Rationally Selfish Q&A: Hierarchy of Values

 Posted by on 12 August 2010 at 10:50 am  Ethics, Productivity, Q&As
Aug 122010

How do you keep track of your hierarchy of values? How often do you make revisions to it? How detailed is your value hierarchy, how many levels does it have?

Every day, we make choices about what values to pursue from the vast range of possibilities. You might decide to by a new laptop, rather than pay for expensive repairs on your current machine. You might sign up for another martial arts class rather than devote that time to writing a novel or learning to cook. You might forgo your afternoon plans in order to meet a troubled friend for coffee. You might might spend a few cents more to buy the onions you prefer.

These choices might be complex or simple, difficult or easy, wise or foolish. No matter what, they’re shaped by your “hierarchy of values,” meaning the sum total of your judgments of what matters to you and by how much. To the extent that you think before you act, you choose what values to pursue (and your means of doing so) by consulting your value hierarchy in light of your circumstances.

To make truly wise choices, your value hierarchy must be the product of your best thinking about what’s most necessary and conductive to your life and happiness. If your value hierarchy is a tangled mess, you will feel paralyzed, unable to choose between values. You will feel guilty for short-changing the values that you must forgo. You will tend to minor values at the expense of major ones. You will succumb to self-destructive temptations.

So, we can ask: Does clarity in your value hierarchy require you to write it down or specify it in detail?

No, although that might be helpful in some contexts.

With respect to your basic values, you should explicitly identify them, including their relative importance to you. You should know, for example, that your career is more important to you than your marriage, and that your marriage is more important to you than your hobbies. That way, you can know that, as a general matter, you should spend more of your time and effort on your career, less on your marriage, and still less on your hobbies.

If your hierarchy is confused — if you feel paralyzed, uncertain, or guilty about your choices — then grab your pencil and paper! Write down your hierarchy, review it, and revise it. That process can be hugely informative during major life changes too, such as when considering children or a new career.

Your hierarchy of basic values should be pretty sparse, so that you can grasp it in a glance or two. Then, to capture the details, you should track all your various projects and activities. For that, I strongly recommend Getting Things Done. You simply can’t keep track of all your myriad changing projects in your head.

With that kind of clarity about our basic values and projects, we can act with the confidence that we’re pursuing the values that matter most to our own lives and happiness. And that’s good!

Update: I’m now answering questions on practical philosophy and the principles of living well in my internet radio show Philosophy in Action. The Q&A broadcasts every Sunday morning at 8 am PT / 9 am MT / 10 am CT / 11 am ET. Each week, I select the most popular and interesting questions from the ongoing queue of questions. Please submit your questions, as well as vote and comment on questions that you find interesting!

If you can’t attend the live broadcast, you can listen to the episode later in the podcast archive or by subscribing to the Philosophy in Action Podcast RSS Feed:

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