanding had a powerful influence on school curricula and gradually replaced the traditional objective values (virtues) with the ideology of subjective values or moral relativism.

What Nietzsche and his followers failed to understand was that objective values (principles or virtues) transcend time, space, and culture. That, they are consistent, universal and transcultural, and that they inform and direct our behaviour.

These objective values include, but are not limited to, eight cornerstone values.

These universal values build character, which produces behaviour that is beneficial for the individual, others and the community. They enhance the wellbeing of all; prevent harm to both the individual and society; are the essence of healthy relationships and are essential for the conduct and preservation of a democratic society.

Democracy, government by the people, is dependent upon citizens who must, at least in a minimal sense, be responsible and good. People who are committed to the moral foundations of democracy: respect the right of others, respect the law, are concerned for the common good, and have a regard for truth and justice.

Historically, schools had two major goals; to help young people to be smart, in terms of literacy and numeracy, and to help them become good.

Wise societies, since the time of Plato made character education, demoted over recent decades to values education, a deliberate aim of schooling. Indeed, New Zealand schools, until the later decades of this century, placed a high priority on what was called, character training.

There was a sound reason why earlier generations rated character training so highly. They understood the connection between objective values (virtues) and good character.

Objective values have three parts: moral knowing, moral feeling and moral behaviour. To possess the objective value of honesty, for example, I must first understand what honesty is and what honesty requires of me in my relationship with others (moral knowing).

I must also care about honesty - be emotionally committed to it, have the capacity for appropriate guilt when I behave dishonestly, and be capable of moral indignation when I see others victims of dishonesty (moral feeling).

Finally, I must practice honesty – acting honestly in my personal relationships and commercial transactions and carrying out my obligations as a citizen to help built an honest and just society (moral behaviour).

Schools, in order to help students become good people, must help them develop good character. This involves a process of helping them to know what objective values are, to appreciate their importance and want to process and practice them in their day-to-day conduct.

Good character, like objective values, comprises three parts: knowing the good, desiring the good and doing the good – habits of the mind, habits of the heart, and habits of conduct and behaviour. All three are essential for good character and moral maturity.

It is not enough to know the good without desiring and attempting to do it.

When parents and schools think about the kind of character that they want for their young people, three aspects of character become clear.

Understanding the connection between the three parts of an objective value; moral knowing, moral feeling and moral behaviour, and the three components of good character; knowing the good, desiring the good, and doing the good, is essential when developing a comprehensive values education programme.

Good character is the set of objective values that a person possesses and practices.

There are compelling reasons why a progressive school would want to implement effective comprehensive values education. It would help to:

Many can remember a teacher who influenced their live in an enduring way. The research on resilient children indicates that one significant adult – someone who bonds with a child and builds confidence, character, and hope – can help a child rise above adversities such as dysfunctional families, abuse, poverty, and deprivation.

When calling on schools to teach values it is important to offer hope of what communities and schools could be. And to remind schools that they can have an impact and strengthen their effectiveness and skills in the process.


Himmelfrab, Gertude, The Demoralization of Society, Institute of Economic Affairs, London, 1995

Thomas Lickona, Educating for Character: The School’s Highest Calling, Georgia Humanities Council, 1997 Lecture

Thomas Lickona, Educating for Character – How Our Schools Can Teach Respect and Responsibility, Bantam Books, 1992

Heenan, John, Cornerstone values – A Values Education Curriculum, New Zealand Foundation for values Education, 1996

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