- Spencer Greenberg and Amber Dawn Ace
Valuism: Doing what you value as a life philosophy
Updated: Mar 30
An introduction to Valuism – part 1 in the Valuism sequence
Image created using the A.I. DALL•E 2
This is the first of five posts in my sequence of essays about my life philosophy, Valuism – here are the second, third, fourth, and fifth parts (though the links won’t work until those other essays are released).
What is Valuism?
Many of us struggle at times to know what to do. We are surrounded by conflicting advice about how to live our lives – from our parents, peers, and communities, from ancient philosophers, and from modern gurus and intellectuals. Faced with these conflicting opinions and a limited amount of time until we die, what should we focus our lives on?
In this post, I offer one answer to this question: my life philosophy, which I call Valuism. Simply put, if you’re a Valuist, you first work to figure out what you intrinsically value,¹ and then you try to use effective methods to create more of what you intrinsically value.
Note that the phrase “intrinsic value” refers here to something you value for its own sake rather than something you value merely as a means to other ends. Some intrinsic values we are born with, and others we develop through our experiences.
Your own happiness is probably one of your intrinsic values; subsequently, if you’re a Valuist, one of your aims is to become happy using effective approaches (e.g., by building healthy relationships with good people whom you are compatible with). Similarly, if you value justice, you work to create justice via effective means. If your intrinsic values include the well-being of others – as almost everyone’s do – you aim to improve the well-being of those others using effective approaches.
Like most people, you likely have more than one intrinsic value.
Results for a sample of n=2106 people who finished our Intrinsic Values Test. After learning about Intrinsic Values, they were asked to rate each of 92 potential intrinsic values on this scale: “-1. Not something I value,” “0. A value but not an intrinsic value (I value it only because of what it causes),” “1. A slightly important intrinsic value,” “2. A moderately important intrinsic value,” “3. An important intrinsic value,” “4. A very important intrinsic value,” “5. An incredibly important intrinsic value”
If you’re a Valuist, you recognize that you have multiple intrinsic values and strive to find the right balance between them; you may invest more time in some intrinsic values because they are more important to you or easier to create, but you don’t treat any of them as being worthless.
(Note: If you happen to identify as a utilitarian and believe that you only have one intrinsic value – the happiness of all conscious beings considered equally – you may want to check your reactions on these thought experiments to put that theory to the test.)
Here are some examples of common intrinsic values that westerners have:
A sample of some of the most commonly reported intrinsic values among n=2106 people who finished our Intrinsic Values Test.
Let’s explore why one might adopt a Valuist approach.
Why be a Valuist?
There is no moral imperative to be a Valuist. But here’s a simple argument for Valuism that some people find compelling:
There are some things that you value. But for most of these things, you value them only because they get you other things that you care about; that is, most of our values are instrumental, not intrinsic. For example, you very likely value having cash, but you value it only because it enables you to get other things you want (food, shelter, peace of mind, travel, convenience, status, pleasure, etc.), so cash is not something you intrinsically value.
Intrinsic values are the things that you value for their own sake, upon reflection; you value them not as means to other ends. In other words, you would want to create more of them even if doing so caused no other good thing to occur. You wouldn’t value cash if you couldn’t use it for anything. On the other hand, you very likely value your happiness even if it causes no additional positive consequences: your happiness is almost certainly one of your intrinsic values. In a sense, intrinsic values are the only things that you fundamentally value.
As mentioned, Valuism proposes that you carefully figure out what you intrinsically value and then aim to effectively produce those things. By “effectively,” I mean using strategies that really work well.
But why should you bother trying to produce more of what you intrinsically value? Well, simply because you fundamentally value those things. You are not necessarily “wrong,” “immoral,” or “irrational” if you don’t create more of what you intrinsically value – but you are, in that case, producing less of what you consider fundamentally valuable. Valuism is not telling you to give in to momentary urges – rather, it’s saying to use effective methods to produce what you value (upon careful reflection and introspection).
Why does Valuism have an emphasis on effective methods? Because if you value there being more of something, you implicitly prefer methods that produce more of that thing, rather than less. In other words, preferring effective methods for creating a value (over ineffective ones) is a logical consequence of having that value in the first place.
As we’ll discuss later in the essay, the Valuist approach to life ends up being quite different from how most people live. It also comes with a number of side benefits.
“The single most important moment of my life was when I sat and decided what I valued. I ended up writing what I value as soon as I wake up every morning. The year I started doing that was the happiest of my life. You might be onto something!” -John Salter
Advantages of Valuism
I believe that Valuism offers many advantages compared to the way that many people live. For example, as a Valuist:
You’ll be less likely to confuse your instrumental and intrinsic values
Valuists work to clearly distinguish their instrumental values from their intrinsic ones, which helps them avoid the “value traps” of mistakenly pursuing instrumental values.
You’ll be more likely to strategically pursue what you fundamentally value
Therefore, you’ll probably create more of what you value. You might try to make your habits work in favor of your intrinsic values rather than against them: for example, if you value health, you might make a habit of walking part of the way to work. You’ll also aim to prevent urges, mimicry, trauma, or default paths from derailing your plans to produce what you value.
You’ll prioritize your values in a balanced way
You’ll take into account how much you care about each of them and how easy each is to create – rather than neglecting any of them or letting one take over your whole value system. Valuists carefully reflect on the tradeoffs between intrinsic values and pursue them in accordance with how much they are valued and how easy they are to create in a given scenario.
An additional advantage of Valuism over some other life philosophies (such as most flavors of utilitarianism) is that it doesn’t rely on you believing in objective moral truth. Back in my early 20s, I considered myself a utilitarian; at the time, I thought that the only thing that matters is maximizing utility for conscious beings across the universe. But on further reflection, I came to realize that I don’t believe in objective moral truth: I don’t think moral propositions such as “it’s right to maximize the flourishing of all conscious beings” can be true or false.²
This got me to wonder: what does it mean to say that I “should” maximize utility if there is no such thing as objective morality? I don’t think statements like “You should do X” are coherent unless they have an (explicit or implicit) objective, such as “You should do X if you want to achieve Y.”
(If you’d like to explore this tension between moral anti-realism and some flavors of effective altruism in more detail, see this essay I wrote about it).
After many years of reflecting on this topic, I developed the idea of Valuism because I wanted to answer this question: “How do I decide what to do, given that I don’t think there is any objective moral truth?” If there’s not an objective answer to this question, at least there is an answer implied by what I fundamentally value. Valuism can be a source of meaning without requiring belief in objective moral truth – whether or not your values are “objectively valuable,” they are valuable to you! If you think “objective moral truth” is non-existent (or is an incoherent concept or human construction) then Valuism gives you a path towards meaning without requiring objectivity.
There’s no metaphysical obligation on you to be a Valuist, but if you are, it will likely cause you to produce more of what you actually value (i.e., precisely what fundamentally matters to you).
Can a Valuist also be an X?
Valuism is compatible with a wide variety of other philosophical beliefs. For instance, it’s compatible with a variety of meta-ethical views, including error theory, non-cognitivism, relativism, and subjectivism – see the diagram below – as well as intuitive and evolutionary-biology-based approaches to ethics. If you happen to be religious, it can also fit in with a religious worldview.
Even if you’re not sure whether or not there is such a thing as objective moral truth, Valuism could still be helpful for you. For example, if you think that there is a 20% probability of objective moral truth, then you may want to act in such a way as to combine what you think objective moral truth would dictate with what your values would dictate. Valuism may also give you a way to decide what to do in domains that are not governed by your morality. Even if you are really confident in the existence of objective moral truth, you could still incorporate Valuism into your worldview if you believe that objective moral truth is not maximally demanding and hence shouldn’t guide all your actions (i.e., Valuism can help you figure out what to do with regard to those other actions).³
A diagram about meta-ethics made by Tommy Crow that we adapted (with permission) for our Learn Your Philosophical Beliefs Test
Is Valuism selfish?
At first glance, this might seem like a selfish philosophy: does Valuism just mean looking after your own interests? No, not even close. Almost everyone (as we found in our research) has at least some intrinsic values that are not just about the self. In addition to values related to the self (e.g., “I value my own happiness”), people usually have values about their communities ( e.g., “I value that my friends and loved ones get the things that they want”) and “universal” intrinsic values that involve wanting good things for people beyond the people they personally know as well as abstract values that don’t pertain to people at all (e.g., “I value that people and animals all around the world don’t suffer” or “I value that all humans are treated fairly” or “I value fairness”).
Some of my own most important intrinsic values are:
reducing suffering and increasing happiness for conscious beings
promoting truth and reducing falsehood
the happiness (and lack of suffering) of my loved ones
my own happiness (and lack of suffering)
not harming others with my behavior
believing true things and not false things
sticking to my commitments
being kind and having positive intent towards others
My aim in life is to increase these (and the other things that I intrinsically value).
Is Valuism just what most people already do?
Another common reaction to Valuism is: “Isn’t Valuism just telling you to do what you’re already doing? Aren’t most people already just figuring out what they value and then pursuing those values?” No! That’s not nearly as common as you might think.
The Valuist life philosophy differs from how most people live in many ways. In particular:
Most people haven’t spent much time thinking about what their intrinsic values are.
This means that they sometimes do things like accidentally pursue the intrinsic values of the people around them rather than their own intrinsic values. For instance, your parents might care a lot about you having a job that garners “respect,” whereas you may not value this at all – but you might end up becoming a doctor anyway, thanks to their influence.
People often don’t cleanly distinguish between intrinsic values and instrumental values.
They often pursue instrumental values way past the point that makes sense for non-intrinsic values. For example, many people end up mindlessly trying to earn more money even when they can afford everything they possibly want, and more money wouldn’t help them achieve any more of their intrinsic values.
People often underinvest in plans around their intrinsic values.
They usually don’t spend lots of time thinking about, making strategies around, and taking action in order to effectively create more of what they intrinsically value. For instance, people who strongly intrinsically value love may not be thoughtful enough about who they decide to become friends with – and end up surrounding themselves with people who aren’t very loving. And people who intrinsically value the happiness of people all around the world often donate to charities that are not very cost-effective.
People often do not think carefully about the tradeoffs between their intrinsic values.
People may over-prioritize some values relative to how much they value them and how easy they are to create. Some are overly influenced by their family – think of people who go into a career they hate because their family expects it of them. Others over-prioritize values due to routine or a lack of reflection – think of people who always see the same friends because it’s who they’re used to making plans with, even though they haven’t meshed for years.
And some people let a specific philosophical value take over their whole value system. This can arise when people bite a philosophical bullet. For example, when they’re in a debate with someone more well-versed in the philosophy literature, they may fail to come up with a reason to value anything other than the happiness of all conscious beings equally, so they conclude they must only care about other things (like justice, equality, or the satisfaction of their own preferences) as a means to this other end.
In fact, people are mostly guided by forces other than their intrinsic values. For instance, our behavior is heavily influenced by:
Habits – we do things because we’ve done them that way many times before, automatically and without thinking about it.
Urges, appetites, and addictions – we have primal urges to do things, such as to eat ten cookies (long past the point where we are really enjoying the cookies anymore). We can get addicted to things that we don’t value.
Pursuit of pleasure and avoidance of pain in the present – of course, most of us have our own present pleasure (and lack of pain) as intrinsic values, but it’s easy to pursue these past the point where we intrinsically value them (at the expense of our other intrinsic values). For example, we might spend excessive time playing video games or avoid going to the dentist.
Mimicry – we have a drive to do what others are doing.
Trauma triggers – we sometimes act out of distress because something has reminded us of past trauma, even when the present environment is completely safe.
Conventional paths and defaults – we often follow standard paths instead of thinking about what would create the most of what we intrinsically value.
The upshot here is that people very often make choices that are not aligned with their intrinsic values.
What does it mean to “value” something, and what are intrinsic values?
You might think, “Ok, I’m convinced that I should try to create more of what I intrinsically value – but what do I intrinsically value?” We actually developed a test that will help you work out your intrinsic values!
An intrinsic value is something that you value in itself (i.e., for its own sake) and not merely because of its consequences. We can distinguish these from things we value instrumentally – that is, things we value only because they help us get (or create) more of other things.
Our categorization of Intrinsic Values into 22 categories
Most people value money, but probably no one values money intrinsically; people only value money because they can use it to buy other things that they value. Imagine if money didn’t let you buy anything, didn’t give you any power, prestige, or positive feelings, and it couldn’t even be burned for warmth. Clearly, in that case, it would be worthless – so it lacks intrinsic value. The experience of happiness isn’t like this (for almost everyone). You value feeling happy even if nothing else comes about as a result of that happiness.
What does it mean to “value” something? I use the term “value” in a purely psychological, empirical sense. That is, I’m referring to facts about your brain. Your brain can perform various operations (such as making predictions about what’s about to happen, or imagining a hypothetical scenario, or evaluating how “true” something you just said feels to you). One such operation is considering a state of the world and judging how valuable it is (to you) – our brains seem to have a basic operation related to assigning value to states of the world. Value comes in degrees and can be positive, neutral (i.e., zero value), or negative. These degrees of valuing can be very fine-grained. We can feel that one thing is just slightly better than another – e.g., we might do a taste test and decide we get just slightly more pleasure from one flavor of ice cream than another. However, introspection can be challenging, and there can be significant uncertainty in our reflections on value.
Let’s unpack a bit more what it means to assign value to a state of the world. Imagine yourself or someone you love feeling happy and reflect on the value of that state. You’ll find that your brain assigns positive value to that state. Similarly, if you imagine you or someone you love being harmed and reflect on the value of that state, you’ll find that you assign it negative value. Still, other things, like the state of the world where a new stone is added to a pile of stones on a random mountain, are likely to be assigned no value by your brain – that is, you consider the world to have equal amounts of value whether that stone is in that pile or not. In other words, when you reflect on certain potential states of the world, you have the internal experience (qualia) that they are good, bad, or neutral.
But how can you tell the difference between what you intrinsically value and what you value merely instrumentally? Unfortunately, our brains don’t automatically separate the things we intrinsically value from the things we value instrumentally. At first blush, valued states of the world feel the same, whether we value them intrinsically or not. To tell the difference, we need to use thought experiments.
One way to work out whether something is one of your intrinsic values is by asking yourself, “if this were created, but it didn’t bring any other positive consequences, would I still value it?” For example, you surely value having food. But if you had a pile of “food,” but it contained no nutritional value, you derived no pleasure from eating it, it didn’t have any pleasant aromas or aesthetic value, and nobody else wanted it, would you actually still value it? Probably not – hence food is not an intrinsic value, despite being something that we all value (instrumentally).
We can distinguish “valuing” something from being persuaded (on a purely intellectual level) that something is good. You might be convinced by a logical argument that something is objectively “good” in an abstract rather than intuitive sense, but still not actually value it; similarly, you might value something even though you’re convinced by a logical argument that it’s not a good thing. For example, imagine that a friend is trying to convince you that it’s bad to destroy plants. They make a strong argument, and you fail to find any flaws in it, so you accept it. You now would agree that you believe the phrase “it’s bad to destroy plants.” But even so, when you consider a state of the world where plants are being destroyed, your brain may not assign a negative value to it. You may feel that that state is neutral, despite being intellectually convinced that the phrase “it’s bad to destroy plants” is a fact.
If you reject objective moral truth, you may think that we can’t logically prove that things are “good” or “bad” in this way; but some people are convinced by these arguments. Being purely intellectually convinced that something is good is different from actually valuing it – when your brain does its “is that valuable?” operation. However, being intellectually convinced that something is good or bad can eventually turn into valuing or disvaluing that thing. Whereas initially, you may merely fail to refute an abstract argument and decide that intellectually you agree with it, at some point, the inbuilt valuing mechanism in your brain may start to assign value that aligns with that argument.
We can also distinguish valuing from wanting (or desiring). You can want something but not value it – for example, a devout virgin nun might feel strong sexual desire even if she doesn’t value sex (i.e., her brain assigns a negative value to the state of the world where she’s had sex). Wants can also fluctuate moment-to-moment: for example, you might see a cupcake and immediately desire to eat it, but after a moment’s reflection (during which you look at the calorie count), you realize you no longer want it. Valuing, on the other hand, tends to lead to more stable conclusions. Your values might change over time, but we don’t usually value something in the morning and disvalue it in the afternoon.
You can also value something but not want it at a particular moment. For example, even if you really value your own pleasure, you probably don’t want to experience pleasure at all moments – such as at a friend’s funeral.
It’s often pretty easy to pick out what we value; it can be more complicated to determine which of our values are intrinsic rather than instrumental. It’s easy to mistake instrumental values for intrinsic ones. We often think that we intrinsically value a thing, only to discover, on reflection, that we only instrumentally value it. Here are some hypothetical examples:
Althea believed that she intrinsically valued freedom, but she realized after a while that she only valued freedom because she thinks that people are happier when they’re freer. If people with more freedom had no additional happiness, she wouldn’t actually value freedom. So the happiness of others is an intrinsic value for Althea, but freedom is only an instrumental value (because she only values it insofar as it produces happiness).
Brian loves his wife and thinks that he intrinsically values being married. However, he later realizes that what he values about marriage is loving and being loved – and that marriage just serves as a sign and symbol of that love.
We need to reflect carefully to work out what we intrinsically value. Imagine a person who is pursuing a prestigious law career. They’re sure that they value career success – but do they value it intrinsically? Perhaps they just value it instrumentally as a way to get other things – for example, money, the approval of family or peers, or as a way to influence the world for the better. Or maybe they are just mimicking the decisions of their best friend who is pursuing a similar career.
Valuism is a philosophy I just recently gave a name to, and I think it’s likely that some of the details will be adjusted and improved as I (and hopefully others) continue to develop the idea.
Is Valuism new, though? Not really – I think that lots of people are already implicitly Valuists (without necessarily realizing it). But I’ve never seen the philosophy given a name, nor have I seen an attempt to work out what precisely the philosophy is in detail. I hope that this essay serves as a first step in that direction.
If the ideas in this essay have resonated with you, I hope you’ll consider whether you, too, are a Valuist. Though it takes time and careful thought to work out what your intrinsic values are, I’ve found that once you do, this can be a very fruitful approach to life. When you know what your intrinsic values are, this helps you ensure that you are pursuing what you truly value. And by adopting the Valuist idea of not merely pursuing your intrinsic values but pursuing them effectively, it orients you toward how to create a lot of what you value.
When it comes to your altruistic intrinsic values, Valuism naturally suggests that you aim to do more good rather than less good as best you can (within the scope of the time and effort that you decide to put into your altruistic values following a careful balancing of your values), which you might consider a form of effective altruism (EA), narrowed to the scope of your altruistic intrinsic values. If your altruistic intrinsic values are strong, and you aim to use reason and evidence to try to effectively create a large amount of them in the world, then you may be a Valuist EA.
I find it satisfying that Valuism gives me a frame for my life: to create that which I intrinsically value. Perhaps it can provide a frame for your life as well.
If you read this line, please do me a favor and click here to answer one quick question.
A big thanks goes to:
Kat Woods for giving me the idea to call this philosophy “Valuism”
Amber Dawn Ace for co-authoring this piece – Amber is not a Valuist, but she was indispensable in helping me organize and explain my ideas
The many folks who provided valuable edits on this piece (and the accompanying other parts to this series), including Travis Manuel, Adam Binks, Amanda Metskas, Clare Harris, David Hartsough, and Kat Woods.
I’ll end with a poem that Kat Woods created from words that Tyler Alterman wrote, which to me reflects some key elements of Valuism:
You’ve just finished the first post in my sequence of essays on my life philosophy, Valuism – click here to go to the second post.
Please note that Valuism is a work in progress. I may update this (and the other accompanying) essays as my views continue to become clearer or more accurate.
1. Note that there are different uses of the phrase “intrinsic value.” What I mean by “intrinsic value” is what some others have called “final value,” or “non-derivative value,” or “terminal value”. I do not mean simply “value that supervenes on intrinsic properties.”
2. Another philosophical viewpoint is that moral claims are the sort of thing that can be true or false, and they just all are false. Either way, objective morality is rejected, leaving a philosophical gap regarding what to do in one’s life. The philosophical viewpoint I’m aware of that is most similar to Valuism is Individual Subjectivism, which is a form of Normative Subjectivism/Ethical Subjectivism. However, it is not the same as Valuism for a variety of reasons, as GPT-4/ChatGPT explains here.
3. I’ve heard it argued that “if there is no objective moral truth, then there is nothing that you should do, so even if you assign a small probability to objective moral truth (even if it’s an incredibly small probability!), you should act as though it’s true.” A flaw in this line of thinking is that even if there is nothing that you objectively should do, there are still things that you value, and so by only focusing on an objective moral truth that you think is unlikely to exist, things that are valuable to you are sacrificed in the process. So, for instance, you may miss out on creating a lot of happiness for yourself or other things that you intrinsically value (hence there is a real cost).