Human Values: A Quick Primer

→ For a rigorous psychological and philosophical definition of values, look here.

→ For my online school on values-based design, which covers all this in more depth, and with more fun:

What are Values?

Values are ideas that guide us in action. In this, they are similar to plans, goals, fears, intentions, policies, etc, and the like. All these are ideas which guide us in action.

Among these ideas, values alone concern the manner of our actions, rather than the consequences (as with plans, goals, and fears) or the mere fact of their performance (as with intentions, and policies).

There’s no clean way to divide up values, but here’s a partial taxonomy. There are values about…

  • how we aim to treat people (honestly, openly, generously, without mercy);
  • how we aim to act more generally (boldly, thoughtfully, carefully);
  • how we aim to approach things (with reverence, with levity);
  • how we aim to keep things (simple, sensual, rocking, full of surprise).

A person’s action-guiding ideas come from various places. But there’s one place where values come from that’s of particular importance: some values, which I’ll call “personal values”, result from a personal consideration about the best way to live (either based on personal experimentation or on personal reflection). So, personal values are made by compressing lived (or imagined) experience into some concrete maxim about what will work for living well. This maxim is then used to guide the person in various types of situations.

Why do we have values?

Values — like policies, plans, and goals — are heuristics to help us avoid an infinite calculation each time we want to act. Instead of calculating in each conversation, at each moment, what to reveal and what to conceal, a person adopts the general value of being honest, by default. So, values are a form of knowledge about what works in general, optimized for the improvisation of living.¹

Values and Planning

Values guide us, not just in action, but also in planning and goal-setting. So values underlie all the acts which we feel we have chosen. Our goals, plans, policies, etc are all justified in terms of our values.

Because values are taken out and used when we choose actions and plans, it is often in these choices (and especially in the “hard choices”) that values are reconciled, refined, reprioritized, and updated.²

The experience of “free will” comes from the open-endedness and durationality of the way we reconsider our values during a choice.³


Values are also updated due to new information, like when we are exposed to previously unknown consequences of a choice. The experience of having an emotion is the experience of reprioritizing after recognizing a new value (often due to new information). See my essay Emotions, Integrity, and Wisdom.⁴

Understanding Yourself

A person explains most of their actions by using their values. This explanation is called “giving a reason” for your action. And the ability to give reasons that make sense to other people (usually by referring to values) is called “being rational.” Human beings are so attached to being rational that they won’t do things for which they can anticipate not being able to give a reason. This hesitancy to do anything without a reason is what makes us predictable as individuals and makes society function.⁵

Here are three ways to learn about your values: (1) ask yourself how you believe in treating a certain person in your life, and to try to answer using adverbs or adverbial phrases. (2) examine your emotions, asking what each emotion says is important to you. (3) examine your plans and choices for reasons, and to keep asking “why” until the reason grounds into something like a value.⁶

Social Life of Values

Although it’s mostly subconscious, humans are always talking about and expressing their values, and this is the true basis for cooperation. “Contractualism” is trying to cooperate based on goals or plans rather than on values, and this limited form of cooperation makes it impossible to improvise. True, full cooperation is always based on values. This means that it will remain impossible to truly cooperate with an AI or a corporation until such entities have values in the same sense that we do. It also means that game theory (which conceptualizes cooperation as about outcomes) doesn’t accurately describe human cooperation. (See the first two sections of my Is Anything Worth Maximizing?)⁷

Humans try to make sense of their own behavior, and others’ behavior, over time, and the main way in which we do that is by collecting our own and other people’s reasons and assembling these sets of reasons into an “identity” — a simplified model of ourselves or of others. Our sense of one another’s identity (and of a set of shared values) is what justifies cooperation.

While a small number of values have names (“freedom”, “equality”, “honesty”, “generosity”) most of them don’t. But values without names can usually be referred to by phrases (“honoring the dead”, “building the capacity of the team to handle problems together”). Much of human conversation amounts to asking the question “what is important in such-and-such-a-situation?” and answering it with value-phrases of this sort.

Narrative is a way to package up such value-related questions and answers.⁸

Language arose to communicate values. Language cannot keep up with progress in values — there are popular values which are very hard to express in words — but language tries to keep up anyhow.

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.

When people can separate out their personal values and share them, other people can’t help but be interested even when they are from very different cultures, because a person’s personal values are ideas about living well, and these have the potential to be useful to all of us.

The common thread in everything people find meaningful: appreciation of nature, the advance of art or science, the reorganization of human affairs, the participation in common rites of parenthood, childhood, etc — the common thread in all of this is the recognition of personal value and the extension of wisdom. A “life of meaning” is simply one in which one’s particular values are tested, extended, and expressed.


The construction and dissemination of new values (“freedom”, “equality”, “building the capacity of the team to handle problems together”) is the engine of human progress. When people cooperate around new values, they do new things.⁹

Wisdom refers to the slow accumulation of personal values that work well for people living in different kinds of ways. In ideal circumstances, each generation can reconsider the collective wisdom from the previous generation, discarding some values which no longer serve (due to changes in ways of life or because even better values have been found). In these conditions, wisdom accumulates.

But people also have values which are not part of wisdom. Some values, like “competitiveness” or “professionalism” or “social media reach” stay circulating because people are raised in limited social environments in which such a value seems (temporarily) to guide well. Other values, like “aggressive foreign policy” (which could never be a personal value, because it can’t be experimented with) stay circulating because of political battles in which people must pretend to have the value.¹⁰

Such limited social environments and political battles are a threat to wisdom and to civilization. One of the great challenges of the 21st century is to find ways to allow wisdom to continue to accumulate without being drowned out by non-personal values coming from rigged social systems or politics. (See my How to Design Social Systems Without Causing Depression and War and Is Anything Worth Maximizing?)

It is mostly possible for a person to sort out which of their values are part of wisdom and which come from rigged social systems or from politics. The part that is from wisdom is not political and not socially constructed but practical and personal. (For help with this on a personal level, see the chart below, the games in How to Design Social Systems Without Causing Depression and War, and the essay Emotions, Integrity, and Wisdom.)

It is not just individuals which would benefit from this sorting out: since values ground all choices, they also ground economic transactions, votes, and attention choices in media. The values behind such choices can be surfaced via reasons. But this information isn’t currently collected. This is a tragedy at the heart of what’s wrong with Capitalism, with Democracy, and with Media. It means, among other things, that these mechanisms are unable to coordinate true cooperation of the kind we are used to, unable to support our desire for meaningful lives, and unable to promote the accumulation of wisdom.¹¹

Science and Objectivity of Values

Any collection of facts or data points is first and foremost an expression of the values of the people who collected or collated those facts, because data is collected for a reason and reasons refer to something someone thought was important. (That is, to someone’s values).

Science can only detect laws or patterns amongst phenomena that were already understood as important. Thus, the progress of science is primarily gated by a slow progress w/r/t what we find important to look for.

Values aim for objectivity in roughly the same way that beliefs aim to correspond with facts. We can say that many people have discovered the same (objective) value, so long as we grant that it’s possible for them to do roughly the same values-experiment (say, trying honesty and dishonesty with their spouse). Actually, we can say that values are beliefs of the form “In situations X,Y,Z, it works out for the best to be guided by V”. (Any slippery-concept critiques which you want to apply to this sentence will also apply to belief sentences.)¹²

While values aim for objectivity, they are usually developed (and verified through lived experiences) well before they can be explained or justified. They are like tools where it is easier to show that they work than to explain why they work. The value of “aligned incentives” was developed in ancient times, well before the field of microeconomics or multi-agent simulation. The fact that values are discovered ahead of their explicability is part of the reason for myth and religion. Many of the best values will remain inexplicable. Given the decline of religion we are not sure how to deal with this.¹³

Widespread Confusion about Values

The ancient Greeks seemed to know more about values that we moderns do (and more than medievals did). Philosophers and theologists used to be concerned with values, but they lost their way. Now, values are more in the domain of judiciaries, improvisers, and mentors of various kinds.

Nothing is really more inhuman than human relations based on morals. When a man gives bread in order to be charitable, lives with a woman in order to be faithful, eats with (someone from another race) in order to be unprejudiced, and refuses to kill in order to be peaceful, he is as cold as a clam. He does not actually see the other person. — Alan Watts

Ideas of morality and virtue and ethics — especially — are confused. It is better to try to understand the same things using ideas of personal values and wisdom. It is enough to say that a person “ought” to live in the best way they can discover for themselves, and that these discoveries will tend to converge on certain principles (like honesty). There is no need to invoke supposedly-non-value-dependent criteria like eliminating suffering or following a golden rule (or “imperative”). Everything of interest in morality and ethics is actually about the accumulation of wisdom about how to live well (especially — in these fields — how to treat others as part of living well).

These widespread confusions, especially in philosophy, can be traced back to mistakes David Hume made with his idea to ground values in sentiment, and in thinking there was a fact/value dichotomy. And these mistakes compounded an earlier confusion between “moral” values and social norms.¹⁴

The upshot is that moderns know less about their values than they do about their feelings or their goals. This is a problem. (See Five Days with the Devil.)

Because values (not goals, fears, feelings, etc) ground all choices, people who think of themselves as goal-directed are not getting at the truth about themselves. It would be more correct to say they are oriented by certain goal-related values (like efficiency, productivity, and accomplishment). Similarly, it’s more correct to say that a fear-directed person is oriented by fear-related values (like security or risk-reduction), and that a feelings-directed person is oriented by feelings-related values (like authenticity or empathy). (See Nothing to be Done.)

These people — who focus on action-guiding ideas that aren’t values —have some of the worst values, simply because they are open to only a few values (e.g., the goal-, fear-, or feelings-related ones) instead of the broader range.

Footnotes: [1] This conception of values descends from Velleman (“How We Get Along”) and Bratman (“Intention, Plans, and Practical Reason”). [2] See Chang (“Are hard choices cases of incomparability?”.) [3] See Velleman on free will in “Practical Reflection”. [4] Tappolet (“Emotions, Values, and Agency”) has a similar view of the emotions, but I’ve fixed it up a bit. [5] Sen’s (“Rational Fools”) popularized this account of rationality as being able to give reasons. [6] This connection between values and reasons can be traced to Velleman 1985, Korsgaard 1992, and Quinn 1993. [7] Velleman (“Centered Self”) makes this point re: the Prisoners’ Dilemma, and it is elaborated in my “Is Anything Worth Maximizing?”. [8] Both Taylor (“The Language Animal”) and Peterson (“Maps of Meaning”) talk about narrative / myth as a container for values. But, so do Aristotle and Jung. [9] Taylor (“Sources of the Self”) captures this view of progress well. [10] Taleb (“Skin in the Game”) is about problems that occur when personal values are less viral than ideologies and other pieces of non-wisdom. [11] My “One Weird Trick” is about how these systems can be characterized as transiting certain types of data, but not values. [12] Although not directly about value realism, Boyd’s “How to Be a Moral Realist” is great on this; Gibson’s (“The Senses Considered”) account of perception is also relevant. [13] See Taleb’s “Antifragile”. [14] Essay of mine forthcoming!

Building economies of meaning, and leading the School for Social Design