In his formal statement on the terrorist attacks in Paris, President Obama said that “Paris itself represents the timeless values of human progress.” By this statement, Obama betrayed the actual status of the debate over values and human progress and the daily struggle to bring humanity to a real consensus regarding these important concepts.
President Obama’s statement is capable of two interpretations. He either believes that ‘human progress’ has values or that humans have two or more values which are generally perceived by mankind to be directly related to ‘human progress’. The first interpretation obviously makes no sense because ‘human progress’ is a concept. Only a living being can have values. A concept cannot have values of its own. So he must have intended the second interpretation; that there are two or more values which are ‘timeless’ and which are so directly related to the concept of ‘human progress’ that an otherwise nondescript phrase – “the timeless values of human progress” – is sufficient to convey the meaning he intends.
But it doesn’t. Because I know very well Mr. Obama’s politics, I’m certain that his notion of what are values directly related to human progress are not the same as mine. In fact, I’m certain we would have some fundamental disagreements on what constitutes ‘human progress’ and what does not. Even those values which we might suppose he would identify as ‘timeless values of human progress’, such as liberty and freedom, are so subject to differing and nuanced interpretations that I’m certain his notions of those values are not the same as mine. I do not believe that those values as he would define them are directly related to my notion of ‘human progress’. In fact, I believe the implementation of his conceptualization of what liberty and freedom mean into public policy often run directly counter to human progress as I would define it.
Some may suggest that a statement made by a U.S. President in response to the attack shouldn’t be subjected to such scrutiny; that it is only meant to convey to the French our solidarity against those who have perpetrated the crime. I disagree. His statements in such situations are heard and read by the entire world. If he wishes only to express solidarity, then he should limit his comments to such expressions. What humans value, or should value, is perhaps the most important theme underlying all of human history and experience. At such times, when the focus of the world is upon him, he is peculiarly situated to illustrate this point. At the very least, he should not obscure it.
That there are ‘timeless values’ generally understood or accepted to result in ‘human progress’, is simply not true. What are the worthiest values and what is ‘human progress’ are questions debated intellectually and politically every day in civilized countries throughout the world. Indeed, those questions constitute a substantial component of the debate over what has led to Islamic terrorism and to its expansion. When we pretend that consensus exists among mankind as to what ‘values’ result in ‘human progress’, we only avoid these important debates and thereby any opportunity to draw humanity toward a true consensus regarding what values really result in human progress, and how human progress should be properly understood.