An attempt to list out my core values and virtues

byRuby8d9th Jun 2019No comments


Last week a friend pressed upon me the importance of writing your own culture. It was a small part of a multi-hour conversation, and I'm not sure if I'm interpreted their meaning correctly, but the correct-seeming-to-me position I took from it was something like this:

Write your own culture. Identify your values the things you consider to be virtues. Not those of the broader culture you exist in or those putatively held by the groups in which you have an identity. Those which are yours, for you, separate from what others might value or consider virtuous.

Perhaps for convenience, to date, I would round off my values/virtues to being Rationalist and EA values. Succinct, perhaps easier to communicate or even convenient as an internal mental handle. But with less personal ownership, or something. Like perhaps they're only "my values" because I'm part of those groups. And that's not true. While the groups might have helped me flesh out and identify my values, they are my values. Also when held this way there is far less nuance to them.

I already have them floating around in my head with my own particular characterization. Yet they float around individually, not as a coherent list. So here goes. Here's a first attempt to capture my values and virtues.

(What's the difference between a value and virtue? I'm not sure exactly, but my brain is labeling some items as more one than the other. Maybe values are things I optimize for and virtues are behaviors I endorse.)

(Also, this isn't an exhaustive list of absolutely everything I'd say I care about or think is good. These are top high-level virtues which subsume all the other things for me. I value cake, but cake arises as something I value further down the chain than anything list here.)

My Values/Virtues

(very loose/hazy ordering of priority)

  • Curiosity/ Wanting to know and understand the world.
  • Truth
    • Over what is comfortable or "instrumentally" advantageous.
      • It feels that I would choose truth even if it would destroy me. Though I wouldn't choose it if it would destroy Miranda (or the world) . . . so I guess there are limits.
    • An abhorrence of rationalization.
    • A revulsion of arguments (or even countenancing the possibility) that truth should be sacrificed for some other gain. I'm not saying that I never would, but I find the suggestion viscerally emotionally upsetting and offensive (perhaps irrationally and dogmatically so).
    • Related to truth, it feels I have an utmost virtue of accepting arguments and reasoning that seem correct and to have lead to true conclusions. Combined with Integrity, that means I will act on arguments even if they lead to unconventional places.
    • Eliezer's 12 Virtues of [Epistemic] Rationality are my virtues because they fall under truth. (The virtue of scholarship also falls under Curiosity.)
    • Downstream of overall Truth and Curiosity is the desire for self-knowledge.
  • A Sense that More is Possible / A Will to Transcendence
    • This feels very core to who I am / want to be. It's a value I pride myself on (my furtive attempt at a personal blog had this title).
    • It's something like, I believe there exist dimensions along which the world can be better or worse, and it is good to make it better. Surely if it is possible, you make it better? I feel like I somewhat lack further justification for this feeling, but that's the feeling I have. We should make things as good as they can be. (Perfect the universe I say, as the goal to aim for even if it's not a realistic/meaningful target).
    • I have uncertainty about what better and more mean exactly. I have guesses and strong feeling (like suffering is bad, knowledge is good), but I place extremely extremely low probability on all states of the world being equally good. For now, push in the obvious directions [1].
    • I do have a very strong sense that the world is a hellova lot better than it used to be. So much change in, in so little time. Much of the time I feel baffled that people don't look at the last few hundred years (or even their own lifetimes), look at the progress of technology, and aren't resultantly clamoring in the streets for why don't we speed up the goddamn progress so we can get to the goddamn utopian future which is just a super reasonable extrapolation of what is possible given our knowledge of the laws of physics and recent history.
    • I am part of the world - and importantly, I am the part of the world I affect the world through - so my own self-improvement is especially important.
      • And I have a solid sense of the many, many ways I could be better.
    • This value/virtue is powerful. It motivates me. It's also dangerous in that it pushes me towards dissatisfaction, always looking at what could be but isn't. I struggle with this. I've been an advocate of Acceptance Commitment Therapy (an Eastern-influenced psychotherapy) for seven years since it helps with this kind of dilemma. I'm still working to enjoy the good things that already are while still striving hard for all that could be.
  • There are better and worse ways for the world to be.
    • This is already subsumed in the Sense that More is Possible but somewhat feels fundamental enough to have it's own high-level bullet point.
  • Optimizing the whole / Long-termism / Making local sacrifices/ Foregoing marshmallows
    • Part of a Sense that More is Possible is wanting to optimize everything across all of time and space. And global optimization often requires local sacrifice. That's just like super basic.
    • I cultivate this as a core virtue. Always be aware if you are sacrificing the whole for the sake of a part. When there is possibility for so much, don't get short-sighted.
    • The result is I'm willing to work on very long and slow feedback loops, generally delaying gratification for some time.
      • Recently I fear I've been doing this too much (i.e. in a way that does not optimize the whole) and am dialing back a little. Maybe it's that being a multiagent agent is hard.
    • I think this value/virtue/attitude is why I've always disliked the question of what would a perfect day look like for you?" Perfection isn't a concept I can apply to days in isolation.
  • Quantitative-Sensitivity
    • One person suffering is bad. Two people suffering is worse. This seems kind of basically true even now I'm not sure how to argue for it. (I dislike that I don't have a better basis, but maybe I can work on that.)
    • Accepting that quantities matter, I follow that through. I shut up and multiply.
    • Shut up and multiplying is a core virtue.
  • Empathy / Caring for Sentient Beings
    • It seems I just do. [Many times,] if I see someone suffering before me, I feel it, and I don't like it. That is not how I want the world to be. I will invest my effort to change. Not just that, I want the flourishing of sentient beings. Being quantitatively-sensitive and trying to optimize the whole, I try to scale up. This feels like the obvious thing to do.
    • A virtue here is that you don't purchase your own benefit at the expense of others.
    • This is related to cooperation as well, but I take Consideration to be an important virtue. You're supposed to think about the effects of your actions on others. All things equal, you don't put your own utility in front of there's (if anything, apply a heavy discount around your own to counter self-serving biases). Most practically, I avoid being late and really, really hate canceling/rescheduling on people.
  • Cooperation
    • This just feels like so obviously the correct thing to do that you just do it. Obviously, we all gain more from cooperation, especially if we have shared values. If not for cooperation, we'd still be single-celled organisms, if that.
    • It's hard, it takes effort, but obviously obviously you push to make it happen.
    • You try to have all the virtues that make it possible. You are honest (or at least meta-honest), you're reliable, predictable, you do what you say will, and act in accordance with your stated beliefs.
    • I really, really prefer to be honest. I lump this under cooperation, but I think it's also part of connection, (and also deception is stressful, but I don't endorse honesty as a virtue because of that).
      • I'm more ready to be dishonest with others though than with myself. By far. If others have chosen to enter into an adversarial situation with me, I don't owe it to them to ensure they have an accurate map with which to harm me.
    • I try very hard to do what I say I will. I honor contracts and agreements and pledges, even when it ends up being costly or if I regret the commitment. Most of the time it means I'll go to lengths to avoid being late. Once I pledged to stay in a job for nine months longer and I did even when I wasn't enjoying it.
    • Cooperation flows naturally from optimizing the whole too. Sure, you can get ahead today via defection, but in the long-term, cooperation wins out.
  • Connection
    • It seems that I value connecting with other minds. This feels kind of weird, but maybe only because I came to recognize it explicitly later than the other values and virtues listed her.
    • I'm not sure what "connecting" means exactly, but it's a thing and it seems good and something I want and value.
  • Gratitude
    • I have always felt gratitude very strongly and deeply. If someone has done something which has benefited me, I am thankful and wish to do good by them too.
    • My feelings of gratitude are evoked by even small things and the feelings will last for years.
    • Is this ideal? I don't know. I haven't thought through the arguments, but I embrace it as a personal-virtue I am happy to have.
    • I suspect it gratitude is in large part what grows into loyalty for me. I think that I am rather loyal
  • Meta-Virtue: Integrity
    • Integrity is the meta-virtue of having your values and virtues and acting in accordance with them. The commitment to living by them. It's kind of weird to need this meta-virtue, but I think you can praise a person for commitment to the values and virtues somewhat independently of sharing their values and virtues.


I can't tell you exactly where I'm going, but I can sure see which direction the arrow points.
It's easier, in a way, to talk about the negative motivations — ending disease, decreasing existential risk, that sort of thing — because those are the things that I'm pretty sure of, in light of uncertainty about what really matters to me. I don't know exactly what I want, but I'm pretty sure I want there to be humans (or post-humans) around to see it.
But don't confuse what I'm doing with what I'm fighting for. The latter is much harder to describe, and I have no delusions of understanding.
You don't get to know exactly what you're fighting for, but the world's in bad enough shape that you don't need to.

From You don't get to know what you're fighting for on Minding Our Way