When people think of values, they usually think first of their culture or religion. But we live in a world of many cultures and religions, so how can we possibly share values across these divisions, except by chance or coincidence? If we cannot, our situation is potentially dire because without shared values we can’t sensibly discuss either our differences or the things that really matter to us. Any kind of social cohesion depends on shared values of some sort and an increasingly global culture requires values that can be shared as widely as possible.
The book argues that such shared values must be secular, not as a slight to religion but as a condition of them being shareable. They must as far as possible be culturally independent for the same reason, an idea which is now so unfashionable as to be radical. So we need “human values”, values which anyone could recognise or at the very least share as common ground, even if cultural and religious differences are laid on top.
The foundation for such values is found in the old idea of happiness or fulfilment being the central common goal everyone shares. But this goal has been examined and rejected as an ethical base by moral philosophers again and again. So the book looks again at how to understand happiness or fulfilment in such a way as to make it a viable ethical base. We call this base “satisfied mind”.
This exercise leads to a different approach to ethical thinking, one based in practice and its effects on the inner life of the individual rather than, say, the observance of rules. The particular case in fact takes priority over the general rule, which leads to a different understanding of how to think about ethical questions.