Human values: Delusional but worth it…

So, last week I wrote about how we can protect ourselves from the consequences of memetic hacking (if not the hack itself) by learning to distrust the consistency of the self, and being suspicious of our urges – rule of thumb: if it feels “right” it probably isn’t.

The problem with being constantly suspicious of the self, however, is that we kind of need a sense of self. We’ve evolved a central self-concept for a good reason – it acts as a way of centralising a large amount of competing information and presenting it to a central “me”. This “me”, in turn, allows action. Nevertheless, for most of us, this action isn’t usually well thought out. Instead, it’s the end result of our buy-in to the notion that we have a stable, consistent self, combined with information presenting itself to this ‘central command’ as important stuff that must be acted on. For example, if I feel angry, I might act in a way that I might later regret, but at the time it felt extremely ‘right’. I’ve already written quite a bit about how our emotions are the result of evolutionary survival systems – emotions evolved to help us avoid danger, so they present themselves as very important (it feels ‘right’ to attend to them) when our limbic system detects danger. This used to work really well – it doesn’t work so well in the modern world.

So we’ve ended up with a bit of a conundrum. On the one hand, we need the self to function, because without it we can’t integrate the large amount of information presented to our brains at any given moment. On the other hand, a lot of what our self tells us to do is based on faulty information, or bad subroutines, or crappy programming – hence the importance of distrusting the self and its urges. What’s the solution?

Well, the ‘self’ works best when we’re aware of the various ways it tries to influence us, letting us make better choices and providing greater flexibility. But to get to a place where we can use the self in this way, we need bring in the notion of values.

A lot of people start gagging when they hear this word. The term ‘values’ has been horribly over and misused in recent times, especially by organisations who spout platitudes about how they care for the environment and respect their workers, when it’s basically a big bunch of bullshit – the product of the fecund imaginations of marketing departments acting at the behest of sociopathic corporate leaders (oops, did that sound a little ranty?). But, put simply, a value is simply a belief system that works for an individual. The big difference between a value and a goal, is that a value is something you can do something about, right now, whilst a goal generally requires the intervention of others, or the alignment of a set of circumstances. Values are variable by nature – some people value being arseholes, others value the comfort of barn animals (OK, hopefully not many of you guys) but, in general, there are a core group of values that most people share, and which are actually pretty nice. They include relationships with others (intimate, familial, platonic), work, leisure, self-development, community and environment, spirituality, and parenting. And, of course, they’re all delusions.

Hang on – my cherished values are delusional? Well, yeah, given that all experiences are effectively simulations of reality based on our small window into the world (read here) and our limited ability to model that world. And because the notion of self is also a fiction, albeit a relatively useful one, anything that you (or your self) holds dear, is also a part of that fiction. But, and here’s the important bit, our values, delusional though they may be, are extremely handy for helping us evaluate our urges and feelings against a given, consistent template. In other words, having a reliable, well-understood value set allows us to compare our internal experiences and proposed (or actual actions) against a scheme – if it genuinely fits, we can go ahead and act, if it doesn’t, we need to consider another course of action. Put yet another way, values help us set an overarching set of principles to guide the self and, as a bonus, to help us feel as if the illusory self has meaning (even though meaning is also illusory!)

OK, I’m getting slightly ahead of myself here. Before we can decide how to act, we need to give a lot of thought toward understanding our values (even though they don’t really exist). I mentioned nine core human values (above) and these are a great place to start. I use an exercise with my clients called a ‘values compass’ – I get my clients to list out the values most important to them (of the nine) and the actions within those values that are meaningful to them. For instance, for me, for work to be valuable it needs to be stimulating, I need the opportunity to be challenged (but with corresponding skill improvements), and I need to have meaningful interactions with other people.

Getting on with the values compass exercise, once my clients have identified their values and the actions and circumstances that make those values meaningful, they rate the importance of the given values out of 10 (so, for instance, work might be an 8 out of 10), and then rate how effectively they’re living, presently, in line with that value. Thus, although I might, for example, identify that leisure is extremely important to me (9 out of 10), I might only be attending to it infrequently and in a way that doesn’t really fulfil me (say 4 out 10). This disparity is a big clue: maybe I need to do something about it – that is, I need to modify my actions to be more in line with my values – I call this ‘values-congruent actions’.

So now, values become an important touchstone for guiding our actions. To illustrate, say an important aspect of my value regarding intimate relationships was to be able to be there for my wife, to actually listen to her, and to put her needs at the same level as my own (I almost said to not put my needs first, but this violates a rule of value setting: never set a value that a dead person could do better than you – so, for instance, a dead person will always be better at being less angry than me, or controlling his or her temper…). Now let’s say I get really pissed off by something she does. My urge is to scream and shout and rant, so that I can get my way and prove my point. This urge is the result of an emotional trigger and the consequent feeling of anger. At this point I can choose to rant at her (values-incongruent), or I can choose to be guided by my values, recognise that even though I feel like shouting (it feels ‘right’ at that point in time) I have another choice. The anger is just a sensation (albeit one accompanied by a powerful urge to act a certain way – but it’s still just a sensation).

All of this highlights the importance of a values overlay in motivating action, because our actions are the only things we can really control. Even better, acting in line with our perceived values allows us to cultivate an illusion that is personally worthwhile (whatever that actually means) – but illusion or not, values and values-congruent actions allow us a form of consistency in the self, rather than a heap of self-delusional stories that help us to rationalise our behaviour post-hoc.

So, yeah – distrust that self – it (and by extension you) isn’t really there, and the urges you feel aren’t ‘right’ or ‘just’ at all, they’re just the crap that surfaces based on a whole load of out-of-date hardware running buggy software. But, if you parse all of that through a highly accessible values system, you get to be deliberate in your actions – and that’s the only choice that will ever really be yours.

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