Values, Trauma, and Empathy

Sometimes you're just an a**hole

A few days ago, a pair of tweets caused quite the firestorm, and I wish to discuss them as they relate to a number of topics I've talked about in the past:

Before delving into the always-interesting question of values, let's mention a couple things here:

  1. It is questionable what the distribution of murder rationale looks like. Plenty of instances of "robberies gone wrong" that end in murder, crimes of passion, etc. It is not clear if mr. lawyer here is simply spouting off an article of faith or if he is attempting to justify the legal profession against would-be detractors.

  2. The medicalization of "impure" values/impulses/intentions is particularly disturbing. I am sympathetic to calls for rehabilitation of criminals, but that (in my humble opinion) should not be based on a medicalization of the condition. Many intentional murderers, the ones who would need to be rehabilitated, have been socialized into a set of values and habits that would be just as, if not more, difficult to "treat" as the values and habits of your typical "alt-right" member.

Now that we have that out of the way, let's engage in the meat of this conversation: values. On Friday, I had this to say about values and the "desert of ideology":

All these descriptions of reality fit within a conceptual framework of narrative, motivation, values, and norms. Our understanding of the world is always and everywhere embedded in morality (or, more specifically, our concept/map of moral space).

“To know who I am is to know where I stand. My identity is defined by the commitments and identifications which provide the frame or horizon within which I can try to determine from case to case what is good, or valuable, or what ought to be done, or what I endorse or oppose.”

(Taylor, Sources of the Self)

Our values are the water that give us life. They are what motivate us to keep going. They are what give us meaning. We remain stuck in the desert of ideology because so few people are capable of articulating a positive moral and aesthetic vision. Our values are largely incoherent, and our lives have become sterile as a result. If we wish to rescue ourselves from this torment, we must reckon with what moves us, and then determine if our professed ideologies are actually bringing us to fresh water, or leading us further into the abyss.

Clearly our values are extremely important. So, where do they come from? And are they actually as easy (or difficult) to change as mr. lawyer thinks they are?

Part 1: where do values come from

Our values, the Goods (like honesty, fairness, equality, freedom, etc.) that we consider are valuable/good/worth pursuing, sit at the core of our very being, of how we identify ourselves and of how we engage with the outside world. They are connected in a whole web of evaluations which define me as a person.

Values can come from many places. Some values are what we might call "Ir-/Pre-/Non-rational". We did not come to value these goods through rational consideration. We may later come to value these goods rationally (and the Enlightenment put heavy emphasis on this movement), but the goods we affirm are not all rational. We begin with a Nature, a set of tendencies, which are then cultivated through our engagement with the world around us and our own (later) rational considerations.

One of the most important aspects of value development is socialization:

Put simply, socialization is a process by which individuals become accustomed to, and internalize, the norms, values, and ideologies of the society they live in.


Socialization hands you a packet of ‘Goods’ that the society recognizes and expects you to internalize as your own ‘Goods’. Failure to do so can lead to exclusion, punishment, etc.

Now, is it possible that the Alt-Right (as far as that can be coherently defined) has broadly escaped the Liberal black hole that Left, Right, and Center appear to have fallen into? Sure. But I don't particularly see much of a difference between many of their values and the values presented by an increasingly mainstream ideology of ethno-narcissism. It may be that the only reason you can't empathize with them is not because their values are so foreign, but rather because you're just an a**hole.

On that point, a note: there is a difference between understanding a belief and justifying that belief. I can understand how someone might hold some set of values and then arrive at ideological commitments due to those values. That is empathy. I do not have to endorse those values. I can oppose them wholeheartedly. But empathy is not justification. It is just empathy. And as much as you may think you know the other side, I have found very few people appear to grasp the motivations and rationale that drive their ideological opponents. Simplification, projection, and outright inaccuracy dominate these conversations. Which is why I will once again call for empathy in the face of this. Understand. Don't necessarily justify/affirm.

Understanding how a particular person picks the goods they value out of the variety of goods they are bombarded with on a daily basis is critical. As Charles Taylor explained above, our values sit at the core of our identity. We understand who we are by understanding what we care about. In some sense, all politics are identity politics. Our identities reflect our moral commitments, and our politics are embedded in those moral commitments.

Part 2: so, how do values change

When we think of our maps of moral space, the goods we value (and the evils we try to avoid) are not disconnected: they look more like a web, interlocking and supporting one another. It is this web of goods and evils that forms each of our maps of moral space, providing a "horizon" of goodness to approach.

Before continuing, note that not all goods are equal:

A person almost always values many goods, and it is possible for that person to rank their higher goods. I will not go so far as to argue that individuals must have a single highest good, but we all encounter moral dilemmas: situations where we must pick between which goods to fulfill, as no option fulfills all of them. These dilemmas are critical to our development as people.

So, we are looking at these maps of interlocking values, these maps of moral space. We understand that some values are "higher" than others. If we want to conceptualize the map of moral space as a map of some ground, we might consider these higher goods to have higher peaks (like mountains), and the worst evils to be the deepest valleys. We need to understand how the tectonic plates shift. How new mountains rise, how rivers wear down the land into valleys, etc. What are the forces that cause these changes?

Force 1: Reason

As mentioned earlier, sometimes as we grow our goods shift. We don't steal as children out of fear of punishment from our parents. We don't steal as adults (most of the time) out of respect for the property of others. This is in part a process of socialization as you grow from someone incapable of understanding nuanced social rules into someone who is capable of such a thing; however, this growth also reflects a shift in your moral map. No longer does avoiding punishment become the key driver of action.

The other, arguably more potent, way reason leads to changes in values is when rationalization/articulation of our goods reveals contradiction between them. This can be a deeply painful moment. Many would rather cover their ears, close their eyes, and pretend the contradiction doesn't exist so they don't have to deal with the difficulties of losing one's bearings in the world. But, if the cognitive dissonance becomes too much, the individual will be forced to deal with it and it is likely a rapid shift in values will occur. Slowly, and then all at once.

Force 2: moral dilemmas

When we encounter situations where we must pick between which goods to fulfill (no option fulfills all of them, every option fulfills some while opposes others, etc.), we are in a moral dilemma. These dilemmas are indeed critical to our development as people, and demand us to articulate our moral map. A moral dilemma is kind of like the sun rising above the horizon and burning away the fog, revealing which mountains are taller than others. In these moments, our moral map (or at least some part of it) is forced to become clear.

Force 3: trauma

The last force that causes shifts in values, and the one that mr. lawyer appears to touch on, is trauma. Trauma can be defined as an event so fundamentally disorienting that your map of moral space goes up in flames. It is no longer clear what matters, what is good, etc. Some or all of your moral sources have been proven to be wrong.

This is a deeply uncomfortable feeling:

And so, I already have my Truth before I encounter a new event. I may not be consciously aware of this, but there is information that can be assimilated and information that must be rejected. If I fail to properly curate my experience to fit my preexisting map, I will fall into existential crisis.

Perhaps falling into existential crisis is a good thing. Many of us have experienced this at least once. Perhaps we are experiencing one right now. They can help us grow, shed our previous boundaries, and explore entire new vantages.

But these experiences are not called “crises” for no reason. They are painful, even traumatic. To have your map proven demonstrably wrong is to lose one’s bearings in the world. Where do you go? What do you do? Who do you trust? Your map is useless. You are Lost.

We attempt to avoid it at all costs, but sometimes we simply cannot. These kinds of events bypass any attempt at rationalization and affect the core of our beings. I lack the vocabulary and knowledge of the relevant field(s) (phenomenology, perhaps?) to explain this better than my vague attempt here. Hopefully I am still getting the point across. One thing I will say: I believe the "highest" art is traumatic in this above sense. Capable of bypassing rationalization. I will not elaborate on this here.

What I will elaborate on is how it is the oversocialized, not the "alt-right," who have the greatest difficulty changing their values:

The oversocialized, with their moral map determined by elevating the internalized goods of the socialization process to be their highest goods (or perhaps having no other goods at all on their map), are the least capable of changing their map of the World. For these two maps are irreducible in the psyche of a human. We can discuss them as distinct entities, but we experience them together.

It is the imperials, not the dissidents, who are most like to be intransigent when it comes to changing their values. The oversocialized are protected from trauma because they are constantly having their values supported by the dominant narrative-producing institutions. Any threats to these values are washed away in soothing affirmation. In that manner, it is likely easier to change the mind of an "alt-right" member than a lib who thinks CNN or Vox count as reputable news organizations.

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