- Common Value Areas
My personal values are always changing, so I try to codify these here as best I can. This codification may then be used as a reference for what my actualized self could be like, clarifying a meaningful direction for my life. I consider this an extremely important exercise for personal self-reflection. It is easy for anybody to become remote from what they truly value, living through the routines of everyday life. By forcing myself to write down and cultivate my values I hope it will keep me more focused on the things I find most important. Or at the very least, keep what is most important clear to me.
A summarised version could read as follows:
My mission in life is to cultivate and hold myself accountable to virtues of behaviour which I identify as good, in the seeking of personal flourishing. Additionally I wish to seek outcomes that (from my point of view) aid the flourishing and reduce the amount of ill-being of others.
The structure I’ve chosen includes some frameworks aiding thinking about how one should act, inspired by thinking on normative ethics. To provide examples of these frameworks applied, also included is a directory of common value areas with my opinions on them.
Working out what I value is a difficult problem. Thankfully, there’s been lots of thinking done in the past within the philosophical field of normative ethics. This field is concerned with exploring the questions: How should one act? How do we decide what valuable behaviour is? From summaries of the most well known works in this area, three main frameworks to drive personal values presented themselves to me.
- Acting in accordance with desirable personal traits.
- Establishing and following laws of morality.
- Choosing actions with desirable outcomes.
When used wholly, each seems flawed. If I only ever lived for outcomes, would I neglect other aspects of living? Similarly, if I always followed strict morality but never achieved anything, what would I be leaving behind?
After suitable exploration, I think each of these frameworks could really help determine the kinds of actions I find valuable.
Virtue driven values
The first framework is deciding your actions based on how aligned the action is with virtues you appreciate in other people. Like not lying because you value honesty, not acting on prejudice because you value fairness or not engaging in personal attacks because you value civility.
Benjamin Franklin set up personal virtues from a young age which he meticulously sought to follow. His example is an interesting one to follow, although it was made in a very different age.
I think there are a few traits in people which I inherently value. Some more than others. These are all things that could be used to direct my everyday actions. They have a great deal of overlap, but I think this is inevitable. So in following Franklin’s example, here is a list virtues which I would like to cultivate.1
- Wanting to receive others as they are, without prejudice.
- Willing to take risk, sensibly.
- Wanting to increase other people’s quality of life.
- Communicating in a way that’s constructive when conflict arises.
- Giving everybody a chance without succumbing to prejudice.
- Understanding that attempting to solve every problem at once is a great way to solve none of them.
- Always wanting to be a better person within their context.
- Being physically well functioning.
- Being transparent in actions, motivations and feelings without brutality.
- Never assuming personal superiority in all areas or without evidence.
- Not suppressing emotions, but also not over-reacting to them.
- Not irrationally pursuing perfection, but also not remaining complacent with mediocrity.
- Not succumbing to dogma or crowd mentality, applying reason sensibly.
- Being there when needed most with the people they value most.
- Looking after themselves.
- Being proactive in bringing people together.
Reflecting upon each of these is easy. One may just think of each virtue as a personal standard. Then it can be used to compare with how one has behaved recently. Like I may compare myself to the Sociability virtue by asking myself “How have I brought people together in the past few weeks?” Identifying the correct answer to this requires practical wisdom. This is developed over time as one tries to apply virtues in various situations. Since I am quite young I am expecting many errors in this area.
From this answer, I can identify how my behaviour should change. Alternatively I may find that my behaviour at the moment doesn’t need to change to fit my virtues, and this is important. With virtues, it is possible for you to approach an actualized version of yourself, and this occurs when you feel no significant moral weakness in your behaviour. That’s not to say that one stays in this state forever once reached, your live changes and values will also change. But an end is possible, which makes measuring yourself against virtues seem like a less Sisyphean task.
However the issue with virtues is that they will often focus on the ‘how’ more than the ‘what’ in life. They provide guidance for the manner in which one lives, instead of inspiring action. No guidance is given for the question: what ends should one meet in a good life?
Rule driven values
The second framework is basing your actions on a set of rules rather than the outcome of the actions. This binds you to the duties you need to fulfil in your life. The consequences of actions don’t make them right or wrong, but the motives of the person who caries out the action are the driving forces of ‘correct’ behaviour.
The arguments of Immanual Kant are that an action is ‘good’ when it is intrinsically good without qualification, when more of the action can never make a situation ‘bad’. This discounts any virtue which anybody could state, since each virtue can be twisted to be ethically bad and an excess of a traditionally good virtue can be bad. Kant says the only thing that can be intrinsically good is a good will. I.e. acting in accordance with ‘some’ moral law. That you’re trying to act in ‘some’ best interest.
Kant’s Categorical Imperative can help evaluate the motivations for actions. It reads:
Act only according to that Maxim whereby you can, at the same time will that it should become a universal law.
The way I interpret that is: don’t do something, unless you think it would be okay if everyone did it. This can go to the extreme, such as lying to a murderer about the whereabouts of their victim. Kant saw lying as universally wrong even in this situation, which I disagree with and removes lying as a universal maxim in my eyes. Very similar to ‘love thy neighbour’ in Christianity.
Kant also had an extra statement to add to the categorical imperative:
Act in such a way that you treat humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of any other, never merely as a means to an end, but always at the same time as an end.
An application of this could be to not carry out charity to make yourself feel good, but because you value the act of altruism and consider it something that you would wish upon yourself if you were in the shoes of the person it is helping. Charity not as a means to an end but as an end-in-itself, recognising it’s intrinsic value.
Outcome driven values
The final framework is defining a morally right act (or decision not to act) as one that will produce an outcome or consequence with good properties. Unsurprisingly, there are many different theories as to what ‘good’ means in this context. Here I have listed some more well-known theories.
- The greatest social benefit for the greatest number of people.
- State consequentialism
- Produces the greatest value for the state you live in (Confuscious inspired).
- Moral Egoism
- The greatest social benefit or gratification for yourself.
- Situational ethics
- The greatest amount unconditional love is created.
- The greatest amount of knowledge is created or retained, regardless of its use.
- Improves the economic welfare of the greater number of people.
- Preference utilitarianism
- Personally satisfies the greatest number of people according to their own wishes.
- Role ethics
- The outcome that is most aligned with your assigned role in your community or society.
There are some added complexities when judging your own behaviour based on outcomes. The idea of agent neutrality in ethics questions whether we can judge our own ethics accurately, due to intrusive self-interest. Egoism for example refutes the idea of agent neutrality, saying that the only state that we can effectively evaluate is our own so we should all focus on our own self-interests. Whereas classic Utilitarianism states that an agent must be neutral in order to judge consequences, an observer to the situation instead of somebody interacting with it.
The Philosophers Bentham and Epicurus championed this style of personal ethics. However they both chose to reduce the simple (seeming) question of ‘what is a good outcome?’ by providing an equally simple answer: hedonism. To these philosophers and many other classic philosophers interested in outcomes, the amount of pleasure created and removed was the measure of all actions. However I think this approach if flawed. There can be many kinds of pleasure that are bad, such as heroin misuse. Hedonism also misses out on some aspects of living such as seeking personal satisfaction and meaning within life.
So my chosen measure of outcomes is: ‘the greatest amount of human flourishing’. This is very much in line with the principle ideas of modernism. It means to choose actions that will not only provide the greatest happiness and pleasure of others but also provide the greatest personal satisfaction and aid in the self-actualisation of others.
Common Value Areas
There’s this questionnaire in The Happiness Trap by Russ Harris that cycles through some of the most common things people value and asks your position on them. It’s been helpful to generate examples of the above frameworks in context, making them seem less abstract.
These cover relationships, work, personal growth and leisure.
Intimate familial, platonic and romantic relationships.
What sort of relationships do you want to build?
Ones that don’t just exist on the surface, that have real connection to what the other person really strives for in life. That cut at the core of what the other person really values and try to find common ground, where you can truly relate to each other. To feel and accept love, in whatever form it may manifest.
How do you want to behave in these relationships?
- To listen well and attentively.
- To not be the main character type, be genuinely concerned about the other person.
- To communicate clearly and without complication.
- To be honest and forthright.
- Accepting and understanding when the other person doesn’t behave how I would like them to.
- Not reading too much into what isn’t there.
- Not acting nervous about what they might say.
- Assertive when they are being objectively abusive or when they are using me as a means to an end.
- Trying to make the other person feel like you’re thinking of them.
- Trying to make them feel accepted; however they may feel or whatever may befall upon them.
What sort of ongoing activities do you want to do with some of these people?
Chances to explore each other. Activities we can do together that may spark interesting conversation. Like baking, hiking, learning a new skill or working on something fun together. Generally for intimate relationships, most of the time would be one-on-one since larger groups of people dilute the intimacy. But also to enjoy more light-hearted time together comfortably with other friends. Whilst physically separated from the person, phone calls and not so much messaging.
Workplace and career. Also education and knowledge or further skills development.
What personal qualities would you like to bring to the workplace?
Productivity, helpfulness, truthfulness over compliance, curiosity, rigour, justice.
How would you behave toward your colleagues if you were the ‘ideal you’?
Respectful of how their personal life has precedence. Being civil in any disagreement. Respectful of their background and experience. Cheerful in the face of looming situations. Openly communicating issues and shortcomings in knowledge.
What relationships do you want to build in the workplace or at school?
Like in my personal life, not existing completely on the surface, but digging at the root of what the person is all about. What’s their pursuit? What drives them to the same place I am?
What skills, knowledge or personal qualities do you want to develop?
Persuasiveness, confidence, engaging teaching, quantitative reasoning. Being well informed about making career choices.
Activities that aid my ongoing development as a person physically, emotionally and mentally.
What aspects of your life would you like to maintain to ensure your growth as a person?
I would like to maintain the four pillars of well-being: sleeping, eating well, exercising enough and keeping my closest relationships. These will often take priority over most of my values. I want to continue to spend lots of time reading, lots of personal development would not be possible without it. I would also like to participate in some kind of therapy for the rest of my life, for the sake of understanding my self better.
What ongoing activities would you like to start or take up again?
To improve my abstract problem solving skills. Cultivate a social circle, making the most of the social connections I can make in the place where I live.
How I play, relax or enjoy myself. Sports, hobbies, arts, etc.
How do you wish to relax or have fun in a healthy, life-enhancing way?
Dating, reading and exploring. Hanging out with close family and friends.
What sorts of activities would you like to take up or do more of?
Maybe learn to dance and cook better. Visit art and museums, use this as spiritual guidance.
These virtues are defined here in my words but most were inspired by particular people I’ve met in my life. Each have been so inspiring that they left a lasting impression on me. Like they changed what I value in other people due to the standard that they set. A couple have come purely from authors, some reinforced by many works of writing, but I want to stress that the majority of these originated from appreciating traits in real people.↩