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Five quick questions for philosopher Valerie Tiberius

University of Minnesota professor Valerie Tiberius is one of those philosophers whose work can be profitably read outside the grad school seminar. When you find yourself wondering, for instance, how best to respond to a friend’s need for guidance, you might refer to Tiberius’s recent book Well-Being as Value Fulfillment: How We Can Help Each Other to Live Well, which presents her value fulfillment theory.

How do personal values relate to well-being according to your theory?

Fulfillment of values requires living up to the standards of success that a person has for her values; these standards can shift over time, and they vary from person to person. For example, one person might think that the way to fulfill the value of music is to play a musical instrument at a high level, while another thinks that fulfilling this value requires appreciating others’ performances. A person who values music in the first way might be well advised to shift her standards if for some reason she becomes unable to play at that level.

How do we know whether our values are what you call “appropriate”?

In the best case, when we value something, our desires, emotions, and judgments are in harmony. For example, if you value your marriage, you desire it to continue, you feel good when it’s going well and sad when it’s threatened, and you judge that it is a good thing in your life. Obviously, not all of our values are perfectly harmonious in this way. Appropriate values are those that are harmonious—psychologically integrated—in this way. Appropriate values are values that do not create or sustain inner conflict. Appropriate values are also those that we can actually succeed in fulfilling, given our circumstances. So, appropriate values are both psychologically integrated and realizable. This is an ideal, but the ideal gives us something to work toward.  

What does the theory tell us about how to be a good friend? 

I think good friends can help each other to achieve well-being by trying to see what matters to the other person, and by helping them to focus on what matters. Seeing what matters to other people—and how it matters—can be difficult because we tend to think that things for other people are more or less the same as they are for us. Helping a friend focus on what matters requires sufficient skills and intimacy to point out when they are fixating on something trivial that doesn’t really matter to them. We can also help friends see where there are ways to adapt their standards of success so they can keep valuing what they value despite changing abilities or circumstances.

Can understanding this theory really improve a person’s life?

In a way, I think the value fulfillment theory I’ve advanced provides a theoretical background for things that therapists and other professional helpers have known for a long time. I think that my emphasis on changing our standards of success for our values rather than changing our values themselves is helpful to people trying to improve their own lives. We aren’t likely to change the basic things that matter to us, but it’s important that we can adapt how they matter to us as we age and as our circumstances change.

Are there limitations to this way of looking at human behavior?

The theory does not make being a morally good person necessary for faring well. According to the value fulfillment theory, a bad person could achieve well-being. Some philosophers see this as a deal killer for the theory. I see it as an unfortunate fact about human life: Some immoral people can do well for themselves. We should try to organize our societies and communities so this is as difficult as possible.

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