Values Clarification Exercise

Let’s begin by considering your own values very carefully.  We can start now but this process can be hard work, and may take some time, as you work through your thoughts and try to apply your values in daily life.  So think of “values clarification” as an ongoing process and try to reconsider these things each day.  Although it can be challenging at times to question yourself so deeply, this has a reputation for being an exercise many people find extremely enlightening and rewarding.  It’s a modern echo of the Socratic approach to ethics, which centred on the use of rational questioning and reflection, and the attempt to expose and resolve inconsistencies in our thinking.  In the Discourses of Epictetus, we can read transcribed conversations showing him employing a similar “Socratic” method in debate with his students.

In a sense, we’re facing the ultimate question…  What’s the most important thing in life, to you?  What are your deepest values?  Can you actually put them into words and clarify them in your own mind?  When they’re clear in your mind, your deepest values can give you a sense of direction and help to define your personal philosophy.  However, if you’re unclear or confused about them, then you may potentially feel quite lost and frustrated.  It’s within your power to gain further clarity, through your own reflections, and discussions with others, though.  So how much time have you spent recently exploring your own conception of the most important things in life?  How much time each day do you spend living in accord with these values?  Where are you heading?  What sort of person are you becoming and what direction is your life taking?

To what use then am I putting my own soul?  Never fail to ask yourself this question and to cross-examine yourself thus: “What am I making of this part of me they call the ‘central faculty’ of the mind?  And whose soul do I have now anyway?  The soul of a child?  Of a youth? […] Of a tyrant?  Of a grazing animal?  Of a wild beast? Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, 5.11

[q_question title=”Direct Questions” text=”Try using the following questions now to clarify your core values and conception of virtue…”]

  • What’s ultimately the most important thing in life to you?
  • What do you want your life to “stand for” or “be about”?
  • What would you most like your life to be remembered for after you’ve died?
  • What sort of thing do you most want to spend your life doing?
  • What sort of person do you most want to be in your various relationships and roles in life, e.g., as a parent, a friend, at work, and in life generally?

[/q_question]
You should keep returning to these very fundamental questions.  Perhaps even talk to your friends about them, if possible.  If you’re ready, the next page contains many more questions, to help you take your philosophical self-examination further…

The Stoic Handbook

Sign up today for our free email course on the Stoic Handbook. You'll receive weekly emails with my commentary on passages from Epictetus.

We won't send you spam. Unsubscribe at any time. Powered by ConvertKit

29 replies on “Values Clarification Exercise”

I’d say love is the supreme value. If you had a loving attitude all other virtues would flow out of it.

Would a loving attitude mean unconditional love? Should an abusee love their abuser? Or is love more conditional on the virtues of others, but in a non-judgmental sense you have a more loving approach to strangers.

Do you love yourself even if your un-virtuous? If not, then why should others be given this luxury?

I am not trying to attack or probe you, because I’ll be the first to admit that I’ve made some assumptions. But, I don’t know if love can be the supreme value. It requires you and others to already by virtuous.

Parents love children without tolerating bad behaviors. People love their parents even when they leave home because of mistreatment, as do spouses and lovers. It happens all the time. We are even encouraged–in most philosophies, including Stoicism–to love strangers, including those who wish us harm.

I kinda get what your saying in both replies, but It just doesn’t click in my head. I can think of some terrible people and admit that I have no love for them. You can say, ‘love the person, hate their actions’ (or something similar), but I say that the person IS their actions, so hating their actions is hating the person.

Interesting debate!

This reminds me of a picture or a video i saw after the terrorists attacks in Paris, France. Someone said something like – I wont give you the satisfaction of hating you for what you did.
I thought that was such an amazing response after something so bad.

Do people do bad things to reach out for attention or to be loved?

Really good question, and I do admit that there is something beautiful about that response.

Breaking it down to a fundamental level, people(famously children) act out in an irrational way in an attempt to get attention and/or get what they want. It’s fundamentally human as a baby can only express that they want something by acting out. Never the less, adults do it all the time and their irrational behavior is reinforced if you give them the attention. In this fundamental way, the person you talk about had the perfect response.

But, why it bothers me(less lately) and others, is that it gets confused for acceptance. It is very important to still uphold the value of justice when having this stoic approach. Not to get political… but sometimes justice isn’t acted upon in the correct way because some people come from this approach that by showing injured snake compassion means the snake won’t bite them. See this all the time with people who start relationships with abusive people or w/e. They always end up getting bit.

Just as a side note, I think alot of people have this perception about Stoicism. Even in these comment sections I’ve seen people express their concern about stoicism not being realistic and that they’ll just get used and abused if they adopt the philosophy. I don’t think they are correct, but I think the philosophy doesn’t do a good enough job in stating the importance of Justice.

I’ll admit that Im a novice, so maybe others can help me out, but here is an overly simple example of Stoicism in a similar scenario:

You find out your girlfriend is cheating on you. You do not prefer this behavior, but what is done is done. You can not control her and she has free will. But she lied and broke promises, and that you do not like. You decide to end the relationship as this person is not honest. You do not get irrate or angry, but you are alittle angry and sad. But, nothing lasts for ever and you accept this and move on……

To me, thats stoicism. You don’t accept the bad behavior, but you don’t freak out or all of that stuff either. Stoics aren’t push overs.

Yes. That’s a fair characterisation of a Stoic response. It’s the concept of preference or selective value that people often overlook, although arguably that’s the defining characteristic that makes Stoicism what it is.

At a certain point you come to understand that “hate” itself is a waste of your time. It is unnecessary and unfruitful for you and your growth. It doesn’t accomplish anything for you or for anyone else. It isn’t a “peace, love and understanding” kind of thing, necessarily, but a practical matter of personal growth. Hate gets in the way. Hate is anger in another disguise. Hate is rationalized anger, nothing more. Everything you hate is a distraction from what you should be focused upon.

Some people disagree and believe it is the other way around, that anger springs from hate, and I can easily see that point; or that there is some vicious cycle taking place. It is hard to place exactly. Some of us are taught to hate things/people/ideas early on. Some of us are taught anger as a tool early on. It really doesn’t make any difference which way we enter this cycle, but the “natural” part of it has to do with “defensiveness” if my understanding is correct, and that is the core issue to which we all have to return, ultimately. We either learn to deal with our natural defensiveness and the anger/hate/fear response that it creates in us, or we don’t, and the better we deal with it, the earlier we deal with it, the better off we are in life. If, every time some stimulus X occurs that causes a defensive response Y (be it anger, hate or fear) we will be more likely to respond that way again to a similar stimulus in the future. If we can inhibit that response any number of times by our own effort, by the force of our own will, we reduce that likelihood significantly. I know I am a plodder, a master at saying what is obvious, and this is what is obvious to me.

I am still very much in progress, because I always feel like I am leaving something out or not capturing all my true virtues, but here is my list so far:

Wisdom (knowledge, reason, experience)
Health (good habits, diet, exercise, social interaction)
Discipline (willpower, mastery, perseverance, standards)
Empathy (respect, understanding other’s values)

I will be the first to admit that I am having a hard time categorizing and/or listing some of my more superficial virtues of; beauty, charisma, selfishness, influence, but that no matter I still hold these personal characteristics highly and to say otherwise would be a lie.

I think beauty gets covered in part under health. As ultimately the health aspect of beauty is the only thing that is more or less under your control.

Empathy may be a bad word, but I don’t think empathy means unconditional love. I see it as more of a way to put yourself in someone else shoes, and thus being emphatic is important for charisma and influence, so these may be covered under the empathy umbrella. One main reason I justify empathy as a ‘pillar’ virtue of mine, is because it allows me to understand other’s wants, needs, desires. It’s a way for me to focus on becoming more emphatic (in the umbrella sense which includes charisma and influence and understanding what makes me attractive to others) to gain better relationships, instead of focusing on why people don’t like me for ‘who I am.’

Not all of these may be the right words, but they are at the very least pointing in the right direction of my fundamental values.

Truth – Both to make my own words accord with my actions and mind, but also to make my beliefs correspond to the actual state of the world.

Yea-Saying – This virtue is the origin of much of my disagreement with Stoic conceptions of the good. Yea-saying is a concept central to Nietzsche’s philosophy, and not simple to explain. Simply put, it is about embracing life – embracing the pursuit of it, living life with zeal, to overcome one’s self and create beyond one’s self, to pursue and seize the things in the world that deeply desires, including those beyond yourself.

I actually agree with Stoic philosophy that this sort of desire and ambition will probably cause me suffering. I consider it a price worth paying to achieve what I desire, even simply to desire what I desire – and not merely “prefer”. When this leads me to suffering, I have come to be content with it.

Loyalty – To cling to one’s ideals, one’s self, one’s friends and such communities as deserve your loyalty. Loyalty to your “higher self”, to not be ruled by any single desire that could come to pervert your other values and dominant your life. There is something of a Kantian ethic here, to make one’s actions reflective of how you would others act, not only to one’s self, but to the world as a whole.

Appreciation of Beauty – There are many things within life that are beautiful – the dawn, a beautiful song, an expanse of nature, a towering monument. We can learn and study to more deeply appreciate these things, and the vast meaning held within them, enhancing our lives as a whole. More than anything I listed earlier, I find that people are beautiful – each striving to express different virtues and a different way, often in surprising combinations and extraordinary implementations. In the same vein as one values art – that you would not have a single style of art triumph, or a single medium of painting, but that a thousand schools and ways would all flourish in a quest for self-perfection, forming, combining, and separating again in endless self-creation.

When you write about yea-saying and how you believe it’s a price worth paying, are you not living in accordance with your own particular nature if you’re willing to endure in order find what you personally value?

Glenn H – This is essentially Nietzsche’s response to the Stoics – we are already living in accordance with nature, and that there is nothing wrong with a nature that prefers to suffer in response to certain events.

I guess in a stoic sense, suffering isn’t bad, it’s indifferent. We all have emotions, and stoic aren’t trying to ignore them or supers them in any way, but by not ruminating and judging emotions you can experience that emotion more naturally and without secondary emotions. For instance, if you are to get nervous a common secondary emotion is also shame. Where as a stoic would be just as nervous, but wouldn’t feel ashamed of being nervous.

Is it okay if I don’t know the answer to some of these questions at the moment? I would have to further explore these within myself frequently for clarification, I think.

Wow. This week’s questions and exercises could easily take the whole course, or more. It’s a very valuable line of inquiry and one that I wish I’d done long ago.

The most valuable thing in life, to me, turns out to be “living in accordance with nature” and all that that means. Guess I’ve come to the right place. Over the long run I plan to try to explore physics as well as ethics, as our context as humans is a key issue to me.

For now, I’ve made a list of the most pertinent questions for me and I’m trying to tackle them one by one. This could take some time.

Regarding the daily exercise, I’m going to work with the cardinal virtue of courage as I’m feeling rather shallow in that regard.

This part of the exercise has taken a shocking amount of my time! And no, I’m not quite through it. Just sharing!

Wow! The first question is challenging, but I can say things like “live sanely, love those around me, live with quiet gratitude, etc.” The second question, however, ‘What do you want your life to “stand for or to ‘be about’?” just stops me dead in the water. My journey with stoicism over the last year has lead me to think a lot about how I live life each day, but not very much about why or to what purpose. Great questions.

I haven’t really managed to pin mine down yet, but I would like to say thank you to the people on this page who have shared their thoughts and had discussion, reading these has proved more helpful than I expected.

So thank you. 🙂

I agree with all comments below, it is certainly a hard subject. I think it will be even harder to live by them daily without fail.

These are the themes running through all my answers to the questions:

Family/god
putting others before myself
working hard/self discipline
integrity/standing up for what i believe in, or right or wrong
string character in the sense of being kind, generous patient, forgiving, loving honest

If anyone is interested, I recommend Stephen R. Covey’s book ‘First Things Frst’ for some good exercises relating to this topic.

First, I’d like to be able to face life directly and deal with it, regardless of what I get. So I think strength is a top priority. And by strength, I mean I’d like to be as mentally, physically and emotionally strong as my situation allows.

Second, I hope to be able to step back and think rather than react. I’d like to do the rational thing and not the reactive thing.

And ultimately, I’d like to spend my life choosing to be happy. In doing so, I wish I could inspire those around me to do the same. This would make my overall environment a place I would prefer.

So in order of importance, I think I would go with:
Happiness
Strength
Intelligence

These are difficult questions. I’m not sure I have the answers yet, but two words always seem to consistently come up in my reflections: knowledge and stability.

Avoiding Poison Sumac. (Just kidding. I spent the previous week battling a sever case of poison Sumac which delayed from completing week 2. Playing catch up now…

The most important thing in life to me me is living a contented and happy life.
I want my life to stand for spreading a secular world view that self updates based on new information.
I would like to be remembered as a person who was always striving to improve myself and others.
I would like to spend my life trying to maximize my full potential.
I would like to be the sort of person that remains centered, calm and present in all my relationships.

I find the idea of aligning behaviour to values very powerful. If I value spending time usefully, then drifting around facebook automatically becomes less attractive. If I value friendship, I need to factor time in to spend with people I care about. Stating the values explicitly really helps. Might even pin them up in the kitchen when I get home.

I just noticed that my previous post mentions ‘time’ twice. My top value is love, whether of people, the natural world, or the divine – and love embodies goodness, joy, beauty, duty, discipline and probably other things. I think the reason ‘time’ is in the equation is that our lives in this particular incarnation are a not even a blink in the scheme of things so living fully is a value of mine, ‘waking up’ in other words. Living fully means not wasting time and energy on what can’t be helped – ie stoic values.

Leave a Reply to asnen Cancel reply