This post is about my values, and which ones I think are most important.
Values are hard to pin down. Here’s an attempt: I define “sincerity” as being true to yourself, in that your actions always stem from your true beliefs, and not from the intent to deceive or mislead others.
In this way, sincerity includes the additional values of honesty, truthfulness, trustworthiness, congruity, and integrity, because it means being truthful about who you are.
One can be sincere even when not being 100% honest. For instance, it may be kinder and more considerate to tell a small lie (“you’re better off without your ex”) or to prevent something horrible (“Anne Frank is not in this house”). But even while telling the lie, you are sincerely acting according to your own highest values (which in these examples would be to protect others). So I think “sincerity” best represents all these varied facets of personal integrity.
I don’t really like the word “benevolence,” because it conjures an image of a benevolent king who wants his subjects to know he doesn’t have to be kind, but out of the goodness of his heart he will let them farm his land, rather than have them all beheaded.
However, I don’t like the alternative words either: “kindness” has too vague a definition, “compassion” seems to mean being kind only when others are suffering, and I don’t think “love” is a feeling one can reasonably aspire to have for all humans.
Therefore, “benevolence” as a value is best taken to mean “warmheartedness,” in that you should strive to be warm, welcoming, open, kind, forgiving, and understanding of others, even if you know deep down that you don’t actually love them.
I think benevolence is important because (warning: cliché approaching) if everyone aspired to be benevolent, the world would probably be better than it is now. And in any case, I find that I am far happier and less stressed when I act benevolently towards my family members, such as by assuming that my younger siblings are not intentionally trying to drive me insane.
By “reflection,” I mean the thoughtful consideration of one’s own life and values.
I once had a debate with my friend over the point of trying to remember things when you can just look everything up on the internet anyway. As I thought about why I value memory and knowledge, and why I see them as intertwined with the ability to self-reflect, I came across Moonwalking with Einstein by Joshua Foer, a book about memory training.
Foer says that the goal of improving one’s memory was historically to “develop the capacity to leap from topic to topic and make new connections between old ideas,” because “where do new ideas come from if not some alchemical blending of old ideas?”.[i] This, to me, justifies the importance of learning, remembering, and reflecting.
Does that mean I only value “reflection” because I value knowledge, memory, and creativity? And if so, why do I value all those things in the first place?
Because the unexamined life is not worth living. Because otherwise you may as well be an amoeba.
What’s so bad about being an amoeba?
Well, it might not be so bad once you are one, but until my reincarnation occurs I would prefer to be me, and I can’t know who I am without reflection.
Which one is most important?
I’m not sure what my highest value is. It depends whether I’m choosing which is most important to me personally, or which I think should be most important in general.
Benevolence is what I would choose if, for instance, I were a tyrannical ruler and wanted to pick one value to encompass the goals of my regime, and to enforce on my subjects (I’ll forbid them to point out the irony). Unless, of course, Machiavelli was right and it turns out that being an overly-benevolent ruler leads people to take advantage of you until your kingdom[ii] descends into chaos. So maybe I value security over benevolence?
This is the problem with being a political science student. You start off thinking all your values are totally clear and then you read so many conflicting views about them that you no longer know what to think. In trying to pick three values to write about, I already had to discard most of the usual suspects because there are too many caveats to their application (honesty, liberty, honour, etc.).
Anyway, benevolence is the most important value in general terms, because I believe it is the one that would make the greatest difference to overall world peace and happiness. But now it seems like my value could instead be described as “maximizing utility,” and I’m not really a utilitarian.
(Moving on.) In personal, rather than general terms, my most important value is reflection. And not just because of the link between memory, knowledge, and creativity. I also think reflection is a crucial part of the human condition, specifically in the ability to recognize one’s place in the history of humanity.
Without reflection, one would move through time like an amoeba, never knowing what came before the present moment, or speculating on what might happen ahead. Again, you might wonder what’s wrong with an amoeba’s condition. I can’t explain why I feel so strongly that it’s important to know things outside of one’s own life, and to be able to place one’s life in the continuum of time.
But I can identify two benefits of doing so: it discourages selfishness, and encourages you not to take life for granted. It simultaneously forces you to recognize the limits of your own originality, as well as the miracle that you even exist at all.
Again, Joshua Foer influenced my views on this. In the same book, he describes a man, identified only as EP, whose brain is perfectly functional apart from the inability to form and recall memories. To me, this passage highlights the importance of reflection: EP “has no stream of consciousness, just droplets that immediately evaporate… Trapped in this limbo of an eternal present, between a past he can’t remember and a future he can’t contemplate, he lives a sedentary life, completely free from worry.”
In other words, his inner life is much like the hypothetical amoeba’s. So “in his chronic forgetfulness, EP has achieved a kind of pathological enlightenment, a perverted vision of the Buddhist ideal of living entirely in the present.” But “if you were to take the watch off his wrist—or, more cruelly, change the time—he’d be completely lost.”[iii] To me, there could be nothing worse than being lost, without my own thoughts and memories to remind me where I am.
So the main reasons for valuing reflection are that it fosters the creation of new ideas by allowing you to recombine old ones; it allows you to connect to other humans by placing yourself in the continuum of humanity; it forces you to recognize that you are not that special, but at the same time all life is special; and it reminds you of where and who you are.
Still, the question remains: why does it matter? Surely one cannot justify a value with other values alone. Well, from a more practical perspective, reflection is also important for surviving long stretches of boredom or torture without losing your mind.
If I ever end up in solitary confinement, I intend to be like Dostoyevsky, who retained his sanity through eight months of solitary confinement, a staged execution (his sentence was commuted at the last minute) and ten years of forced labour in Siberia.
On the other hand, all this did cause him to become intensely religious. Would I be able to stay sane without believing in God? I can’t promise I wouldn’t invent an imaginary friend.
I watched a documentary on Dostoyevsky when I was 10, which may be the real reason why I’m convinced reflection is so important. Although it’s curious that I also decided religion is not at all important, when it also seems to be necessary for retaining one’s sanity through terrible conditions.
Perhaps there’s just a way smaller sample size of atheists who have been through such conditions, seeing as 99% of humans have believed in some form of god up to now. So I’m just going to argue that we don’t know yet whether belief in god(s) really is crucial to surviving these sorts of things—and if something bad ever happens to me (I hope not, though) please use my experience as a case study.
All this is to say: I am nothing if not practical.
But even more so, I am nothing if not reflective about why I am so practical.
I realize this is not at all original when one recalls Descartes’ cogito, ergo sum. But at least, due to my powers of reflection, I’m able to recall something. And that’s more than can be said for an amoeba.
[i] Page 167, ebook edition.
[ii] I wrote “queendom,” not kingdom, but turns out kingdom is the correct term even when a queen is ruling. (Another shortcoming of English. What will we call it if/when there’s a gender-neutral ruler?)
[iii] All quotes in this paragraph are from page 62, ebook edition.
This post was adapted from an essay I wrote for a politics class on Nov. 26, 2015.