My students are not allowed in papers or discussion to say what they “feel”, except hot and cold, rough and smooth (as you can no more feel a thought than smell one). Nor are they allowed to talk about “values”. Please: principles, rights, goods, truths (as in the self-evident ones), but not “values”, since all that is implied, so far, by talk of someone’s values, is that he himself values them–and who cares about that, really, unless I’m bargaining with him?

Of course it is common for people to use “values” to mean those other things — presumably, in that case, “objective values” (an oxymoron) — but the word itself does not carry that meaning. Its subjective squishiness makes it well-suited, for instance, for use in carefully crafted diplomatic statements, the very point of which is not to say anything definite, as in yesterday’s official remarks by Secretary Clinton on Chen Guangcheng’s release:

I am pleased that we were able to facilitate Chen Guangcheng’s stay and departure from the U.S. Embassy in a way that reflected his choices and our values. I was glad to have the chance to speak with him today and to congratulate him on being reunited with his wife and children.

– a perfect example of how one can speak of values without being committed to anything objective at all.

There are values and then there are values. In another administration, I might have taken the Secretary’s use of the word to be code for, say, the inalienable right to life. In this case, I have no idea what the word could stand for.

Secretary Clinton was criticized for not referring to Chen Guangcheng in her opening statement for the U.S.-China summit and for her “passive” (that is, weak, lame) reference to human rights:

as part of our dialogue, the United States raises the importance of human rights and fundamental freedoms because we believe that all governments do have to answer to citizens’ aspirations for dignity and the rule of law, and that no nation can or should deny those rights.

But commentators have not noticed that this statement is not so much weak in reference to China as not about China at all. It comes after a description of how China and the U.S. have together been deliberating about how to deal with Iran, North Korea, Syria, Sudan and Burma. Its natural construction, in the context, is that the United States takes the initiative in those deliberations in raising questions about human rights violations of those other governments.

Some understanding is necessary of course for American officials such as Secretary Clinton, who are put in a very weak position by the widely-accepted contractarian interpretation of human rights (such as Rawls’), which is all that they know. What can one really say on those grounds against governments which deliberately violate human rights? That such governments “have to answer” to aspirations?

Oooohh–Stalin would be scared! Hitler of course would say that his citizens’ aspirations were exactly what he was “answering to.”

A “passive” defense of human rights is insured.

It is true that Secretary Clinton next says:

As President Obama said this week, a China that protects the rights of all its citizens will be a stronger and more prosperous nation, and of course, a stronger partner on behalf of our common goals

A nicely crafted statement, too, since it does not so far imply that China is not protecting the rights of all of its citizens! But in any case this defense of rights is lame also. Some nations seem to be more prosperous precisely by enslaving some of their own people (as Lincoln thought the American South was, especially upon the invention of the Cotton Gin), and our own Supreme Court, and President Obama too, have declared that our national prosperity now depends upon the unhindered ability of women to violate the right to life of unborn children.

–Okay, okay, a cheap shot, I agree: I admit that neither slaves nor unborn children have counted as citizens!