How Our Values Could Save the World
Values are the mother’s milk of humanity, but we have to choose to partake
Our world is in deep doo-doo and everyone knows it. It’s not hopeless yet, but if we don’t get our act together all hope will be lost. We can’t stop fighting long enough to work on solutions because far too many of us have abandoned our values or distorted them beyond recognition.
We’ve taken the little angel of reason and conscience off our shoulder and locked it away — out of sight, out of mind. Now we can focus on battling all those idiots who don’t know what they’re talking about and continually act stupid. But while we’re all fighting, the world is burning.
Maybe humanity isn’t meant to survive. Biology on Earth has restarted several times with most life being wiped out so it could start again with a clean slate.
Maybe that’s humanity’s fate. Given our level of intelligence relative to other species, we should be able to develop solutions to anything that threatens our survival. But intelligence alone cannot save us. Intelligence must be guided by values and that requires putting values ahead of egos. In America, that has become a very heavy lift; but not an impossible one.
What we can’t do is wait for “all those idiots who don’t know what they’re talking about” to go first. That is our ego talking. That is us ignoring our values. We must each take the time to reflect on our values and how we demonstrate them in our lives. Here’s a way to get started.
Why is it so important to reflect on one’s values?
2020 has become a year of chaos and crisis, but these don’t have to lead to long-term pain and suffering. People and communities can emerge stronger from the experience.
The biggest factor is holding true to one’s core values. We choose the path to follow, but making the best choice is fraught with challenges. Understanding these challenges and our values themselves can shine a light on the right path.
Individuals, communities, and businesses that inform all they do with strong values will be resilient and able to weather any challenge. Those that allow their values to be compromised will face greater suffering and on-going trauma from lesser challenges.
Unfortunately, those who compromise their values rarely realize they are doing so. In fact, they often believe their actions and decisions are upholding their values. Once this belief sets in, they double down on the compromise and barricade their thinking against those who might reason with them. Sound familiar? Only through honest personal reflection can one escape this vicious cycle.
Further, our values and whether or not we adhere to them impact our mental, emotional, and spiritual condition, and there is growing proof these substantially affect our physical condition.
Which is to say, our values are vital elements of our human biology like our physical systems and organs. Those systems and organs keep us healthy and fit if we don’t abuse them, and they send warning signs when something is wrong so we can make adjustments.
Of course, we do abuse our physical systems and organs through poor eating and sleeping routines, alcohol and drug use, lack of exercise, exposure to pollution, and much more. Even when faced with warning signs such as high blood pressure, being overweight, high blood sugar, even heart attacks and other medical emergencies, we may fail to make needed adjustments.
In the same manner, we lose sight of our values and how they can improve our life. We allow our ego to obscure our values and distract us from them. We give in to the pull of instant gratification, peer pressure, advertising, and countless other influences until we lose all sense of our values.
That’s why it’s so important to consider our values and what to do when they’re being compromised.
What are values?
While there may be other definitions, I define values as foundational principles and understandings of ourselves, our world, and the role we want to have in that world; they are unchanging regardless of our experiences or attaining new knowledge because they are grounded in humanity; they should form the bedrock of our actions and decisions; they should also be self-supporting.
Our values are the core of our being for which we should be willing to risk everything, because when we abandon our values, we lose our humanity.
There is a caveat. People sometimes identify as their values things that are actually opinions, assumptions, or beliefs, or they allow a value to be distorted or applied inconsistently. Then they use the “unchanging value” argument to support an unethical or immoral action. Opinions, assumptions, and beliefs should be dynamic to account for new information and a changing world. Values should not change.
With that definition and caveat in mind, our values should be the foundation of who we are. They don’t define us, per se, but they should serve as our moral gyroscope. That is, rather than just point us in the right direction, our values should constantly influence us to keep “upright” through gentle adjustments in our day-to-day activities and obnoxious warning alarms when we consider actions substantially contrary to those values.
How do values get distorted or compromised?
Those countless influences noted earlier can overwhelm the adjustments our values are trying to prompt; they obscure the warning alarms and even knock the gyroscope entirely out of whack. Given we often neglect our physical condition — even when faced with life endangering warning signs — it isn’t surprising we ignore the warnings our values try to send.
Like things that threaten our physical health, those that threaten our values typically occur over an extended period. Our physical health is compromised by bad habits, while our values are compromised by biases, often driven by our egos. Both habits and biases are formed over time, reinforced by experiences that are somehow rewarding, and are heavily influenced by outside forces.
Think first about habits. They begin with a single occurrence or event that provides a reward. That first cigarette may have tasted bad or made you cough, but the eventual nicotine high or the image it created or the encouragement of friends caused you to try a second, then a third, and the rest is history, despite knowing the dangers of smoking.
Or how about that beer or wine or eating sweets or eating when stressed or binge-watching a show or playing a video game or gambling. It tasted good, filled a craving, gave a dopamine rush, or distracted you from something stressful or unpleasant. And all these are reinforced through TV and movies, friends and families, and advertising. The reward prompted another go, then another, twisting small actions into a steel-cable-like habit you couldn’t cut loose.
Now consider biases. They also begin with some initial exposure that provides a reward. My first car was a Ford and it provided countless rewards; to this day, I am biased toward Fords despite not having owned one for decades.
We adopt a sports team and relish the camaraderie of fellow fans so stay with them through decades of disappointment. We make a connection with a political party, a restaurant chain, a religion, an ideology, a celebrity, or anything else. We experience some reward and develop a corresponding bias.
For both habits and biases, if your experience includes a strong emotional response, it may take minimal exposure to grow incredibly strong.
For over 25 years I have considered the best ribs in the world coming from a gas station/convenience store in rural Mississippi; that bias, shared by my wife, came from a single stop on a road trip during which I realized she was the person I wanted to spend my life with. I’ve probably had better ribs since, but the emotions of the moment solidified that bias.
How do we acquire biases counter to our values?
When we live according to our values, there are immense rewards, but they’re often not immediate. In day-to-day life and times of crisis and chaos, our values can come into conflict with our sense of the world around us. In striving to meet our basic needs, we may face ethical dilemmas where our values seem counter to each other. When we sense a loss of power and control, we feel stress. The stress demands attention causing us to be vulnerable to outside influences.
Times such as these open us to actions and decisions counter to our values, but in the moment, we can’t see it. Just as we know there will be a price to pay — maybe a very steep price — for smoking, drug use, excessive drinking, or uncontrolled eating/gaming/shopping/gambling, we may hear that value alarm but we ignore it in the cacophony of the vulnerable moment. Before we realize it, the seed of a bias has been formed.
The seed need not germinate and take root. Maybe we snap out of it and hear the value alarm and toss that bias out, but if stress and chaos remain, the bias may grow. Then, without noticing, we seek confirmation of that bias and avoid things that diminish it. When confronted with contradictory information or opinions, we may strengthen the bias by defending it. We begin to manufacture our own rationale to justify the bias and, worse, to keep our moral gyroscope — our values — from adjusting our course or sounding alarms.
Further, biases can be harmful and counter to some values even when they seem to align with others. For example, if we have a value of respecting all human beings or being fair to everyone, but we are biased against liberals, or conservatives, or socialists, or the justice system, that bias is harmful because it puts those labels ahead of our respect of and fairness to the individual human being.
That bias, in turn, can cause us to speak or act in ways that fuel discord and contribute to societal chaos. We are likely to defend the bias, in our own mind and publicly. We may claim anyone associated with the groups we oppose are disrespectful of others or unfair. In doing this, we violate the exact value we claim to be our rationale as we pigeon hole the members of the group.
While we may want to blame others for creating and reinforcing our biases, those others can only try to influence us. We form our own biases and choose whether or not they take precedence over our values.
How can we neutralize biases that distort or counter our values?
I use the term “neutralize” deliberately. Neither habits nor biases can be eliminated. They are hard-wired into our brains, which is why both are so pervasive. They are created over time or attached to a powerful emotion, both of which make them very strong.
It is not enough to consciously choose to be done with a habit or bias. Most of us know this from trying to change a habit we don’t like. This is why we have “inherent biases” that may actually disgust us when they surface. We know they are counter to our values, but they will never disappear entirely, just as our habits will always be there hoping to reemerge in a moment of weakness.
Instead of eliminating biases, we neutralize them. When an undesired bias arises, we need to be ready with a deliberate counter thought. The best approach is to consider the value that is counter to the bias. When the bias starts to surface, think about your values and why they are counter to the bias. Over time, the bias loses strength and begins to disappear while your values are brought to the forefront.
Most of us understand this with habits. If trying to quit smoking, we have to create a new activity we turn to when facing the urge to smoke. If trying to give up sugar, we need an alternative when craving sweets. When trying to improve our fitness, we need prompts to avoid the couch and instead go for a walk or run.
Neutralizing unwanted biases works much the same. When we sense a bias arising or already influencing our thoughts and actions, we must deliberately counter it with values-based thinking.
What about values that are immoral or unethical?
There are no values that are immoral or unethical because values must be grounded in our humanity. If you reread my definition of values, you’ll note I consider them to be our “understandings of ourselves, our world, and the role we want to have in that world.” At their most basic level, our values are about our relationship with ourselves and others.
Some people claim that certain others are less than human. If these are their values, they do exclude those people and would be immoral and unethical. Unfortunately, such people were common in the not-so-distant past and do exist today. However, I would argue these are not their values, but rather biases combined with trauma and fear.
Many such people show glimmers of their hidden moral and ethical values, but circumstances cause them to mostly remain buried. They typically are people who face challenging circumstances or experienced extreme trauma. Some have an epiphany; their values burst forth and they become staunch opponents of the life and groups they formerly supported.
Unfortunately, because values are grounded in humanity, the door is open for people of power and influence to manipulate us using our values. We retain them but don’t recognize they are being leveraged for immoral or unethical purposes. Then, as noted before, our egos prompt us to defend our actions such that we end up distorting our own values.
Isn’t it hopeless to believe some people can rediscover their values?
Being manipulated using our values or distorting our values to justify unethical actions is cause for concern; but it is also a sign of hope in our chaotic and crisis-filled world. The values are there, but we must take the time to bring them to the surface. We must put our values ahead of our egos. And we cannot wait for others to go first.
I understand what has driven many to act against their values as they fight for important causes and against immoral and unethical laws, policies, and actions. I have even pointed out how recent acts of violence and destruction are exactly in line with what our country’s founders did after failed attempts at change through legal channels.
Such approaches to change, however, cannot be sustained. Continuing to act against our values will lead to our demise as a country and world. Remember, when we abandon our values, we abandon our humanity.
We share values across nations, political parties, ideologies, religions, cultures, races, and genders. The evidence shows up regularly but not in ways that get much attention. The late Rushworth Kidder, founder of The Institute for Global Ethics, conducted extensive studies showing these shared values. He also provides numerous examples of individuals and businesses putting values ahead of profit, power, and personal gain.
These shared values can allow us to come together as a country and world. But it begins with individuals choosing to reflect on and consciously choose to live according to their values, then reaching out to others to help them do the same. We can demonstrate and strengthen our values by non-judgmentally helping others find and reflect on their values.
Hope is present in all of us through our values, if we choose to partake.
A Boomer who joined the Army during the Cold War and continues to serve. Kevin spent 30-plus years working in K-12 education as a teacher, administrator, and consultant. His book, Know Power, Know Responsibility, provides the imperatives for a complete redesign of schools and the way to get there.