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.

LinkedIn meets Tinder in this mindful networking app

Swipe right to make the connections that could change your career.

Getty Images
Sponsored
Swipe right. Match. Meet over coffee or set up a call.

No, we aren't talking about Tinder. Introducing Shapr, a free app that helps people with synergistic professional goals and skill sets easily meet and collaborate.

Keep reading Show less

Space toilets: How astronauts boldly go where few have gone before

A NASA astronomer explains how astronauts dispose of their, uh, dark matter.

Videos
  • When nature calls in micro-gravity, astronauts must answer. Space agencies have developed suction-based toilets – with a camera built in to ensure all the waste is contained before "flushing".
  • Yes, there have been floaters in space. The early days of space exploration were a learning curve!
  • Amazingly, you don't need gravity to digest food. Peristalsis, the process by which your throat and intestines squeeze themselves, actually moves food and water through your digestive system without gravity at all.
Keep reading Show less

Steven Pinker's 13 rules for writing better

The Harvard psychologist loves reading authors' rules for writing. Here are his own.

NEW YORK, NY - JULY 21: Steven Pinker speaks onstage during OZY Fest 2018 at Rumsey Playfield, Central Park on July 21, 2018 in New York City. (Photo by Brad Barket/Getty Images for Ozy Media)
Personal Growth
  • Steven Pinker is many things: linguist, psychologist, optimist, Harvard professor, and author.
  • When it comes to writing, he's a student and a teacher.
  • Here's are his 13 rules for writing better, more simply, and more clearly.
Keep reading Show less

Can the keto diet help treat depression? Here’s what the science says so far

A growing body of research shows promising signs that the keto diet might be able to improve mental health.

Public Domain
Mind & Brain
  • The keto diet is known to be an effective tool for weight loss, however its effects on mental health remain largely unclear.
  • Recent studies suggests that the keto diet might be an effective tool for treating depression, and clearing up so-called "brain fog," though scientists caution more research is necessary before it can be recommended as a treatment.
  • Any experiments with the keto diet are best done in conjunction with a doctor, considering some people face problems when transitioning to the low-carb diet.
Keep reading Show less