What are human values? - Thoughts and challenges

by Chris_Leong 2 min read2nd Nov 20196 comments


Epistemic Status: Rough outline of ideas

The first step in achieving a goal is knowing what you want. But in order to answer this question, we first need to know what it means to want. Do we care more about your desires at the point of the decision or at the point of the experience? Do we care more about what you want emotionally or what you want cognitively? Ultimately, there's no real meaning to the word "want" inscribed in the universe, there's just a whole bunch of related meanings clustered under the same term. I'll try to break this down, but unfortunately I can only sketch a rough non-empirically based model as this post really just needs to be written by a neuroscientist or psychologist.

Our brain seems to consist of three main subsystems. Firstly, we have emotional systems like pleasure, pain, desire, disinterest, rightness and wrongness. These trigger at various times: contemplation of a possible choice or outcome, after locking in a decision, after learning about the outcome, whilst experiencing the outcome and in self-reflection afterwards. We may switch from positive to negative and back again at different stages and this may be because our preferences have changed or it may just be a consistent conflict between our preferences. For example, we may feel inspired when considering a physical challenge, hate every moment of the experience and then feel a real sense of achievement when we are done.

Secondly, we have the cognitive components. These can be explicit goals ("I must achieve X"), things to be avoided ("I must not fail"), moral imperatives ("I have an obligation to protect X") and decisions ("I will prioritise my long term happiness over temporary pleasures"). Again, these evaluations may change during an experience or afterwards and it's not always clear whether this is us updating our preferences, keeping our preference and learning more information or some of our preferences being fake and merely for social signalling.

Thirdly, we have intuition or a sense that certain actions will be good or bad. This may oppose our explicit cognitive components, for example, a man who is consciously trying to become a lawyer, but subconsciously sabotaging themselves because they think they'd hate it. This is separate from the emotional system as we can have an intuition that we'll hate something without feeling dread about the possibility of it occurring.

Further complications arise. Firstly, it isn't clear how separate the cognitive, intuitive and emotional components really are. Perhaps some cognitions or intuitions intrinsically have certain emotions attached to them Secondly, those who believe in qualia will want the actual qualia to be treated as a seperate component from the information processing components of emotions. Thirdly, our emotional subsystems can respond differently to the same idea framed in a different way and who can say which framing is neutral.

Lastly, we can use these systems to evaluate each other and they may come to different conclusions. For example, our cognitive system might think it is logical to accept one hour of pain for two of equivalent pleasure, but our emotional system may strongly reject such a proposition due to some kind of loss aversion. So then we end up trying to adjudicate meta-level issues such as whether we care more about what our cognitive system thinks or our emotional system, but we can't decide this without choosing a system to decide. And if, for example, we choose our cognitive system as meta-level decider and tells us that we should prefer it on the object level too, then that hardly seems like a fair way of resolving this internal disagreement.

So there's a sense in which these question are meaningless, but I expect that most people also feel very strongly that we should resolve it a particular way and that seems somewhat confusing. I'll finish by acknowledge that I haven't quite reached the point where I've completely dissolved the issue to my own satisfaction, but at the same time, being aware of all these different subsystems seems like significant progress towards the answer.