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An unchallenged value is not worth much; or why your values might be wrong December 11, 2012

Posted by shaunphilly in Culture and Society.
Tags: , , , , ,

In recent weeks, I have been thinking a lot about the question of the relativity of values.  What do we value? Why do we value those things rather than other things? Might we be more content, happy, or more mature if we were to value other things? Can we change what we value? What the hell are “values”?

Today, I want to sketch out a rough analogy which may pave the road for future posts (or not, if the analogy breaks down or if it just ends up being a stupid idea).

[Also, apparently I was thinking about this last December.]


The Analogy of Tastes and Values

In order for our bodies to function, we need to eat food.  But the kind of food we eat, how much of it we eat, and how often we eat it will have an effect on the efficiency of that functioning, the body such a diet will maintain, and will effect our general mood and ability to accomplish various tasks.

In order for our brain to function as a contributor to our personality as part of a social landscape, it needs information.  The kind of information it receives (especially early in its development) and how (and how often) we exercise it will influence what kind of mind we have.  It will effect how we react to new or old information, what we believe about the world, and what we value.

In terms of our diet and our health, what we want to eat (both what we merely desire and what we think we should eat) is our set of tastes.

In terms of our worldview and moral inclinations, what we think and feel (both what we are inclined to and what we think we should believe and think right) is our set of values.


Desires and Wants

I want to make clear the distinction between what we unwillfully desire and what we want.  If I see a piece of chocolate (especially dark chocolate), I desire it.  My mind is inclined towards eating it, and it is by act of will (free or not) that I either eat it or I do not.  My set of beliefs, values, etc will be responsible for that decision.

In terms of values, there is also a difference between my unconscious, automatic reaction to information and my conscious deliberation about information with emotional content.  It is unconscious and automatic that I feel annoyance, even disgust, when seeing an obvious injustice perpetrated by someone against others (an unequal set of behaviors based upon a logical contradiction, for example; a violation of Kant’s categorical imperative as one rationalized example).  But there is a difference between that feeling of annoyance or disgust and my subsequent deliberation about that behavior.  I, for example, have a visceral feeling of annoyance, sometimes leaning on anger, at seeing some level of clutter (especially if ignored for some time).  But rather than start Hulk-smashing (which just creates more clutter) I take a deep breath and remind myself that this anger is not rational;  that I can either clean it, ask the person responsible to be aware of this emotional response I have and request they clean it, or I can distract myself with another task or activity (and hope it will be remedied in the mean time).

That is, what I desire to do when seeing clutter is to express my anger at the person responsible (a symptom of my personality disorder), but what I want to do is motivate my behavior towards healthier solutions, with the long term goal of correcting the automatic reaction to doing those more pragmatic solutions.  I do not merely bow to my destructive desires, but try and re-orient my emotional reactions to something healthier, and over time it works with diligent effort.  It has become essential and necessary for me to do this every day, and sometimes it’s easier than other times.

Similarly, what I desire is to eat salty snacks, chocolate/ peanut butter, and low fat wheat thins ( much better than the regular ones, IMO) while drinking a couple of delicious beers.  I desire sweet, salty, (low) fatty foods all the time, but what I actually eat is much more healthy and I feel better because my wants govern my desires.  They don’t repress or stifle them, but I feel that mitigating the effect of my desires is wise.



There are things that we desire and want.  There are also social structures around us, with many competing (and sometimes harmonizing) ideas about how we should behave.  Some of those ideas tell us to repress or even eliminate certain desires, because those desires are wrong.

But I think that we need to accept our desires as a given, and decide how we want to act while 1) not pretending those desires don’t exist 2) trying to find a way to express these desires in ways which do not non-consensually harm others and 3) not allowing those desires to consume our life such that we ignore what else we care about.  These guidelines can be applied to conservative religious repression of homosexuality, social stigmatization of our innate sluttiness, or even the use of drugs (including alcohol).  If you are gay, bisexual, or asexual, then you should find the ways you want to express those sexual inclinations.  If you are slut, then you should be a slut. If you like a drug, then if you can do it without it being destructive to the world around you, then do it.

In short, we need to start deciding how to behave, what to believe, and what to value by being authentic.  We cannot ignore the truth, even if we don’t like the truth.  Because in many cases, the part of us that doesn’t like the truth is a part of us that is either broken or was imposed by an exterior idea (such as conservative moral views).  We should care about what is true about our desires, and form our wants based upon those truths.


In Case Your Values are Wrong

If you find yourself living in such a way where you have desires which are unrealized, then you need to ask yourself why they are unrealized.  If you go to church regularly and find yourself plagued by skeptical questions in response to what a religious authority says, then you might need to seek out alternative views.  If you are in a monoamorous relationship but find yourself attracted to others, and even thinking about acting on those desires, then you might need to reconsider how you think about sex and relationships and consider some sort of nonmonogamy.  If you can’t just have a couple of drinks, are getting high every day, or even if you never tried getting high but are curious about it but have always been afraid, then you might want to reconsider your association with those things.

There are diets which are good for us, others which are not.  There are values which are good or us, and those which are not.  How do you know that your values, your emotional relationship to the world, are the best set of values for your inclinations?  And even if they are, have you considered if they are damaging to people around you? (That is, are they moral values, rather than Randian selfish values?).  Do you even care if your values affect other people in ways they don’t want? Also, if they do affect others in ways they don’t want, are their current values, with which yours currently conflict, wrong? If their values are wrong, how can you demonstrate this to them in a way that will not result in them being defensive, yelling at you, or punching you?

What’s more important; standing for the right values knowing that they might actually be ultimately wrong, even if they are better relative to other value sets) or respecting all potential values (even the obviously wrong ones)?  Assuredness or accommodation? (some might call it “temerity or tolerance?”, but that’s simply the other side of the coin).

I don’t have an answer to that question which everyone will accept, or even one that convinces myself all the time.  My inclinations, my desires, often tell me to stand convicted to what I value, because those values are best. But what I want is to actually have the best values, which requires a certain level of uncertainty and skepticism.  I must perpetually challenge my values the way I challenge my beliefs, and thus my certainty about my values is proportional to the amount of beating those values take from challenges both external and internal.  An unchallenged value is not worth much, yet an unchallenged value is worth everything to its owner.

That is, we should be skeptical not only about facts, but also values.  I, along with people such as Hilary Putnam and (seemingly) Sam Harris, think that the qualitative distinction between facts and values is dubious.  Therefore, I also think that the common moral distinction made in our culture between criticizing a person’s facts and criticizing their values is dubious.  I do think that criticizing a person’s values is a harder task to do well, especially if we care about their likely defensive reactions, but it is not an invalid criticism.   There is no logical contradiction to pointing out that values can be wrong, at least in the sense of not matching up with reality and what might provide optimal well-being, emotional maturity, and authenticity.  People are too often attached to their values (as well as their facts), and this should not be accommodated.

In a similar way that what we want to eat (in terms of our health) is something that is subject to criticism, what we value (in terms of being a fully realized and authentic person) is subject to potential criticism.  If you tell me that I cannot tell you what to value, I will nod in agreement with the fact that I cannot force values on you, but that I can tell you that your values may be wrong.





1. Si - December 11, 2012

An interesting example of what you are talking about, the dissonance between religious values and compassion for human desires can be seen in the new movie, The Sessions.


2. Ash - December 11, 2012

If you want a snack that will blow your mind, get some President Wee Brie and eat that with Wheat Thins 🙂 Excellent post, too.

3. myatheistlife - December 12, 2012

I like to see things when they break. When someone else’s values endanger my life, of course I can tell them they are wrong. If such is true on edge cases, it is or should be true in all cases.

4. The Crommunist’s myth metaphor for the culture wars « atheist, polyamorous, skeptics - January 24, 2013

[…]  is a matter of different values, and I have not been particularly successful at it.  I did write this post last month, but it felt like an incomplete attempt to articulate my […]

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