Value in Therapy

Value in Therapy

1. Values in Psychology and Therapy.

The concept of value has become central in contemporary therapeutic discourse. Many therapeutic interventions rely on the concept of value to prod people behave in ways society deems “healthy”. For example, positive psychology notes that values are a vital part of self-actualization. For a person to live a self-actualized life, their course of life must be based upon their values.  Or again, values are central in cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). CBT notes that our cognitions, emotions, and actions are all interdependent, with actions influencing thoughts and feelings, feelings influencing actions and thoughts, and thoughts influencing feelings and actions. Values play a central role in all of this, since they constitute the standards by which our thoughts, feelings, actions are evaluated. Likewise, values are primary in acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT). ACT teaches us to accept our thoughts and feelings (even the unpleasant ones), and to commit to a valued course of action. Again, values are the crucial factor. They, not our fleeting thoughts or feelings, define the quality of our character.

This high valuation of values strikes me as plausible. Yet, when these psychologists attempt to explain what values are and why they should be valued, their account quickly disintegrates. For example, Seligman, the front man for positive psychology who previously established his psychological career by torturing dogs,[1] puts his ignorance on full display when he asserts that “ethics are the rules you apply to get what you care about. What you care about–your values–is more basic than ethics. There is no philosophical discipline concerned with what we care about, and there is just the same gap in psychology.”[2] Here Seligman fundamentally misconstrues the discipline of ethics and commits an overt is / ought fallacy. For, if, as Seligman claims “ethics are the rules you apply to get what you care about”, then ethics would concern only conditional imperatives. If you want a, then do b; if you want x, then do y, etc. But it would not say anything about whether we should want a or x. So, if someone wanted to torture puppies, ethics, on Seligman’s construal, would be the rules one follows to most effectively torture them.[3] In contrast to Seligman’s faulty account, ethics is the discipline that examines what we should care about and do. For example, one should act with compassion towards other sentient beings, not torture them.

Other psychologists do not fare much better in accounting for values. One popular tool used in CBT for example, a Valued Living Questionnaire, similar to wheel of life forms used by life coaches, simply stipulates ten categories and asks the client to respond on a one to ten scale how much they value that category. For example, you would be asked how much you value: family, intimate relationships, children, friendships, career, education, fun, spirituality, citizenship, and health. After identifying high value items, one then goes on to ask the client how much of their time, energy, and resources they are devoting to that value, again on a one to ten scale. While such exercises may help clients get unstuck in life, they do not even attempt to provide an account of what values are and why, they are, in fact, valuable. Indeed, some proponents of ACT deny that such an account is even possible. According to them, values are arbitrarily adopted. They are no more amenable to evaluation in terms of rightness or wrongness than are flavors of ice cream. Rus Harris, for example, asserts:

“Although many of us have similar values, no two people are exactly the same and this is not some test to see if you have the ‘right’ ones. There is no right or wrong, no good or bad, when it comes to values. What you value is what you value, full stop! There’s no need to justify or defend your values any more than there is a need to justify or defend your favorite flavor of ice cream. My favorite ice cream is maple walnut. Why? I don’t know. My taste buds just prefer it. Do I have to justify it? If someone else prefers vanilla, does that mean their tastebuds are ‘right’ and mine are ‘wrong’? Obviously not! And it’s exactly the same with values. Someone else may have different values from yours, but that doesn’t mean that theirs are better or worse–it just means they value different things.”[4]

Just as the choice between vanilla and walnut ice cream comes down to a matter of preference, so too does the question of value.[5] So, using a list provided by Harris, one person might  value freedom (“to live freely, to choose how I live and behave, or help others do likewise”) while another might value conformity (“to be respectful and obedient of rules and obligations”).[6] One might value spirituality (“to connect with things bigger than myself”) and justice (“to uphold justice and fairness”), while another might value pleasure (“to create and give pleasure to myself or others”) or power (“to strongly influence or wield authority over others.”). This is all a matter of subjective preference; there is no right or wrong answer in this regard. Harris even gives the reader space to insert his or her own unlisted values. Literally anything goes.

Because values are equated with arbitrary preferences, psychologists acknowledge that values can contradict each other and that their relative priority can change with time. Someone who values power above all else, may act in ways inconsistent with justice, and the person committed to a life of pleasure may undertake actions that conflict with a life of spirituality. And, as we move through life, our valuation of values will likely change with us. Harris observes:

“The relative importance we place on our values usually changes enormously throughout our lives…. This means that if you return to the exercise above in a year’s time, you may find that some of the values you marked as not important have shifted to quite important or very important, and vice versa.”[7]

Values, in ACT, are not rules we should follow. Instead, they are particular desires at a given moment, desires that will likely change and conflict with other desires. As a result they should be “held lightly, but pursued vigorously.”[8]

2. Problems

This therapeutic account of values is untenable in multiple ways. The theory that values are merely arbitrarily chosen and their rank ordering can change with the circumstances of a person’s life leads to several problems.

I. Hero Flattening.

Consider an exemplar of a human life well lived. For example, let’s consider the Buddha. According to legend, the Siddhartha Gautama was born into a noble family, but left his life of luxury to take up an ascetic life, hoping to discover the truth. He struggled for many years under various teachers, until he finally reached enlightenment meditating under the Bodhi tree, and then spent the rest of his life teaching this path of enlightenment. We admire people like the Buddha. We have a sense that somehow his was a life well lived and worthy of emulation. We sense that  he instantiated a noble potentiality deep in human nature that would not have been manifested had he given up his quest or taken another course of life. In the terms used by Hayes, we could say he was committed to the values of spirituality and mindfulness throughout his life.

Now, consider someone else. Let’s call him Sid. Sid is committed to the values that Hayes labels fun (“to seek, create, and engage in fun filled activities and pleasure”) and pleasure (“to create and give pleasure to myself or others.”) Sid, like the Buddha, is born into fortunate circumstances. But, instead of leaving to seek enlightenment, he uses those resources to amass amusements for himself. He spends his time throwing lavish parties and playing video games.

Note that, on the theory of value proposed by the therapeutic industry, the lives of the Sid and the Buddha are equally admirable. The Buddha enjoys enlightenment just like some people enjoy vanilla ice cream and Sid enjoys cocaine and escorts just like some people enjoy walnut ice cream. There is no sense in which one can say that the life of the Buddha is better than the life of Sid and that the values of the former are more admirable than those of the latter. This is an absurd result. If this nihilistic vision is what therapeutic psychology has to offer us, then I wonder whether it might inculcate, rather than cure, depression and anxiety.

II. Everyone Gets a Trophy

Consider again the Buddha. Now instead of contrasting him with another individual, imagine a scenario in which he gives up on his quest for enlightenment, goes back to his palace, and lives a life devoted to pleasure. This scenario makes sense to us. It is possible to begin a quest and then give up.[9] Failure is possible. But, on the psychological view sketched above, such failure becomes inconceivable. For, rather than abandoning his calling to enlightenment, our failed Buddha can be described as having merely decided that the value of pleasure is more important to him at this time. He has not failed in his quest, but has rather succeeded in a different one. And, again, the choice between these values is arbitrary. There is no sense in which the person who sticks to the path of enlightenment and perseveres has chosen a better course of action than the person who decides to abandon that path for a life of pleasure. Again, the situation is supposed to be akin to choosing between ice cream flavors and pizza toppings, and, again, I find this claim to be absurd.

III. Moral Nihilism

And things get even worse. Consider now a case in which, instead of comparing the moral hero to the petty man, we compare him to the truly depraved. Imagine someone committed to the values of pleasure (“to create and give pleasure to myself or others”) or power (“to strongly influence or wield authority over others”). Now suppose that this person derives great pleasure in torturing other creatures. He, for example, likes torturing puppies. And he enjoys conquering other lands, enslaving their populations, and torturing them too. He lives a life fully committed to these values of pleasure and power. According to the therapeutic view, we ought to maintain that this sadistic tyrant’s life is just as worthy of admiration as that of the Buddha. Just as we can’t say that vanilla is an objectively better flavor of ice cream than walnut, so we also can’t say that the life of the Buddha is objectively better than that of the tyrannical sadist.

IV. Manipulability

Furthermore, this position operates on the assumption that human desire operates in a vacuum. The idea is that I’m acting according to my values when they are the ones I desire.  But we live in a society where marketing, propaganda, and other influence tactics (such as those used by cults) can manipulate our desires. Rather than securing autonomy, likening value choice to that of a flavor of ice cream actually undermines it and allows external interests to shape the direction of our lives. I sometimes wonder whether these forces might be playing a bigger role in the psychological and therapeutic industry than most people would like to admit.[10]

3. The Overarching Problem

The contemporary psychological and therapeutic approach to personal growth thus fails spectacularly in attempting to account for value, a concept they themselves admit is central to human happiness. I suspect that this failure flows from their inadequate account of reason. Psychologists tend to view the mind as something that evolved in order to solve problems. The mind, on this account, is what allows us to design weapons, dig wells, and construct shelters. Steven Hayes, the originator of ACT, for example, explainsthat:

“The human mind is a problem-solving organ. It detects dangers, analyses situations, predicts outcomes and suggests actions. In the world outside our skins, that works wonderfully well. But when those same logical abilities are turned within, a human life becomes a problem to be solved rather than a process to be experienced. A trap opens up. Life gets put on hold while we fight a war within.

There is a simple reason for this. The world within is not logical, it’s psychological.”[11]

Simply put, what is special about the human mind is that it allows us to make guns while the other animals can’t. As a result, when we turn this problem solving tool to the internal world, it can no longer adequately solve the problems that confront it, since inner problems differ significantly from problems in the external environment. For example, if something is frightening in the outer world, we could either run away from it or fight it. But this strategy does not serve us well when we are frightened by our own feelings. When we try to fight them or run from them, they only grow more frightening.

Yet this problem solving conception of mind proves to be extremely impoverished when compared with traditional philosophical accounts. For example, while Plato would admit that the mind can solve problems, its chief concern was to contemplate the form of the Good from which the rest of reality emanated. Similarly, Aristotle identifies eudaimonia with the life of contemplation, noting that:

“So if among excellent actions political and military actions are distinguished by nobility and greatness, and these are leisurely and aim at an end and are not desirable for their own sake, but the activity of intellect, which is contemplative, seems both to be superior in worth and to aim at no end beyond itself, and to have its pleasure proper to itself (as this augments the activity), and the self-sufficiency, leisurelines, unweariedness (so far as this is possible for man), and all other attributes ascribed to the blessed man are evidently those connected with this activity, it follows that this will be the complete happiness of man, if it be allowed a complete term of life (for none of the attributes of happiness is incomplete).” (NE 10.7).

Likewise, for Kant, reason was the faculty that sought the unconditioned, and Hegel believed that through it we grasped the Absolute as it, in turn, grasped us in art, religion, and philosophy.  They also believed that reason is what distinguished autonomous choices from haphazard desires (that are all too easily manipulated). If we have thought through our values for ourselves, relying on the dictates of our own reason, they come to be truly ours, defining our characters and lending us their strength.

Philosophy, religion, and the humanities thus use a richer concept of mind and reason than those proposed by psychology and the therapeutic industry. As a result, their concepts of values and their rank ordering will also be different. It is this broader philosophical tradition, I believe, that may offer us a more truthful analysis of the human condition, both in its suffering and in the meaning that can be drawn from it.

Contemporary therapists are right to point out that values are crucial to a meaningful life and bearing suffering with nobility. Nur eine Waffe taugt…. Yet their constricted view of mind prevents them from providing an adequate account of these values. To find such an account we must look elsewhere, perhaps to those disciplines who, wandering in exile and in silence, have long been carrying the real remedy for our affliction.[12]

Peter Yong, PhD


[2] Seligman, Flourish, 229.

[3] Perhaps Seligman is confusing philosophical ethics with those displayed in his own discipline of psychology?

[4] Russ Harris, the Happiness Trap, 211-212.

[5] In his book, The Confidence Gap, Harris also compares it to the choice of ham and pineapple to salami and olives on pizza, 128-129.

[6] Confidence Gap, 129-132.

[7] Confidence Gap, 135.

[8] Confidence Gap, 136.

[9] Luke 9:16.


[11] Steven Hayes, “How Lucky is That?” forward to The Confidence Gap, 5.


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