An attempt to list out my core values and virtues

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