Good Values and Evil Actions

 

Values describe the personal qualities we choose to embody to guide our actions; the sort of person we want to be; the manner in which we treat ourselves and others, and our interaction with the world around us.

 

from ethicssage.com

Can a value be inherently negative?

It wasn’t a question I had even considered until this past Friday, when I was facilitating a conversation about coaching clients around values for the Virginia chapter of the ICF (International Coach Federation).

And there it was: Greed. One coach brought greed to the table as a negative value that a person might hold. What made it all the more interesting was that earlier in the conversation, a coach has offered that values are inherently and uniquely positive.

Me? I see a both/and here.

Let’s break it down – after all, our values tend to be among the many features in our internal landscape that have big impact while often staying hidden. Here’s the graphic I used in my presentation:

Our most meaningful goals stem from our values and feed into our daily or regular actions

 

What does this even mean? At the end of the meeting, I invited the coaches to brainstorm this flow starting with a value of curiosity, a value I figured was held to greater or lesser degree by everyone in the meeting. Curiosity is, after all, a core coaching tool.

When I asked what goals might be associated with a value of curiosity, one participant suggested “engaging in childlike wonder.” When I asked what that would look like broken down into daily or regular action, she suggested, with a twinkle of impishness, asking “Why?” until the other person was annoyed. (Fair warning: I’m absolutely going to use this.)

Here we see curiosity as a value being utilized in a playful and positive way, with an action that embodies the idea of wanting to learn, understand, know more.

Could curiosity be used for evil instead of good?

Tuned to a different frequency, curiosity could be enacted as reading a loved one’s diary, engaging in gossip, even hacking into someone else’s computer or accounts.

How about greed, the example that launched this thought experiment? Is it its own value or is greed an enactment of a value that could be positive if enlivened at a different frequency?

What if we traced greed as an action to a value of security? A person driven by security might double down efforts at an unfulfilling job to ensure enough income and good benefits for herself or her family. She might drive an older car, buy her clothes second-hand, and cook all her own meals so that more of her income can go into savings. She might buy a house well below her budget and double-up on payments to build equity and pay it off sooner.

So far so good.

Tweak the frequency, though, and she’s cooking the books at work while she skims profits into a secret account: greed.

I have yet to think up a value that’s inherently negative; instead, I find broad values that can be enacted in problematic ways. Then again, I’m biased as a person who has a longstanding belief that there are no bad people, though there are an unfortunate number of people behaving in deeply problematic ways thanks to poor information, distorted world views and, yes, values tuned to regrettable frequencies.

My challenge to you is to run the thought experiment yourself. You could start at the top of the graphic, with values themselves (here’s a list by Brené Brown as a jumping-off point) and imagine positive and negative goals and actions that could stem from those values. You could also start at the bottom, with actions you’ve witnessed, enacted, or heard of, and trace them up to values; can you then imagine those same values being enacted in more positive ways?

Let me know what you discover!


I invited that crew of coaches to claim their spot in my free, open-armed community, The Bigger Badder Crew; we have a spot set aside for you, too. If you’re ready to see how your values might be informing your actions and what values your actions might be enlivening, let’s get a coaching consult on the books. The new year is ripe with opportunity!