Living Our Values, Closing the Ethical Gap

Jeffrey B. Rubin, PhD, is the author of the new book, The Art of Flourishing: A New East-West Approach to Staying Sane and Finding Love in an Insane World, available June 7, 2011.


We are what we value.

What we care about defines and orients us. We will live very differently if we respect other people and the world around us than if we see the world as a huge amusement park, the sole purpose of which is to entertain us and satisfy our personal appetites. Values are compasses that tell us what is right and what is wrong, and help us find meaning and direction in our lives.

For most of us there is a gap between what we value and how we behave.

An important reason people betray their values is that they fail to understand what they really need. “You can never get enough of what you don’t need to make you happy,” wrote Eric Hoffer in The True Believer. If we aren’t aware of what we need we will be prone to believe that the more we acquire and consume the happier we will be. This sometimes works—temporarily. But it is cotton candy for the soul. It looks good and tastes good but it is a poor substitute for something that is vital and leaves us starved for something that will truly help us flourish.

There are several qualities that might aid us in being more moral in an immoral age. Self-knowledge—wise attention to who we are and how we behave—teaches us what we truly need and how we fit into the world. It can reveal our characteristic blind spots and temptations. It can illuminate our ethical resources.

Self-awareness can help us treat ourselves better, which means respecting and nourishing, rather than indulging and exploiting ourselves. In order to nurture ourselves it is crucial that we know what truly helps us flourish. At the end of their lives most people wish they had had more meaning, purpose, and fulfilling relationships, rather than more money, gadgets, or possessions.

Another crucial aspect of ethically useful self-knowledge is the recognition that we are not really separate from other people—as you fare, so do I. Understanding this makes it more difficult to exploit others because taking advantage of them demeans us, which is like exploiting ourselves. If we help create a toxic society, then we—and our families—can’t help but be poisoned by it too.

Understanding ourselves also entails recognizing our characteristic temptations—which are different for everyone. When we understand the particular desires we are prone to be seduced by, we can resist the siren song of unhealthy appetites and mechanical behavior.

Because self-concern, self-protection, and self-esteem are indispensable for survival, human “self-centeredness” can’t—and shouldn’t—be eliminated, but rather must be handled more wisely. We need to cultivate empathy and compassion for others, even as we cherish, celebrate, and nourish ourselves.

Living our values also entails having the integrity and accountability to learn from our mistakes. We commit to discovering and encouraging the best within ourselves and other people.

One crucial way of living our values is by noticing gaps between our ideals and our behavior, which are often signaled by remorse or regret. I learn more about myself when I study those times when I don’t live up to my self-image and ideals than I do when I either live up to them—or don’t, and deny or rationalize it.

Paying attention to our dreams is another indispensable way of detecting such disparities between who we think we are and who we are. Dreams are an early warning system about emotional conflict and areas of guilt. Studying them keeps us honest.

As does being part of communities of accountability—relationships with individuals and groups of people who value the truth and doing the right thing, not simply making more money or garnering more power or fame. Our truth-seeking friends and mentors can steer us in an ethical direction when our own moral compass is failing.

Developing greater empathy and striving to understand other people from within their frames of reference, expands our moral imagination and decreases the gap between our behavior and our ideals. An important aspect of this is becoming attuned to the impact of our actions on other people.

Lessening the gap between our actions and our ideals can create a civilization with greater morality, heightened trust, and much less discontent.

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