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Personal Values: The Ethics Of Raising Cobras

4 min

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My wife and I had an emotional conversation recently.

She asked me:

"What are your values? What do you stand for?"

I've thought about that question a lot.

My wife is an extremely ethical person. Doing the right thing is important to her. She spends a great deal of energy making sure that our kids know how to treat people.

She tells them:

"You need to do the right thing, even when no one else is looking."

Her values - equality, empathy, compassion - are crystal-clear. That's one of the things I love most about her.

I love that because my own values often feel...undefined.

It isn't that I don't care about ethical issues, or try to live ethically.

It's that I have intense doubts about my ability to understand how to promote those values.

I write a great deal in these emails about complexity and systems.

One of the hallmarks of complex systems is their stubborn refusal to do what we expect of them. This has led to a long history of the best of intentions producing extremely poor outcomes.

The most famous example is that of the "Cobra Bounty" offered by the British governors of Delhi:

Want less cobras? Get more cobras.

Looking for a modern-day example? Brigham Young University had to issue a warning that any students found deliberately infecting themselves with COVID-19 would be expelled.

Why would anyone do such a thing?

Local blood donation centers were paying more for COVID-19 infected plasma in an effort to stockpile blood with coronavirus antibodies.

Want to fight the pandemic? End up infecting more people.

It is much, much harder to effect positive change than you might expect. In medicine, this is known as iatrogenics: when the treatment causes more harm than the disease.

The world is complicated and system often don't behave the way we expect. But that can't absolve us of ethical responsibility.

We still need to live peacefully and productively with our fellow citizens.

We still want to make the world a better place.

We can't ignore suffering simply because it's "too hard" to do anything about it.

Doing so expresses a value: "It's only worth helping if I can be 100% sure of the outcome." Does that belief create a world we would want to live in?

Whether we realize it or not, we all embody values in our day to day lives. How you treat others, how you treat yourself, how you earn a living, how you interact with the government, with the media, with ideas - all of these behaviors reveal the values that are important to us.

Maybe you've never spoken your values out loud, or defined them exactly...but they are there, informing everything you do and directly affecting the world around you.

For the next few weeks, I'm going to be exploring the values that are important to me - and, hopefully, inspiring you to explore and define your own system of personal values.

To get this started, I'd like you to set aside 30 minutes this week to think, hard, on what your personal values might be.

As a starting point, answer some of these questions. Pick the ones that jump out to you:

Next, take a look at this list of potential values. Which ones feel right for you, based on your answers above? Which ones ring most true? Are there any that are missing?

Pick the 3-5 values that feel right to you in terms of how you really live your life right now. Look at your behavior, your friends, your relationships - what values do those actions reflect? What values are really driving the way you interact with the world?

Then, pick the 3-5 values you aspire to. Which ones best describe the person you want to be - the version of yourself that emerges when you're at your very best?

Write these down. Put them somewhere where you'll see them every day for the next few weeks.


We are always embodying some set of values when we interact with the world.

Are you happy with the values your actions represent?

See you next week.

- Dan



From Letters of Note: "I love my wife. My wife is dead."

"In June of 1945, Richard Feynman's wife and high-school sweetheart, Arline, passed away after succumbing to tuberculosis. She was 25-years-old. 16 months later, in October of 1946, Richard wrote his late wife a heartbreaking love letter and sealed it in an envelope. It remained unopened until after his death in 1988."

Love as much as you can, while you can. There will never be enough time.

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