People use the term "values" to mean different things. Sometimes it's visions of what's right for everyone, or for a group—what a family should be like, how a father should behave, etc. Other times, it's things that feel right and meaningful when you do them—such as being vulnerable, taking stage, being creative, etc.
Imagine we could clearly separate them:
- People argue a lot about social visions ("Make America Great Again" vs "Defund the Police"). But when I say "Make America Great Again", I take sides on an ideological battleground. Imagine, instead, I say "there's something meaningful for me about small town community, and it's disappearing". People would argue less, in a politics of meaning nuggets.
- Beyond politics, a common cause of current crises (in ecosystems, global economics, media, etc) is systems designed around metrics (dollars, clicks, views, votes) that have little to do with life meaning. These systems neglect our meaning nuggets, leading to depression, isolation of the elderly, soul crushing workplaces. Systems that support meaning nuggets could solve these problems.
I believe these are real possibilities. Here I'll show: (a) that social visions and meaning nuggets aren't two sides of the same coin—we often have one without the other; (b) that the nuggets are more central to our experience of meaning; (c) that our sense of meaning has regularity to it—that our meaning nuggets are listable
To do this, I build on work by various philosophers and psychologists, credited at the end.
1. Attentional Policies
Before getting to meaning nuggets, I must set the stage with a larger category—what I'll call
attentional policies. Only some attentional policies will turn out to be meaningful.
policy I mean an action (like "taking out the trash on Tuesdays", "calling mom on Sundays", or "running new contracts past the lawyer") done regularly, or when in a certain context, without doing a cost-benefit analysis each time.
Attentional policies, then, are policies about how to think about a thing, what to pay attention to in a context, or what to look for in selecting an action. "Taking out the trash on Tuesdays" is a normal policy, but "experiencing every step and breath while doing my chores" or "looking for kind words when giving feedback"—these are attentional policies.
Attentional policies can be about how to treat people (honestly, openly, generously, without mercy); how to approach things (with reverence, with levity, with skepticism); how to keep things (simple, sensual, rocking, full of surprise); or how to act more generally (boldly, thoughtfully, carefully); etc.
If I had a galaxy brain, I'd have a million attentional policies, all at once. Talking to colleagues at work, I might craft my words to be kind, honest, tactful, humble, and inspiring—and try to be precise in my speech, aware of how each word lands, aware of my own feelings, and transparent with them. And calm and centered, but also passionate. And physically graceful, like a dancer.
I'd find this impossible. These policies all compete for my attention. So, I make decisions—often intuitively, unconsciously—about what to attend to, in each context. Adopting one policy (say, humility) means downgrading some other thing I could have paid attention to (like being funny).
2. Diffusely-Beneficial Attentional Policies
Now, imagine someone stands before you, with honesty as an attentional policy.
- Perhaps they have a social vision. "I believe people should be more honest. I believe I should be more honest. I push things towards honesty when I can."
- Perhaps it's a meaning nugget. "When I find opportunities for honesty, it feels meaningful. It feels like this is part of what life's about, for me."
- Or, perhaps their policy of honesty as intermediate to achieving a goal, like gaining someone's trust. "I want him to trust me, so I'll be honest."
In all three cases, their honesty counts as an attentional policy, so long as they decided to be honest "regularly, or when in a certain context, without doing a cost-benefit analysis each time".
But let's pull them apart:
Here's one way to say what happened:
- On Monday, honesty was an instrumental value of mine. I'm honest—but just so I can get this thing off my chest, clear the air, and feel better. By Tuesday, I decided honesty was intrinsically valuable (the opposite of instrumental).
I'm unsatisfied with this, because I doubt instrumental and intrinsic values can be systematically separated. So, here's a better way to say it:
- On Monday, my honesty had a focused purpose; on Tuesday, I was honest for diffuse, untracked benefits. Instead of focusing on one outcome (clearing the air, feeling better), I'm not even tracking an outcome. I've adopted the policy without contingencies on any one outcome. Honesty is one of my diffusely-beneficial, attentional policies.
This category, of diffusely-beneficial, attentional policies (DAPs) is super interesting. As I'll show, it's closely related to what we find meaningful, and also to what we call wisdom.
3. Vision and Experience
It's instructive to redo the story above, but with a social vision:
A way to describe this shift, is Andrew went from having a highly theoretical idea about honesty, to having a concrete experience of honesty.
On Monday, honesty is part of Andrew's vision of a good life. It's a theoretical part of the good life—a good life he imagines in the future. By Tuesday, honesty's relocated in his mind. It's now part of a concrete, lived experience of the good life—part of the the good life in practice. It's benefits aren't something imagined, but something known.
On both days, Andrew thinks of honesty as part of the good life. Perhaps that's why both nuggets and visions get called "values".
But for Andrew, there's a shift in justifications for his honesty. On Monday, his honesty has a focused benefit: saving democracy and civil society. His reasoning for being honest
So, it's only on Tuesday that honesty has
diffuse, untracked benefits. This shows that, when something is motivated by a social vision, it isn't a DAP: saying something has a pointy justification is the same as saying it has focused, tracked benefits.
In the next two sections, I'll show problems with my theory as presented, and show how I think they can be overcome.
First, I've said that DAPs are closely related to what's meaningful. Yet Andrew would say that his actions on Monday were also meaningful, just in a different way. Where does Andrew's meaning on Monday come from?
I think it doesn't come from his vision-motivated-action, but from "taking action, grappling with the biggest problem he sees in the world" — a DAP that Andrew already has on Monday. To confirm this, we could ask him:
- Can he think of times when he was enacting his social vision of honesty, but without the sense that he was "taking action, grappling with the biggest problem he sees in the world"? Were those less meaningful?
- Is he ever "taking action, grappling with the biggest problem he sees in the world"—but in a manner unrelated to honesty, or even to any social vision he has? Is this still meaningful? For instance, was it meaningful when he headed out to the library, to research how to take action in a new way, all without a clear vision?
If we get a "yes" to these questions, it suggests his meaning comes from DAPs, not social visions.
Andrew is a hypothetical character, but you can do this research yourself:
- Collect someone's DAPs by asking, for each common context in their life, what they attend to. Throw out whatever isn't adopted as policy, or has focused or tracked benefits.**
- Collect meaningful and meaningless times in their life. List DAPs they could and couldn't operate by. (). Compare this to other, non-DAP things that could be sources of meaning: social visions, goals, etc.Meaning Analysis*
Yet, even if you believe the above, it seems DAPs don't perfectly map what's meaningful to people.
Although Brenda sees this is a meaningful and right way to live, she can't make a policy of it. This diffusely-beneficial, attentional meaning nugget won't be a DAP for her, at least until she figures out how to make it one.
Will Carla experience her automatic vulnerability as meaningful? I doubt it. Perhaps it will later become meaningful, if vulnerability is something she must attend to (e.g., because she ceases to really know herself, or changes friend groups).
It appears that some meaningful things aren't DAPs; and some important things aren't meaningful! Shouldn't we abandon the DAP, to map out a larger space—one that includes fleeting experiences like Brenda's, and non-attentive things, like Carla's vulnerability?
First of all, I don't believe we miss too much with DAPs:
- Over time, as a person learns to live meaningfully, problems like Brenda's will be overcome. She'll learn to live out what starts as a fleeting experience of meaning.
- And for every person like Carla, there'll be one for whom vulnerability still requires attention. By connecting DAPs across a population, we can get to what's important, even if it's not meaningful for everyone.
But more importantly, it's only in the realm of DAPs that we exercise our judgement, about the trade-offs of adopting a policy. This judgement—about the best way someone's found to live their best life—is what we're really tuned into, when we listen to their DAPs.
DAPs represent more than just their experience of meaning, or our outside-view guess about what's important to them.
DAPs represent the blossoming of a person's human judgement, into a concrete, lived experience of the good life. This isn't just meaning, it also has something to do with wisdom.
Putting Andrew and Carla together, we get my central claim: people experience meaning when living by their DAPs (or adopting new ones). DAPs (and not social visions) are at the center of meaning.
D. Because they're
diffusely-beneficialthey're part of the lived, concrete experience of the good life. This eliminates what other philosophers might call instrumental values—what we do just to fit in with a friend group, to achieve a specific goal, to get good sensations, or to spread a social vision.
A. Because they're
attentional, they fall at the frontier of this conception of the good life, in the domain we experience as meaningful.
P. Because they're adopted as
policies("regularly, in a certain context, without doing a cost-benefit analysis every single time"), they've won a competition for our attention. This eliminates policies which sound meaningful—such as being completely present, or endlessly compassionate—but can't compete with other concerns, in the real contexts of life.
Our current social systems aren't designed around meaning and wisdom. They're mostly about eliciting 'revealed preferences'—measured by engagement metrics like clicks and views, dollars and votes.
One might hope that people's meaning nuggets would be reflected in their clicks and views, dollars and votes. But if engagement was a good way to measure meaning, these systems (which are quite sensitive to what drives more purchases, and more clicks) would deliver ever more meaningful work, and ever more meaningful lives.
They aren't. Instead, politics gets polluted by bogus and attractive social visions. Marketers invent goals, desires, and false promises of meaning. By these mechanisms, and many more, our systems are gamed away from what should be the baseline—a life rich with meaning for every citizen.
My hope is that if, instead, we design social networks, political systems, and economic systems around DAPs—we'll support people in what they find meaningful and right for themselves. We can hew much closer to that baseline.
values. I occasionally use DAP, to emphasize checking that a supposed value is really
attentional, and really an adopted
In modern philosophy, especially meta-ethics, values are often considered as evaluative criteria or attitudes. Here, I treat them as policies, but I think these definitions are interchangeable. An evaluative attitude or criterion can be viewed as something a person does when making an evaluation or choice.
So, DAPs are a mapping of work by other philosophers into the realm of action, including especially work by Charles Taylor (who calls them "strong evaluative terms"), and Ruth Chang (who calls them "values").
My mapping of these attitudes or criteria into the realm of action is probably descended from James J Gibson's theory of affordances. But I doubt it would have occurred to me without the precedent of a similar theory, bridging criteria and action, by J David Velleman, wherein self-understandings (including values) become tools used for choice-making.
Other, closely-related strands of work are those of Amartya Sen, Martha Nussbaum, and Elizabeth Anderson.
- Charles Taylor, What is Human Agency? (1977)
- Ruth Chang, All Things Considered (2004)
- James J Gibson, The Senses Considered as Perceptual Systems (1966)
- David Velleman, Practical Reflection (1989)
- Amartya Sen, Equality of What? (1979)
- Elizabeth Anderson, Value in Ethics and Economics (1993)