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  • Writer's pictureJoey Savoie

Life principles - Know your values

Determine your ethical weights, parliament, and trade-offs

Description: Most people only have a vague idea of their values. What do you want out of life? It may sound abstract, but knowing your values determines how you make almost all other choices. “What kind of job do you want?” is an applied way of asking, “What do you value in a career?” Knowing your values does not have to mean listing them all out in bullet points (although I don’t think that’s a bad idea) but it does mean putting in the hard work to consider trade-offs and think about what really matters to you. Values are more important than preferences, as they are more fundamental and self persevering. For example, if a switch could be flipped that would switch my preference from chocolate to vanilla, I would not mind (absent the difficulty of getting rid of my considerable chocolate supply). However, if someone wanted to change my fundamental value of caring about others, I would fight hard to make sure that switch was never flipped, even if I would not care afterwards.

Why this principle: Taking the time to understand your own values is the first (and a truly essential) step to optimising them. One of the biggest mistakes people make is running fast in the wrong direction, i.e., optimising something that does not really connect to what they want. The Hollywood trope of someone losing their family due to working too much to provide for their family is the perfect example of a misfiring optimization: working to optimise financial security when psychological security is actually much more important. Your values set your compass’s north and make your map of the world meaningful.

How to optimise this principle

Make a list of fundamental values

Do you deeply care about making money, or does it actually connect to social status or security? Many things people often think of as values are more intermediate steps to higher-level goals. Money, for example, is rarely an end in and of itself, but rather a means to achieve something else. Some values are incredibly common; something like “happiness” is pretty fundamental. You want happiness because... you want happiness. It's hard to derive anything further. Making progress on understanding your values can be done by reading about moral ideas, introspection and journaling, and thinking through theoretical examples of where values might matter. Try to track the sources of your values as far back as they go and whittle them down to your top 3-10. Humans are messy creatures and not everything will be captured in this small list, but we are trying to get to good enough. Having 90% of your values mapped out will put you miles ahead of others.

Prioritise your list(s)

To do this, you need to start thinking about trade-offs. Maybe you value honesty, but also value protecting others. To take this example to the extreme, what call do you then make if Nazis come to your door looking for Jews? Values conflict all the time, and rarely will a choice be isolated between something you value and something you do not. So, the logical next step is ranking these values in order. How does happiness compare to honesty? What about helping others? You might end up with two lists here: what you believe your current values to be, and how you would like them to be in the future. Maybe I value truthfulness very highly, but also value acceptance and therefore often feel social pressure to not speak my mind. In actions, I am prioritising acceptance, but I personally believe that truth is more important (thus, two different lists). You will be able to reconcile these lists later on by making it easier to live your aspirational values (by connecting them into your life and supporting them).

Weight and specify the values in your aspirational list

Keep in mind that when it comes to formal philosophical ethical systems, e.g., utilitarianism, almost every viewpoint will come to uncomfortable conclusions when taken to the extreme. This will remain true for your personal values; it might be uncomfortable to know that you value acceptance more than honesty. There are a few different techniques to deal with this, including “biting the bullet,” a.k.a accepting the unintuitive conclusion. A common one I like is the idea of a moral parliament. In this system, imagine you have seats available in a 100-person parliament, each of whom has different views of ethics. You assign a number of seats to each ethical party in proportion to your confidence in them. This allows you to visualise your different value systems making trade-offs with each other. Maybe there is an issue that my majority party is relatively indifferent about but a minority view thinks is highly important. It is worth explicitly determining numbers for your parliament (they do not need to be set in stone, but will be handy when considering applications).

Going deeper on this principle:



Why this one?

In ~1 hour

​Short articles that can start to give you a sense that knowing what you want out of life is important and tractable.

In ~1 day

​Ethics is a deep subject but getting some of the basics will help give you a frame of reference for talking about it and researching deeper. Parliaments is a uniquely useful idea in the field, thus the more technical paper relative to the rest.

​In ~1 week to ~1 year

  • ​ Read a book or two on each of your top ethical systems

  • Take a sabbatical or otherwise a step back from your direct life to consider what really matters to you

​Aim for more applied books vs. more theoretical ones. Try talking through your ethics and values with others who know you and might be able to help flesh them out. Consider people who take certain ethical principles to the extreme. Do you like honesty? What about radical honesty? Do you care about others? What about your obligation to save lives?


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