Creating Your Hierarchy of Values

By Don Watkins

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Photo by Sean Stratton on Unsplash

Thanksgiving is supposed to be a day when we show gratitude for our values. But what I’ve been reflecting on is how to value.

In Human Action, the great economist Ludwig von Mises writes that, “Now, we must realize that valuing means to prefer a to b.”

Well, that’s easy! Everyone can prefer a to b! Only here’s what Ayn Rand wrote in the margins of her copy of Human Action next to this statement.

No, it doesn’t! “Choice” means this. “Value” and “choice” are not the same concepts. . . . “Valuing” means measurement by means of a standard. . . . Example: the “value” of a girl to a lover is not that he prefers her to other girls; he had to have a standard which made him prefer her; he could have chosen none if none filled his standard.

This idea that valuing requires formulating a standard and selecting things by that standard is all over Rand’s writings (which doesn’t mean I didn’t completely miss this point for an embarrassingly long time). For example, Howard Roark starts off The Fountainhead by telling the Dean about his architectural standards, which he uses to select every aspect of a building’s design.

And then, of course, there is morality as such, which defines a standard of value by which we’re to select all of our values.

But how do we use a moral standard to guide our choices and actions? How do we translate it into the specific, concrete values that make up our life — and how do we use that standard to govern our value choices in practice?

Fascinatingly, Rand’s core answer is to be found, not in her ethical writings, but in Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology:

A moral code is a set of abstract principles; to practice it, an individual must translate it into the appropriate concretes — he must choose the particular goals and values which he is to pursue. This requires that he define his particular hierarchy of values, in the order of their importance, and that he act accordingly.

To value, then, means formulating a standard of value, selecting values by the standard, and ranking them hierarchically in order of importance. She elaborates on this in “Ethics of Emergencies,” here stressing the negative obligation imposed by a hierarchy of values:

“Sacrifice” is the surrender of a greater value for the sake of a lesser one or of a nonvalue. Thus, altruism gauges a man’s virtue by the degree to which he surrenders, renounces or betrays his values (since help to a stranger or an enemy is regarded as more virtuous, less “selfish,” than help to those one loves). The rational principle of conduct is the exact opposite: always act in accordance with the hierarchy of your values, and never sacrifice a greater value to a lesser one.

This applies to all choices, including one’s actions toward other men. It requires that one possess a defined hierarchy of rational values (values chosen and validated by a rational standard). Without such a hierarchy, neither rational conduct nor considered value judgments nor moral choices are possible.

Surprisingly, there has been very little written about how to form a hierarchy of values. The major piece of guidance we get from Rand is that formulating a hierarchy requires a “central value that integrates and determines the hierarchy of all” our other values — namely, “productive work.” (“The Objectivist Ethics”)

A central purpose serves to integrate all the other concerns of a man’s life. It establishes the hierarchy, the relative importance, of his values, it saves him from pointless inner conflicts, it permits him to enjoy life on a wide scale and to carry that enjoyment into any area open to his mind; whereas a man without a purpose is lost in chaos. He does not know what his values are. He does not know how to judge. He cannot tell what is or is not important to him, and, therefore, he drifts helplessly at the mercy of any chance stimulus or any whim of the moment. He can enjoy nothing. He spends his life searching for some value which he will never find. (Playboy interview)

So is the idea that we just start with career as the top value on our hierarchy and then list all the other things we care about in descending order of importance? Does being selfish mean that a person says, “Well, I like my career, my husband, my dog, Beethoven, and pecan pie” — and then vows never to sacrifice their dog to pecan pie?

One way to get at the answer is to recognize the form in which a good person can end up sacrificing a higher value to a lower value. Through the misallocation of time.

A hierarchy of values is, in essence, a time hierarchy. To value something is to spend time on that pursuit. It would be incoherent to say, “My highest value is my partner, but I spend most of my time with my investment adviser and check in with my partner the last Saturday of the month.”

And yet that’s really easy to do. I mean, not in so extreme a form, but how many people “want” to write a book — and spend three hours a day watching YouTube and debating politics on social media?

A hierarchy of values is a time hierarchy. And that’s precisely why it can’t just be an ordered list of concrete values. Because the implication would be any time spent on a lower value was a sacrifice. “Why are you walking your dog instead of sleeping with your girlfriend instead of working on your creative goal?”

If you want really practical advice on how to form and implement a hierarchy of values, I highly recommend listening to the latest episode of Alex Epstein’s Human Flourishing Project, “How to Spend Time.” Alex points out that any undifferentiated list of concrete values suffers from the problem of incommensurability. What you get out of your career is vastly different from what you get out of love making is vastly different from what you get out of reviewing your investment portfolio.

What he recommends is that you start with a more abstract set of value pursuits that together will constitute how you use your time. I’m not going to try to summarize every element of what he says, but the basic idea is that there are a few major buckets of life-promoting values: creation, recreation, rejuvenation, reflection, companions, resources, environment, physical health, mental health. These are the areas in which you have to pursue and achieve values that will cohere into a self-sustaining life. These are the areas in which you have to divide up your time.

And you can see, I think, how it’s a lot easier to prioritize time among those areas than between having sex and investing.

Then, within a given category, you can make a ranked list of concrete values. So you might think, okay, I’m going to devote 14 hours this week to companions. And my hierarchy of companions might be: my wife, my kids, my best friend, my other friends. So most of my time is going to go to my wife and kids. Then I’m going to spend Saturday night with my best friend, and hop on a Zoom call with an old college buddy Sunday morning.

Alex also notes that for some of these areas, you’ll want to further subdivide before going to ranked lists. For example, under recreation you could still end up with incommensurable activities if you immediately tried to list all of the various things you like doing with your free time. And so he recommends breaking that category down into values like exercise, inspiration, learning, excitement, pleasure — and then making ranked lists of specific values. Once you’ve gotten your hour of exercise for the day, for example, you’re not going to go for a hike — you might watch a documentary or listen to Swan Lake.

This shouldn’t be a mechanical process. It’s not that you work out some comprehensive hierarchy that will thereafter dictate how you spend your time, like it or not. Though you will have many enduring values that shape your life, the important thing is this idea of constantly thinking about your values, how they fit together, and how you can spend the most time on the things that matter most.

It should be a deeply pleasurable process. Whereas all too many people live in a reactive state, doing what they “got to do” and putting out fire after fire, your life should be dominated by what you choose to do — choose, not in Mises’s sense of raw selection of one thing over another, but in Rand’s sense of methodically selecting how to spend your time so that it adds up to a life filled with flourishing.

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