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Minor Gripe

2019-11-11 -- Brief thoughts on value systems

Chris Ertel


A relatively quick little ramble today, inspired by some pre-game chat while eating early dinner and getting ready for the second half of our Delta Green game from last week. One of my friends had been considering asking a person out in spite of their professed interest in chakras, energies, and that sort of thing. Another friend was in favor of bailing on the idea, I was in favor of giving it a shot, and we had gotten into a conversation about value systems. That’s how I ended up doing this today—and I’ll cheerfully warn you ahead of time that this is going to be a ramble without any intent of making a strong point. I’m also going to use all kinds of examples of varying taste—since we’re talking about ethics—so expect things including: sex, violence, politics, child abuse, and so on.

What are value systems?

I like to define value systems as the sort of internalized sort function that people have for deciding if they like one thing more than some other thing in life. Usually, they work best with similar categories, pairings like:

In all of these pairings, the things are kind of related. If you start mixing and matching, you get questions that—at least to me—appear somewhat odd:

I suspect that the reason I find them odd pairings is that my value system seldom puts them on the same axis. Ice cream flavor, partner preference, musical taste, and so forth are all relatively orthogonal to me, and it feels almost as if somebody were to ask “Would you prefer orange or 12?”—I’m being asked to compare things that are incomparable!

Anyways, I submit also that in addition to being a sort function, value systems aren’t a strictly linear thing. Like, there’s no way of taking the difference of different value judgments and reliably comparing them. Imagine some silly question like:

“Would you rather pick mint over chocolate and then chocolate over vanilla, or pick vanilla over mint?”

Such a question would seem to beg a sort of triangle inequality approach to value systems, and I’m not sure we get that kind of metric. People are weird like that.

Can we change our own value systems?

Almost certainly! I can think of several orderings that have changed position for me over the years (some, multiple times)…

…and also several things that have merely changed distance/spacing in my value system…

At least in the set of things whose relative valuation has changed without changing their ordering, I think it’s usually a function of settling on one clear winner and just pulling that way ahead of the other options, and those all being the clear losers the degree to which they are losers compared to one another doesn’t really matter to me. Like, sure, I’d rather watch Star Trek than Star Wars for an hour if I had to—but Babylon 5 is just clearly such a better option that either one will still be a marked disappointment.

In both case, at any rate, the changes in value system (in spacing or absolute ordering) always seem to be precipitated by expanded knowledge and actually trying out the new value system and seeing if I like where it leads me. To wit: I didn’t value non-monogamy until I had some life experiences that showed me some of its practical short-term advantages and had the chances to explicitly pick it—I later had more experiences and re-examined monogamy and have found it superior in various other ways. That said, I am quite sure that I’ll be doing more of both.

That last example brings up an interesting point, I guess: whenever you spot an inconsistency in your value system, assuming that you at least are attempting to honor the ordering, the way to fix it is to examine if the things truly exist on the same axis. Using my above example, further reflection has shown me that while I value catting around with multiple people (safely, consensually, etc.) more than with one person, I also value forming long-term stable relationships for child-rearing with one person. Thus, the apparent confusion in my value system over monogamy vs non-monogamy is resolved—they each have their own place because they are actually in two different realms, catting around and raising a family. We’ve untangled things, in effect, by embedding them in a higher-dimension manifold.

Can we change somebody else’s value system?

I don’t think so, at least not directly. Telling somebody over and over that they value the wrong things in the wrong order never seems to work. Further, if they do agree, it’s only because they value you not bothering them more than they actually value whatever the dispute is over.

However, using our intuition from above, it would seem that you can lend people perspective and opportunities for experience and see if that helps them change their valuations. If for example somebody’s value system suggests that, say, homosexuality is just clearly a bad thing, it may just be that they’ve never actually had any experience with homosexuality. If they’ve gotten to see it and had experience with it, if they’ve seen examples of people functioning who have that leaning and have seen that that somehow the world has continued, there’s a very good chance that they’ll stop considering it a bad thing—or at least it’ll be reduced in relative badness with whatever else is on that axis for them. This suggests to me that education, not flagellation, is the preferable method for changing the value systems of others.

Continuing this line of thought, I don’t think that anybody who is offered a value system without a chance to live it, internalize it, and meaningfully compare it to their current system is going to be able to truly embrace it. If a person is put in a place where they only have access to mint ice cream, they cannot really be said—at least, according to external observation—to have valued it more than chocolate. They must be returned to whence they came and be seen to actively choose differently. This suggests to me that exiling or isolating people whose value systems on a given axis don’t agree with yours will prevent you from ever seeing if they actually have changed.

Can we ignore relative valuation in value systems?

One of the most common things I’ve seen in arguments is some disagreement resulting from a misordering of values between two parties despite a common agreement on a supremum or minimum in the set. Some examples:

In all of the above, you can find people that agree on one end of the spectrum and still just totally losing their shit yelling at each other over the precise ordering. In the most baffling (to me) case, it isn’t even the ordering that provokes the argument…the ordering can be absolutely identical, but the spacing (the degree to which one thing is worse than the other) is enough to cause great consternation. Examples of this:

That first example probably (hopefully!) gave a visceral negative reaction that the distance between the two awful things would even be established. Similarly, the second example probably gave a blase reaction about second versus third trimester abortion, provided you support abortion in the first place.

However, it shouldn’t be hard to imagine that there are people who do not agree with your view on the relative difference of those two things. Some folks will argue that any activity whatsoever with a non-adult is equally bad regardless of age. Some folks will argue that while both are undesirable, there is some point (presumably when a prenatal ICU unit could support life and growth into a viable infant) where in the third trimester it would be infinitely worse to abort the fetus. That being the case, I think that if you’re attempting to communicate with other people about values you can’t assume that just because your orderings are the same that you’ll be okay.

What about meta valuation?

So, we pop up another level and note—as we already have—that you can have value systems about facets of value systems. Some sample axes for comparing value systems:

And of course, all of the previous discussions and observations apply to these too. You probably can change how you approach value systems, you probably can’t get somebody to change how they approach value systems directly, you probably will disagree with somebody about how much worse some thing should be (is God really that much better or worse than voices in your head for starting a value system? Is either of those that much worse than community norms?).


These have been some scattered thoughts today on value systems. I don’t think I talked too much about my particular value system as of the time of writing, since that’d be uninteresting except as way of illustration for some other concept in here. That said, hopefully this was at least some fraction as interesting to read as it was to write. Thanks!

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