We can’t escape being confronted with the consequences of immoral government policy, whether in the form of the Dutch childcare benefits scandal or the mishandling of damage claims resulting from gas extraction in Groningen. The increasing number of debates concerning transgressive behaviour suggests we need to improve the way people treat each other in organisations. Dissatisfaction with the growing polarisation at work, in our neighbourhoods, in the media and on the street demonstrates a renewed need for values.

In politics, discussions about values were long considered taboo, as I myself experienced in my fifteen years of working in the House of Representatives. Values were largely considered a private matter: something you talked about at home, but did not bring up in the public debate. Everyone should be free to have their own values, and we should definitely not try to impose them on others. Debates about values were considered suspicious and preachy.

Everyone is different and everyone has their own values, which determine who and what we are – our identity. We also have shared values, which bind us together as communities: at the university, in the city and in our country. These communities are no less diverse than people are and give us a temporary place to belong (at school or on social media) or a more permanent one (in the neighbourhood or at work).

What is a university? What makes university research and education academic? Which values underpin this notion? At Erasmus University Rotterdam, these questions have led to a debate about ‘Erasmus values’. As a philosopher, I help shape this discussion. It’s a place where self-willed academics know they have no choice but to work together to reflect on values that transcend the individual and that we share with each other.

‘Hand in hand: Erasmus and what unites Rotterdammers’. This is the subject of my Rotterdamlezing on 15 May. This lecture series is one of Erasmus University Rotterdam’s initiatives to connect the organisation with the city of Rotterdam. Is the concept of shared values still feasible? Debates have become incredibly polarised, to the point that we’d rather cancel those with different ideas and opinions than seek them out.

Still, if there’s one place where shared values should be possible, it’s Rotterdam, the city of Erasmus. He was a philosopher who taught people the importance of reciprocity. We can only be free if we allow others freedom as well. Others will only treat our opinions with respect if we extend them the same courtesy. Rights always come with obligations, and freedom is not without responsibility. We appear to have forgotten these values and will need to reacquaint ourselves with them.

Ronald van Raak is professor of Erasmian Values and columnist. He will give the Rotterdamlezing in Arminius on 15 May. For more information about this lecture, visit the website.

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