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Values and Morals Clarification: Value Changes

Mark Dombeck, Ph.D.

Moral understanding is not the only thing that changes as people mature. People's values tend to change over time as well. Values that suited you as a child change as you become a young adult, form relationships and make your way in the world. What makes sense to you as a single person no longer makes sense when you are married, or have children. What makes sense to you as a parent no longer makes sense to you when you retire. Many themes remain the same across the years, to be sure, but not all of them do.

Humanist psychologists propose that people have an innate sense of values and personal preferences that tends to get buried under layers of social demands and expectations (social morals). Part of the human journey involves the gradual rediscovery of these innate and highly personal desires, which get unconsciously hidden away when they are seen to conflict with society's demands. You may have a desire to do artwork, but you become a banker instead simply because this pleases your perfectionist and worried parents. You may have homosexual inclinations, but get married (to an opposite sex spouse) and have children, simply because to do otherwise in your family and community would be unheard of and shameful.

There are other reasons why you might be out of touch with your values. Sometimes people don't have the attention to wonder what their values are because they are too busy trying to survive. Values only become important as motivators when your basic needs are are already met.

It is a good idea to become more conscious of your true current values, because your true current values are your best guide to how to live a better life. You can accomplish this values consciousness by completing a values and morals inventory which will help you to examine what it is that you want for you, and compare those desires to the moral desires that society (or higher principles) have for you. Most well socialized people will find that there is a whole lot of correspondence between what you want and what society wants. If you are honest, however, you'll sometimes find that there are areas and aspects of your life where society wants one thing from you and you want something different.

To make the inventory, simply ask yourself what you want from life. Explore your wants and desires in depth.

  • List out what you value, what you want from life and how you want to live. Also list out what you think you're supposed to want, and what other people who are important to you want for you.
  • Look for two sorts of discrepancies:
    • Discrepancies between what you want and what society wants,
    • Discrepancies between what you want and where you're actually at.

Do this so as to determine if you are someone who largely lives out their values, or if you are instead someone who does one thing and believes another thing. If you If you act differently than you believe you should, why is that so? What is stopping you from acting the way you want to act?

Are you someone who lives a moral life (acting in accordance with what other people want from you), or are you someone who desires a different sort of life, (something that many people would find to be "immoral"). If you desire something "immoral", ask yourself why you think this is so, and whether or not the thing you desire is discouraged by society for good reasons. Is there anything inherently abusive about what you want, for instance?

We (the authors) take it for granted that inherently abusive behaviors are fundamentally immoral and wrong, but that many other sorts of behaviors which don't actually end up hurting other people should be allowed some "wiggle room".

You may desire homosexual contact, but not act upon that urge because your society says that it is immoral and wrong to be a homosexual. Homosexuality that involves consenting sexuality between adults is not abusive by nature. Whether or not it is "bad" in an absolute sort of sense, therefore, has a lot more to do with whether you decide that your values should be determined completely by society, or whether your own internal desires should play a role in determining your values. If you value and believe the common orthodox religious idea that homosexuality is a form of sin, then you really need to take steps to not act out on your homosexual impulses. However, if you value the scientific position (that homosexuality is a normal and benign variation of human sexuality), then you need to think seriously about whether it makes sense to suppress your desires. Whatever you end up doing, make sure that it is your values that you are acting on, and not someone else's.

A different sort of desire that is inherently abusive, such as pedophilic desires for adult-child sexual contact is never appropriate, in our view (and the view of most everyone). Religious groups abhor such behavior for their own reasons, but so too does the scientific view, which understands how such contacts can profoundly traumatize and injure children. Only a very small group of other pedophiles would ever try to justify such abusive behavior (and they'd be quite wrong and quite selfish in so doing).

A take-home lesson here is that when you have a conflict between your values and morality, stop and carefully examine why this conflict exists. Look to see whether different segments of society disagree about whether something is abusive, or whether society is largely in agreement that something is abusive. If most groups take a unified view against something you want to do, you should be concerned that there is an objectively legitimate reason for why that thing you want to do is a bad idea. In such a case, you should not act on your desire.

Use the knowledge you gain about your values to focus your self-help efforts and to motivate yourself to achieve your self-help goals. As you narrow the gap between what your values are and how you behave, you are likely to feel better and better about yourself.