Guest Blog by Gavin MccLenaghan


Does knowing your values make you a good person?

Short answer: No. Knowing your values means knowing what makes you a unique human being. What scenarios in the physical world give you positive and negative emotional reactions. Knowing your values tells you what scenarios you will want to create, or prevent, so that you can thrive on your terms.

Being a “Good” person means your adherence to a moral code of conduct. It grants, or concedes, legitimacy to that moral code of conduct to determine good from bad behaviour. Religions, whole societies, groups, and clubs have their own codes of conduct. So, one could be a good Christian, a good Canadian, a good employee, and a good teammate. These moral codes of conduct are designed primarily to make sure the group, as an entity, will survive and thrive. The survival and thriving of individuals within these groups is often a secondary concern, and thriving is often reserved for the privileged few within groups. Regardless, being recognized as “good” is always confined to the scope of the social group who’s moral code of conduct you are judged against.

Therefore, being a “Good” person within a group and thriving on your terms as an individual is not guaranteed to be one-and-the-same thing. Your personal thriving (or lack thereof) within one or more groups may have one of these outcomes:

  1. You may be fortunate enough to end up belonging to a selection of groups that fosters your thriving as an individual with or without explicitly knowing your values.
  2. You may be resigned or satisfied to limit your conditions of survival or caps on your ability to thrive for various reasons. But being resigned or satisfied within limits means accepting that you will be “smaller” than your potential.
  3. Knowing your values will enable you to select (and opt out of) various aspects of the various groups along with adding unencouraged or unsanctioned activities supportive of you thriving. This may come with some level of conflict between the group and yourself.

However, any social group that values the thriving of its members cannot maintain a static and unchanging code of conduct. Two reasons:

  1. A moral code of conduct is unlikely to be perfectly fair to all group members.
  2. Circumstances change such that the group will face challenges to it thriving or even surviving.

So, within these groups there has to be some level of acknowledgement and acceptance that:

  1. All humans want some advantage for themselves or their in-group; but,
  2. The non-psychopathic 98 per cent of humanity will settle for something that is fair.

And what is fair is, again, never perfect or static. So, determining what is “fair” requires ongoing group discussion, negotiation, and debate. This is the genius and difficult part of a liberal democracy.

When a group has members that know their values (and the values of the group and of the broader population beyond the group) the entire group and individual members obtain the following benefits:

  1. When individuals know their values, they know what makes them unique individuals. This comes with the corollary knowledge that others are also unique individuals. Making them more open to accepting without judgement values other than their own.
  2. By knowing values, it helps cut short the time spent in conflict over positions and even interests with the realization that values can be satisfied through various policies, rules, and norms.
  3. Knowing when values are fundamentally at odds facilitates a divergence of paths with minimal resentment when possible, and focuses conflict on the actual issue when necessary, minimizing the collateral damage from conflict.
  4. All groups have some level of discretion in decision making and norms of behaviour. Knowing individual and group values gives guidance and support on what is “Right” and expected. Those disadvantaged by the poor exercise of discretion or norms have the benefit of language to talk about the transgression.  Additionally, they should have an expectation of group support by virtue of the group’s individual members purported buy-in of the violated values. (In contrast, rules should support the group values, but will always have gaps and loop-holes that may be exploited by those that don’t feel bound to group values. Therefore, buy-in to group rules doesn’t guarantee a buy-in to group values, or even that group values are settled.)
  5. An understanding of values enables individuals to proactively see threats and opportunities when circumstances change, making it more likely changes will be dealt with proactively rather than reactively. And a proactive, considered, response is more likely to succeed than a kneejerk reaction.

Assume being a “Good” person can generically be described as someone who survives and thrives without unfairly taking advantage of others as well as assisting and enabling others to do the same both individually and within groups. (Note this is a value statement, so is not objectively good or bad outside that statement of values.) Within this understanding, someone who knows their values will have a much easier time being a good person. Additionally, they would face more barriers to becoming a bad person as they will both know the harm they do to others as well as need to rationalize away the “better” options that they had to become aware of through understanding their own values.

Guest Blog by Gavin MccLenaghan





VBL has an in person presence in Calgary, Nelson and Bonnyville.