Values & Discernment

I read a short religious book called “Discernment” (“Discernment, The Art of Choosing Well” by Pierre Wolff, 2003, Liguiri/Triumph, Liguiri Publications, ISBN 0-7648-0989-X) this summer. It tries to present the methods of decision-making taught by St. Ignatius in 1533 in a modern context. The issue St. Ignatius faced was how to make decisions that favour salvation when God is not actually personally talking to you or to anyone you know. His answer was to avoid hasty and impulsive decisions, to follow a systematic process of discernment, to understand your beliefs, emotionally and intellectually, and to base decisions on fundamental principles.


He recorded his methods in a manual known as the Spiritual Exercises. They have been followed for nearly 500 years, particularly by the members of the Jesuit Order which he founded, and by other Catholic clergy. The Exercises have been followed, imitated and adapted in various ways. Some parts of the Spiritual Exercises are followed in 12-step programs. The Exercises are an intensive psychological process designed to reinforce loyalty to the belief and organizational values of the Catholic Church. In that context, “discernment” was part of a process of adapting to an ideology and committing to act on predetermined values. In that context, discernment is not the best process for independent reflection on ethical and social issues and free ethical judgment.
Nevertheless, it is a systematic process with knowledge of the world and self-knowledge, including spiritual or religious beliefs, as the cornerstones of the process. Discernment, understood as a critical examination of one’s own character and a critical evaluation of circumstances, is not especially unique to the Catholic religion, and appears to be similar to a Socratic enquiry.
St. Ignatius believed that discernment be practiced in consultation with a spiritual director who would make sure that you followed the process, probed your decision, and provided a constant reality check. True Ignatian discernment is quite rare, for few have the time, the support and the discipline to bring it to bear. Fr. Wolff discusses the role of “values” in discernment, which is a modern way of talking about the ethical principles that guide decisions. Discussing values is confusing, and it can change the process. If we understand values as the things we want or like, discernment is a selfish exercise of rationalizing the things we like. Some writers and counselors with Romantic ideas about life and the importance of feelings have appropriated the language of discernment in support of subjective and emotional methods of decision making.
Values can operate almost instinctively, within the realm of meeting basic needs and gratifying impulses and within the realm of elaborate discourse as we analyze, explain and rationalize our impulses and actions. Personal values may be established for selfish and self-serving reasons. The addict will value stimulants, the narcissist will value affirmation and praise above all things. People can have good or bad personal values simply by learning from their families, churches and societies, bad values by emotional rebellion against good families, churches and societies, or good values by trancending bad influences. A great intellect, a good family, a good education are not guarantors of wise discernment and moral choices. Most people seem to get by with they learn in their families, schools and other intimate social groupings, and from art, literature and popular culture.
Traditional and religious value systems have been discredited and replaced by systems that value production and consumption, that treat moral choices similiarly to simple economic choices among commodities of similiar value. In these systems, we judge decisions on cost and reward, and we are accountable only to ourselves for the costs and consequences of our own choices. In such systems, values become conventional and consensual. But defying convention may be rewarded economically and emotionally. Conventional values become malleable and negotiable.
In some circles it is conventional and acceptable to have traditional values, human values, spiritual values, and natural values, although is may not be acceptable to have moral or religious values or to be moralistic. I think it is fair to say that the institutions of American popular culture – movies, TV entertainment, literature, news media – all support freedom of choice in matters of pleasure, entertainment and relationships. In this context, the idea of moral judgment on the choices made by others is discouraged. At the same time everyone stands ready to criticize everyone else’s actions and values based on their own feelings and opinions. People discern their values by a quick dips in the shallow pool of the conventional judgments of their peers, and taking the temperature of their own feelings. Social conservatives deplore sexual promiscuity. Liberals deplore violence by their own government and violent toys – although they favour everyone’s freedom to enjoy vicarious violence in TV shows, movies, video games. Feminists deplore male pornography, and violence against women but not lesbian pornography or violence by women.
Philosophers since Plato have tried to identify and deduce correct values by reference to pure ideals, or by reference to the requirements of natural laws. In modern times, self-described humanists have looked for meaning of authentic humanity, and the values of the successful, superior, self-actualizing person. Post-modern criticism has introduced a new complication, as traditional values become mere narratives which are deconstructed and discarded as we rewrite our stories. Some people talk about choosing or co-creating their own values and their own reality.
I am distressed by the rationalizations that have been built into ethical decision-making in modern times. It would seem to be more honest to start from the values of a successful community, a vibrant civilization, a great philosophical tradition than from instinctive personal values or religious values. Good values for personal survival and growth, the exploration of physical and emotional potential (work, play intimacy, relationship, children), and the exploration of intellectual potential (education, literacy, art) are rationally possible. Good values are necessarily social and cultural. The traditional narratives of empirical reality and live culture are safe and reliable. Life is not a fictional narrative, and life outside of a shared cultural narrative is a fantasy.

1 thought on “Values & Discernment”

  1. Good essay. You really should be a writer. I usually consider blog-writing, even Web writing, throw-away, and don’t put much effort into it… revision, etc… tending to compose in the actual blog interface. I should probably change that attitude…

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