How Aristotle and Buddhism can help define your core values

How Aristotle and Buddhism can help define your core values

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Too many conversations about values start by asking are they right or wrong. But for most organisations “How do we use them?” is a more worthy and useful question.

I’ll go further. It’s the only question that truly matters. And I’m not talking about laundry lists of behaviours for doing this or not doing that. Using values requires a well-rounded understanding of what it means to you, whatever ‘it’ is.

Luckily history’s great thinkers come to the rescue with models to help not only examine your values but also put them to work.

First up is philosopher Aristotle, who proposed the golden mean to help separate good from not so good actions. Simply put, he looks at a virtue (which we’ll use as a proxy for values) as tempered and balanced when sitting in the middle between extremes. Not enough, and it’s deficient, pendulum across to excess, and you’ve got too much of a good thing.

In his recent book How to be Perfect, Michael Schur describes the golden mean as,

“The most important cog in Aristotle’s ethical machine. …Think of any of these qualities we’re seeking… — as a perfectly balanced seesaw, parallel to the ground. If we sit right in the middle, everything will remain upright, even and harmonious. That’s the golden mean of the quality: that perfect middle spot, representing the exact amount of the quality in question that keeps the seesaw level. Shifting toward either end, however, will throw it out of whack”

Reading Brené Brown’s latest book Atlas of the Heart revealed a second approach based on the Buddhist idea of ‘far and near enemies”. Similar thought, different wrapper. Too little of the value, and you’re in far enemy territory. Too much of a good thing turns it into something similar, but which ultimately undermines what you want to stand for.

Both the golden mean and near enemies provide a process to lay the foundations for how you do things (aka values). In the boundary process I use, we take the value or intent — if you’re in virgin territory, and ask … What is it? What isn’t it? When does it go too far?

In my experience, the biggest problem is when a value goes too far, not what it isn’t. Too far flips to the dark side. I feel like I’m doing that thing that I believe, but all sorts of nasty stuff is happening. So ‘enemy’ has a nice ring.

For example, here’s compassion.

On the deficient or far enemy end, you’re looking at judgement — ‘your fault’. Add too much oomph, and near enemy pity shows up — ‘you poor thing’ — tempered and balanced compassion flourishes.

Modern philosopher, Oliver Burkeman explains, “According to this way of thinking, for every desirable habit or state of mind, there’s a “far enemy”, which is its obvious antithesis… Near enemies, on the other hand, are much sneakier and harder to spot, because they so closely resemble the thing they’re the enemy of. It’s great to cultivate an attitude of easy-going acceptance, for instance — but not if it curdles into resignation or indifference, which looks similar but is in fact entirely opposed.”

I’ve seen near enemies lurking in plenty of unexpected places. Creativity that morphs into endless navel-gazing. Friendliness hardening into forced cheer. Individuality that becomes entitlement.

Without constant vigilance, any value can become a war zone. So, why not employ a couple of philosophical rock stars to help keep the peace?

Good luck, and let me know if you find any near enemies hiding around
the corner.

See you next time.

Here are some handy resources to keep exploring:

  1. More on The Golden Mean and Aristotle
  2. How to be Perfect by Michael Schur p33–34 Kindle
  3. Oliver Burkeman Guardian, This column will change your life: near enemies
  4. Atlas of the Heart by Brené Brown p119, 251–253
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