by Joe Edelman
More and more people are talking about values these days, and that's a good thing. A reorientation towards values is happening in many fields: economics, design, organizational theory, political theory, econometrics, product metrics, psychotherapy, international development, community, cryptocurrencies, etc.
But something is holding back all of this progress. Mostly there is a vague idea about what values are—the values of a person seem much less concrete than, say, their goals, plans, or preferences. To rebuild economics or metrics requires rigor, and vague ideas keep the reorientation toward values from proceeding. Values-based designs end up seeming jerry-rigged, subjective, and handwavy.
So let's explore, right here, a rigorous notion of values. The notion I'll present resonates with what other philosophers have called ideals, virtues, or strong evaluative terms, and it has something to do with what ecological psychologist James Gibson called affordances. If you take time and go through it carefully, you may become able to push the reorientation towards values forward, in areas where it's stalled. Whether you are building values-based surveys, starting a values-based cryptocurrency or voting system or social network, or helping individuals or groups articulate their values—this should help.
But before you start, a warning: you'll need to put aside your previous ideas about the word "values". The way we use the term normally includes social values, company values, etc. The idea I'll present here starts with personal values, and hews close to the process of daily living and acting. But I think this is the right place to start if you want a rigorous notion of what values are.
I'll start with two examples of how you might acquire a value.
In the first story, you learned the value of being sensual while biking. In the second, you learned the value of being honest with your friend.
You can probably recognize similar stories for learning about other values. You have developed values about how to treat people (honestly, openly, generously, without mercy); how to act more generally (boldly, thoughtfully, carefully); how to approach things (with reverence, with levity, with skepticism); and how to keep things (simple, sensual, rocking, full of surprise). And so on.
This should give you an outline of what I mean by values. To fill in the picture, we'll look at two properties that values have: they are improvisation-guiding, and they are hard to live by.
Values are Improvisation-Guiding
Most people only sometimes have goals or plans. At other times, they improvise. For instance, a person may not have any particular goal in mind when they’re chatting with their best friend. They just let the conversation drift. But even without a goal, they may still have a sense of how they want to be with their friend. They might want to be honest, or real, they might want to keep things light, and so on. And as contexts for being honest or real or keeping things light arise, these notions come to guide their attention for a moment, as they improvise the conversational flow.
How is this different than a goal or plan? Colloquially, you might say you have a plan or a goal to be honest, but here I want to reserve plan for particular actions you intend to take, and goal for an outcome you're looking for. The value of being honest with your friend isn't about particular actions or outcomes. Instead, it's about noticing opportunities that call for honesty if they come up, and going for it. So, a value is about how you'll go about things in a context.
This distinction can be confusing, because some goals look a lot like values. For instance, you can take a value like being sensual while biking and make it into a goal, such as "attending mainly to my sensations on every bike ride this week." But making a goal like this is an extra step, distinct from having the value in the first place. You could value being sensual while biking without formulating such a goal.
Values are Hard to Live By
Few of us manage to live according to our values day-by-day, moment-by-moment. There are three reasons for this: First, it is difficult to recall and prioritize the right values in the right contexts. Second, we often discover that our values contain errors that need to be corrected. Thirdly, we are often so constrained by other factors that we can't improvise by our values.
Hard to Recall and Prioritize
We can only keep a small set of values in mind as we make choices in our daily life, and choosing the right set is hard. We may not have the right value in mind when the context appears. We may have simply forgotten it. Just like someone can get distracted and forget their plan or goal—perhaps arriving late to a meeting—someone can forget one of their values, and for example end up wishing they’d remembered to notice their sensations on that bike ride.
When something like the above happens, Andy or Beth might feel embarrassment and regret, alerting them to the need to reprioritize.
Hard to Correct Errors
We often only discover that a value doesn't work when we try to live by it. A value that we thought was purely good may turn out to have unexpected side effects, or to be built on a misconception.
Here again, negative feelings might alert Carl that he needs to upgrade his value.
Hard to Find Room to Improvise
Finally, we often believe we have no room to improvise, and thus cannot live by our values.
Both Debbi and Edward are locked in social situations where they don't have room to improvise or follow their values. Debbi and Edward may have taken their jobs because of their values, but now that they work inside them, they don't have much agency.
A situation like Debbi's can happen in many kinds of high stakes environments—whether the threat is one of violence, economic hardship, becoming an outcast, etc. A situation like Edward's doesn't just occur in work and compulsory schooling environments, but also in social scenes where there are strong norms, or online settings where few social gestures are available. When other, non-value concerns make it hard to live by our values, I call that crowding out. (See
Some people feel like they're in situations like this even when they're not. For instance, those who've been in situations of violence, threat or extreme economic hardship in the past may project those situations into the present, even if they're not there. Some people who are raised to be proper and to follow social scripts don't realize when they actually could deviate from the script.
Whether you're actually in such a situation, or merely think that you are, it becomes difficult to improvise according to your values. Often it feels like there is no choice. Instead of conflicted emotions, the person may feel like things are meaningless, fake, an empty performance, or hopeless.
There is an idea in some cultures that values are just for show, because we don't always live by them. These people think that, to understand someone, you should watch their revealed preferences and ignore what they say is important to them. But if you use this lens in the stories above, you have to say Andy revealed a preference for being lighthearted over being courageous, Beth and Debbi revealed a preference for dishonesty, and Carl and Edward revealed a preference for being uncaring. Under the notion of revealed preference, there's no way to help these people or improve their situations. Everyone is acting according to their true interests.
A better explanation is that values are hard to live by.
- They are called ideals in Anderson 1993, although she also uses several other terms. The term virtue has a long tradition, from Aristotle to MacIntyre. (I avoid that term because virtue is, in current usage, usually conceived of as high-minded and morally significant, and my use here is comparatively practical, and not necessarily moral.) Charles Taylor's terms of strong evaluation is closer to my meaning, but doesn't roll off the tongue. Velleman, Chang, and Putnam all seem to sometimes use the term value roughly as I do.
- Like plans, values are necessary because of our bounded rationality. We are unable to calculate, in each conversation, at each moment, what to reveal and what to conceal. Instead, a person adopts the general value of being honest, because they’ve decided this is a good thing to aim at, in general. So we formulate values as guidelines for ourselves, because to live without them would mean continuous, difficult calculations. (Bratman)
- Some values only apply in extremely particular situations, for instance, a electric blues guitarist may have the value of “crispy licks”, a mother of “letting her child get bumped around a bit”, an improviser of “maintaining a loose awareness of the shape of the room”, etc.
- Which is not to say that being guided by goals and values are exclusive to one another. Someone might go into a salary negotiation with a goal — a concrete outcome they hope to achieve — but even with a goal, they still have ways they want to approach it. Someone may want to be courageous in their salary negotiation, or fair-minded.