Wisdom and Value-Fulfillment
Wisdom as the discovery and recognition of one's core values.
Posted Feb 22, 2021
This blog post is part of a “Wisdom in Mainstream (Academic, Research, and Applied) Psychology Series.” We take a look at the dominant models and perspectives in the field studying wisdom and see what they have to say. We ask of each the same three questions: What is wisdom? Why does it matter? And, how might it be developed or applied?
Today, we’ll be looking at the relationship between a particular conception of wisdom that defines it in the context of having a clear blueprint of one’s values as well as a means to their fulfillment.
As discussed in an earlier blog, "Aristotle’s Wise Action," many people take the view that wisdom is synonymous with practical wisdom. Briefly stated, practical wisdom deals with the question, “How best shall I live?” It distinguishes itself from other conceptions of wisdom by emphasizing the necessity for wisdom to tell us how to conduct ourselves to this end in the particulars of our everyday lives. Philosophers and psychologists then take this broad definition and try to actualize it through different avenues. One such approach is the value fulfillment theory, put forward by a contemporary philosopher and interdisciplinary collaborator with psychologists, Valerie Tiberius.
What is wisdom?
As a starting point, Tiberius defines “wisdom very broadly to be that set of skills, dispositions, and policies that help us understand and deliberate well about the ends of life and to choose appropriate means to those ends” (Tiberius, 2015). This entails, at least, the capacity to reflect on and refine one’s values, as well as self-awareness, open-mindedness, perspective, and humility.
Why does it matter?
Wisdom matters, in Tiberius’s account, because it is generative of well-being for ourselves and others. Understanding the aspired ends of wisdom predominantly as “values,” the value fulfillment theory states that well-being derives from the successful pursuit and fulfillment of one’s values, particularly those that are emotionally, motivationally, and cognitively suited to the person.
Perhaps the significant contribution of the value-fulfillment perspective is simply that it gets people to reflect on the all-important question of value. Surely, any conception of wisdom or vision of a good life worth its salt has some deeply considered notion of value and, by extension, well-being, though these may be couched in different terms. It’s hard to see how the very act of engaging in such an inquiry wouldn’t be enriching.
Tiberius’s particular angle of value fulfillment, however, is based on the assumption that values and well-being are ultimately personal, that the set of values that fulfill one person may not be those that fulfill another. This is important to note because many other perspectives on the good life advocate more of a universalist view that what makes people happy is generally the same thing (e.g., actualizing the dictates of our human nature). Of course, there are yet other views that can accommodate both these perspectives.
Though I take the more inclusive approach myself, one thing I appreciate about Tiberius’s model is that it gets people to think about these matters for themselves. As a psychotherapist and educator, I have found that, in the long run, many individuals seem to benefit quite a bit from having to personally grapple with the essential questions of life, as opposed to adopting others' views wholesale. Many of us would take this as a truism, but how many of us actively confront the rawness of their existence in such a naked and courageous way? Very few, I suspect.
One caveat is in order. Because Tiberius is a philosopher, and her theory is based on a philosophical argument instead of psychological research, the discussion would be incomplete if it didn’t mention that various objections could be raised to a strictly personal or self-authored set of values. The most obvious among these is that our values may reflect various kinds of cognitive biases and distortions such that we end up seeking to fulfill ends that are self-defeating.
That is, we may be at cross-purposes with ourselves in not knowing what are the best ends to pursue but thinking we do. Indeed, this is exactly what we find in the psychotherapist's office. To quote the Buddhist sage Shantideva: “We don’t want suffering, but [unwittingly] cherish and chase after its causes.”
Tiberius tries to correct for this to some degree by including certain provisos or qualifications. One of these is the qualification of “appropriateness.” We assess whether our values are appropriate for us when they can “integrate our emotions, desires, and judgments and are less appropriate when they pull our emotions, desires, and judgments in different directions” (Tiberius, 2015, p. 11). A further qualification is that of systemic harmony, which recognizes that we have many values, and in order for them to fulfill a person over time, they need to be harmoniously coordinated with one another.
So, bringing the questions of values in our exploration of the meaning of wisdom stimulates precious reflection on values, why we ought to value them in the first place, and whether our actions truly align with our espoused values. The value fulfillment theory, in particular, also builds in much-needed humility by making values personal. All too often, people somewhat naively and arrogantly presume they know what is right for another person. As psychotherapists, we may fall into this trap, too, when taking a favorite theory (one that is personally resonant) to be the exhaustive and sole truth for everyone else.
In reality, it likely takes not only an awareness of general principles, but the idiosyncrasies of a person’s unique circumstances to know what a good course is for that particular person. And, while I don’t agree with Tiberius in thinking we need to abandon general principles, or that that is even possible given the universal aspects of the psyche, I do agree that building in a check against making authoritative pronouncements about another’s experience is sorely needed in our current cultural climate. Moreover, we, as psychotherapists, family members, friends, and intimate partners, run the risk of colluding with a person’s disavowal of responsibility for their own life if we rush in too quickly with one-size-fits-all, formulaic answers.
So, Tiberuis’s theory can be useful to psychotherapists, coaches, and others who want to support others in their pursuit of well-being but wish to do so in a way that does not devolve into paternalism or disregard the sovereignty of those they want to support. It gives a way to be of support to others without unnecessarily getting in their way with the helper’s own unexamined assumptions and biases.
How can it be developed or applied?
“The value fulfillment theory does not give us an easy way to calculate what is good for a person, nor does it give us a list of goods people must achieve in order to live well. It does, however, give us a sensible way to think about how people’s lives could go better. It directs us to think about all the values that are in play, and it also directs us to think about the long term: How will these choices influence how much value fulfillment we can achieve overall, throughout the course of our lives?” (p. 14).
So, while Tiberius doesn’t say much in the way of how to discover, cultivate, and apply our values, the value fulfillment theory could be applied to our lives by simply helping us to reflect on the question of what truly matters to us. For one to arrive at values that will be fulfilling, one cannot avoid having to find out what these are for oneself, even amidst the uncertainty and insecurity this inquiry can initially trigger. Even if others can be helpful in pointing the way, the ultimate test for living one’s life will be whether one can connect with the value within one’s own being.
Once we connect with our values, we can attune ourselves to the inherent motivation embedded within them. These motivations then dispose us to relate to them in ways that are committed and live out the imperative inherent in those values. Similarly, values often come with an embedded perspective—there is a sense within the value itself of how it is worthwhile and how living in accordance with it may be good in some way.
In some sense, values bring with them their own standards of a sort. For Tiberius, fulfillment means living faithfully to those standards. This is different than wanting something simply to maximize pleasure and minimize pain or just being driven to fulfill our instinctual desires. Tiberius would say that what makes them different is that they are “reflectively endorsed,” that one’s emotions and judgments for a given value track together. I differ from her on this point in that I see values not as merely well-reasoned and emotionally charged constructions, but as universal and emanating from the depths of our being, carrying with them, as mentioned above, their own laws, motivations, perspectives, and imperatives.
Having said that, I think a contribution of Tiberius’s approach is precisely in her being able to give a rationally compelling account of values in general, and so help to bring the question of values back into wider social discourse. For many reasons, often initially with noble intentions, we have sterilized values out of the larger conversation as if it were some kind of infection. In trying so hard to be value-neutral and not smack of paternalism or moralizing, we may have thrown out the proverbial baby with the bathwater. We end up having policy discussions entirely disconnected from ethical considerations.
Politicians and now even news outlets say anything without regard for the facts. Our schools have been reduced to information factories rather than character-building institutions. Examples like these abound. By bringing back the question of values, particularly ultimate or core values as opposed to merely instrumental values, we stand to overcome unnecessary polarizations and once again remember and orient ourselves to what really matters.
Tiberius, V. (2018). Well-being as value fulfillment: How we can help each other to live well. Oxford University Press.