Exploring Values #4


Before we begin the fourth installment in this “exploring values” series, here’s a quick review of the facts derived from the value landscape thus far:

  1. Values compel action

  2. Values must propagate for proper social order

  3. Values are costly to maintain

  4. Values are emergent

  5. Pragmatism is a meta value

This post introduces and discusses the sixth fact in the landscape using three sub-facts. The sixth fact goes thus: values are only inspirational when they are shared. In like manner, the sub-facts are as follows: values must be aspirational, meaningful to maintain, and valued by others.

Values must be aspirational in the Calardian sense. Meaning because we come to the valuing of things that are only obvious in retrospect, the process of value acquisition is (or must be) rational. For example, suppose you want to switch careers or majors. In that case, you assume some overarching value or gain to making that switch. You, however subconsciously or not, know that there are other things you might not appreciate at the moment but will come to appreciate only when you make the switch. In a roundabout way, this is the same societal process of coming to value specific values like trust. There is substantial economic literature on the gains to trust. We know that countries with higher trust have better economic conditions and are poised to make more gains in a compounding fashion if trust remains. The societal aspirational value of trust creates and exposes other values that are only obvious after the fact. Values like equality and materialism (narrowly defined) are only valuable, so to speak, by the societal prioritization of trust as a value. Laden in this idea is another sub fact; the values we adopt must be meaningful to maintain.

This idea is hard to take abstractly without a working definition of “meaningful and maintain.” A meaningful activity is any worthwhile endeavor. In John F. Kennedy’s terms, they are the things we do not because they are easy but because they are hard. The necessary addendum here is that there is a higher goal towards which we must strive. As far as I can tell, the broader goal of societies is human flourishing. Thus, if institutions in society adopt a value in line with that goal, the value is meaningful. Maintenance, in this context, refers to the “not making things worse, and occasionally making them better” idea. This idea is made clear in “rule 7” of the well-known 12 rules for life. It states, “do what is meaningful, not what is expedient.” To go back to trust, for a moment. We know that trust is both easy to break and hard to maintain, yet, we maintain trust because it is meaningful to do so, and have reaped many returns from that decision.

The final prong in the three sub-facts is that values must be valued by others. This sub-fact of values has lost its luster in the United States because of the “Live and let live” approach to life. Adam Smith wrote in his Theory of Moral Sentiments that

“What so great happiness as to be beloved, and to know that we deserve to be beloved? What so great misery as to be hated, and to know that we deserve to be hated?”

The sentiment (pun intended) described here is a profoundly social one. Most people do not want to do anything if no one gave them credit for it. This point is clear with altruism where, even though people say that they don’t want to be known for giving, many anonymous donors find ways to make themselves known (even if it’s only locally). This desire is not wrong and is, in a lot of ways, admirable. Everyone wants their values to be valued. This desire is why most people buy into the prevailing value and belief systems into which they were born because by doing so, they automatically get people who value that which they value, and will praise them for upholding said values.

Bringing these three facts together, we get the 6th fact about values. Values are only inspirational when shared. We are inspired to do something when we observe someone doing something meaningful and performing in accordance with values that people (or someone) find(s) meaningful. We value things that meet these criteria. Take inventory of the list of values you hold and see if it fits. To offer a few examples: benevolence, charity, altruism, honesty, marriage, hard work, etc. See you next week.


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