I recently wrote a short essay about cohabitation for my local parish’s bulletin. In it, I tried to make the case that the mindset of “trying out” a relationship before committing to it, a frequent one in our culture, gets the idea of Holy Matrimony all wrong. Marriages do not “work” in the sense of an instrument or a commodity. Marriage is a vow, indeed, a contract, and the fact that we think of our cell phone service when we hear the word “contract” rather than something more sacred (say, the Covenant between God and the Hebrew people) is not a knock against Matrimony, but against our times.
But beneath this point is something more fundamental, and although it is probably just a simple trick of the English language rather than something more substantial or purposeful, the many people who point out the cognitive dissonance of speaking about morals in terms of “value” is quite instructive. On one hand, the dual use of the term is exactly correct—what is it that we “hold most dear,” what will we “pay the highest cost” to attain, etc.--these are indeed supremely moral questions to ask. As a metaphor, there is much to derive from it.
However, we often push the metaphor too far, and act like morals exist like any other commodity, as if we hold the endless power of consumer choice over ethical realities. If that is our base line, we can begin to imagine morality, or marriage, or any of the things our ancestors held dear, as a “you say to – MAY – to / I say to – MA – to” type situation. To each his own preference, who am I to judge, etc., etc.
But again, I contend that thinking about beer (of course!) might help us with this situation we find ourselves in. It is true that I roundly (and often) decry “cheap beer,” which is as economic sounding as you can get. Buried deep within the idea that “cheap” automatically counts as a term of disparagement is something that you can call snobbish or aristocratic, depending on how you look at things, and it is quite the moral judgment I am passing about the liquid opprobrium most people drink. And guess what, I think it makes perfect sense to talk about the value of good beer, the cost that goes into it, the willingness to pay a bit more for something that took more resources to make, etc.
Additionally, there is certainly something said for individual taste—do not let all the beer magazines make you think you are a hillbilly peasant who may as well drink PBR just because you don’t think every quadruple-hopped Imperial IPA ever brewed is the bee knees. But there is something to being able to make judgments beyond your individual taste. Precisely what a true beer snob/aristocrat would hope to eventually obtain is the ability to say something like the following: “I myself am not the biggest fan of super-hoppy beers, but if that is your style, than this particular brew is what you are looking for.”
So it goes with marriage, where a husband and wife must decide that they, indeed, can stand each other (and Lord knows my friends and I have married very different spouses, all in the greater Providence of God). However, there is some sense that, ordered to the good of marriage, there are common things all good marriages must have, and things that detract. If your love-language is "adultery" or "murder," you probably aren't going to be celebrating your dandelion anniversary (I've decided that is what the 3 year anniversary is--you are welcome fellas!), much less your silver or golden.
The same goes with morality in general. Some of us will be more courageous, temperate, just, or prudent than others—or another way to put it, some of us may excel at this or that virtue, but are working to grow in the others. But while all of us may not be brave enough to be a solider, we all agree that you have to stand up for what is right wherever you may find yourself. The same pertains for all the virtues.
What is common in all these observations is that, while we may find ourselves drawn to a specific instance, we can understand that the genre of good (beer, spouses, moral actions, etc.) extends beyond our particular case. Within this genre of the good, we notice that things like value and cost can be said about these things, but not with our whims as the ultimate guide. The whole point is not to reduce all matters of human life to the category of “things,” but to set objects in proper order to their true “worth,” a unit of evaluation that only makes sense keeping both our bodily and spiritual natures in mind.