Why You Should Have an Opinion on Everything
This article is for the general HBS community and discusses my thoughts on the importance of establishing a broad set of personal values.
You should have a position on every topic, from the availability of social security for the elderly to privately funded space exploration. This is because without explicit knowledge of what you stand for, your actions can be used to further the goals of others. Without insight into what those goals may be, you could inadvertently be undermining your own values.
It will help to explain how I classify an individuals’ span of values. I do this by categorization into three main levels. These levels do not imply qualities of good or bad, only the breadth of civilization they are intended to impact.
Level III represents the basic drives most people think of: freedom, security, power, love, etc. Often, when we feel that a personal entitlement is being undermined by our current situation, it will establish itself as a priority until it gets resolved. Maslow’s hierarchy of needs provides a good understanding of this.
Altruism, the concern for the welfare of others, characterizes level II. This is the prevalent category as it covers everything from immediate family and friends to larger identity groups such as nationality. The motivations for most people lie within this range. Safe children, successful friends, and healthy co-workers are the next usual concerns outside of the individual. Moving beyond that, some people have an ethnic identity and work for change which will impact other members of this group that they may never be acquainted with.
Regardless of what or how large the identity group is it is defined by establishing a boundary between members and non-members. It is due to this characteristic that I label it interpersonal but socially exclusionary. For any of the groupings at this level to make sense, it must exclude certain dissimilar individuals.
Finally, level I signifies the broadest and most inclusive category. There is no demarcation between people on any level. Unlike the previous level that has various size dimensions, no differentiation is allowed here. Values that reside within this boundary pertain to all of us. Slavery, the idea that one human can own another, is one. Execution as a form of justice is another. Universal access to medicine can also be located here. When Jonas Salk, the inventor of the polio vaccine, was being interviewed by a journalist who inquired about who owned the patent, he replied “There is no patent. Could you patent the sun?” He could have maximized his personal wealth by licensing the vaccine, but this would have effectively created a barrier between those who could afford it and those who could not. In accordance with his belief that the purpose of medical research was to help mankind, he gave it away.
There is a reason why an understanding of these levels and their interaction across people is important. The majority of the world is passive and change only comes from two types of individuals; the first type is willing to assume the responsibility of asserting values to represent the populace and the other type is not perturbed by questions of accountability. Without knowing the implications of your actions with regard to your values, insight into their reinforcement or contradiction is lost.
Returning to the subject of my original proposal, actively maintaining beliefs across the entire spectrum can help in resolving the tensions that arise when goals from different levels interact. Using a thought experiment, let us examine how I might choose an employer. I know that I enjoy the engineering industry and will probably be successful in it. It’s a lot of hours, but the pay is good, and I can learn a lot. It will also be a great stepping stone for the future. For some individuals, this may seem like enough to make a decision, but let’s go a little further. All the reasons listed thus far reside in level III, so now I need to question the effects on others around me. With my salary, I can live in a nice neighborhood and support local farmers by shopping at Whole Foods. Due to the intensity of the job, I may not be able to provide my friends and family with the quality time they would like, but they are understanding and supportive of my decisions. Additionally, I can mentor students from my alma mater to help them break into the industry.
What if this was 2009 and the firm I decided to work for was the Bechtel Corporation. They recently signed a 40-year contract, including a guaranteed minimum return, with the government of Bolivia to privatize the water supply for one of its largest cities. Prices increased to the point where families withdrew their children from school and stop visiting doctors. Without a doubt, knowing this would make me re-visit my moral standards on several issues not limited to the idea of access to clean water. I may not change my ultimate decision, but it will now contain an awareness of the implications of my participation.
While this was only one hypothetical example, most decisions we make, whether we realize them or not, operate on these multiple levels. In isolation, knowing the issues is not enough. This understanding only becomes relevant when you appreciate how they interact with your beliefs and what actions you can take to influence them in support of your principles.
My intent is not to proclaim the merits of selflessness, as not all of us are of the type to run impetuously in an effort to produce meaningful change for the entire planet. This is reasonable as we have priorities that take precedence. However, it is for this same reason why it is all of our duty to strive toward understanding the world around us and opine on those things which seem beyond our control or influence. If we will not be active in the fight for what we believe, we can, at the very least, prevent our unintentional contribution to our own ideological antithesis.
Christofer Garner is a member of New Section J. He is a passionate believer in the ability of empathy and reason to shape society for the better. When he is not philosophizing, he enjoys a good game of chess and bowls of tonkotsu ramen.