art Christian Ethics

Blind in the Big Apple: Value-Blindness & Our Happiness

6:00:00 AMBenjamin Klare

Midway through my high school years, I found myself on the corner of 5th Avenue and E 51st Street New York City, New York. I was just a stone’s throw away from Times Square, Radio City Music Hall, and Broadway. The only thing was, I wasn’t actually at any of those locations. Instead, I was assigned to a group of other students from my school who were walking hurriedly past the stunning St. Patrick’s Cathedral, quickly in front of the renowned Rockefeller Center, and straight into the not-so-well-known Nintendo store.

It’s not that I don’t like Nintendo, believe me: I have thoroughly enjoyed my fair share of Pokemon, Mario Kart, and Zelda. The only thing was, I mean, we were in New York City. As in the New York City. And outside the window of the Nintendo store where the famed city stood, it was as if the city was staring at me, calling to me, beckoning me to explore its wonders. Yet here I was, in the Nintendo store, playing the newest Wii game with some of my friends, doing something we could have done at home.

What I mean to illustrate by this story is this: that each of us has likely had an experience where we felt like we missed out on something. Moreover, many of us have had an experience like mine, where it wasn’t some external factor that inhibited us from a fuller experience, but rather some internal factor. In New York, for example, it wasn’t as if the city withheld itself or some good it possessed from me. Nor was it some person, event, or incident that restricted my access to the city (or at least my group’s access to the city). Rather, the city offered me the same good (i.e. an experience of New York) as it offered everyone else. I, however, was not actively disposed to receive or experience it. In my opinion, this is a form of what Dietrich von Hildebrand would refer to in his value theory as “value blindness.” Hildebrand writes that “value blindness” is, at least in part, “an erroneous preference of a lower rather than a higher good” (41). Clearly, that is what this New York experience was. My group had chosen the lower good of playing video games over the higher good of experiencing New York City when they had the small window of opportunity to do so. And this, we shall see, may have been of grave consequence.

For Hildebrand, the world is chock full of values. By values he means objects of intrinsic importance, or things “whose importance we cannot alter … which depend in no way on our reaction to it” (31). Art, nature, beauty, truth, moral virtue, and things of the like are all values. These values constitute the awe-inspiring existence we have come to call reality.  Reality which doesn’t just exist as an entity separate and distant from us, but in a way, cries out to us. In the words of Hildebrand himself, “every good possessing a value imposes on us, as it were, an obligation to give to it an adequate response” (13). Thus, everything that has value presents itself to us, making its existence known to us, and asking of us an adequate response.

This realization of New York as a value came to me when I sensed, in a strange way, the city beckoning to me. In my opinion, Hildebrand would also consider New York to be a value, because in and of itself, separate from me and my experience of it, New York City has intrinsic importance. To explain, think of the city as you would an artistic masterpiece by Botticelli or Van Gogh. Surely we wouldn’t want to say that a Van Gogh has value only insofar as we are capable of perceiving it. For, even if the whole world were blind and incapable of seeing Starry Night, for example, wouldn’t we still want to say that it is a masterpiece? Thus it is a masterpiece not in virtue of our perception of it, but because it exists and exists masterfully. Consequently, New York City (or at least the experiences available to us in New York City) constitutes something of intrinsic value. For, even if no one were capable of experiencing it, it is nevertheless something of value in and of itself and something worth experiencing in its own right.

In our day to day life, two problems concerning value often arise: the first occurs when we fail to see a value and the second occurs when we choose a lower good over the higher good (i.e. something momentarily satisfying over something of value). Unfortunately we make both of these mistakes all of the time. While in the presence of the unrepeatable individual we have come to call friend, we often turn to our phone. Surrounded by the vivid grandeur of nature, we tend to hurry by to get to back to work. Beholding the splendor of an act of moral virtue, we usually snap a picture to remember it, glance again at the ad for the newest iPhone, and then we move on. It’s what we’ve trained ourselves to do through our habits. And the worst part of it is, some of us like it that way. My friends were perfectly content playing the Wii in the middle of the Big Apple, even though it meant missing out on experiencing one of the most famous cities in the world. Call me crazy but doesn’t this seem like a grave error? I mean, is it just me, or weren’t those high school kids, wasn’t I, truly missing out on something important and valuable?  

I think this is what Hildebrand is making apparent to us with his value theory: that many of us are missing out on life. Surrounding each of us is a vivacious world of art, truth, beauty, and goodness crying out to be noticed and responded to. Hildebrand is saying that in the face of great beauty, she or he who stands cold, stoic, and unmoved is quite frankly, blind. Yet it isn’t an accusation but an exhortation, or rather a plea for the true happiness of humanity. Indeed for Hildebrand, what constitutes blissful happiness is nothing other than our delightful “confrontation with and participation in something of intrinsic importance” (10-12). Thus, for every value we neglect, fail to see, or overlook, we are robbed of that happiness we all so desperately seek. Conversely however, for each and every value we notice, perceive, and take part it, we share that much more fully in that same happiness we could have just as easily deserted.

Let us then put on the glasses of Hildebrand, that is at least until we can see value clearly again, so that, walking the busy streets of New York City we might find our way past the Nintendo store, down W 48th Street and into the heart of New York City, to Times Square itself.

What do you think? Not too keen to try on the glasses of a man whose lenses are probably outdated anyway? Or were you delighted to discover someone who has the lenses you were looking for? Let me know in the comments below.

For more information of value theory, check out the short section on value in The Dietrich von Hildebrand LifeGuide. (After all, it’s only 10 pages and should take you no more than 30 minutes to read). Happy Reading!

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