<aside> 🌈 Many thanks to B. Gabbai, A. Morris, A. Ovadya, J. Stray, & F. Noriega

(This is a more accessible version of an academic article you can cite.)


I'm in the supermarket, considering what to eat for breakfast tomorrow. Looking through the aisles, I narrow it down.

What are my criteria?

A careful observer could try to verify that these are my criteria, by watching where my eyes go, what I reach for, put in my cart, etc. She'd see me prefer a more filling item to a less filling one; set aside something less tasty and reach for something tastier. This would serve as evidence of what my values are, regarding breakfast foods.

I've just used the words 'criteria' and 'values'. But I'd like to replace those terms with something more specific. I'd like to call them 'attentional policies'.

Why? Well because, my attention wandered between these considerations, as I made my breakfast choice. And it didn't wander there by chance. Rather, I have a policy of considering these four criteria, when I'm shopping for breakfast.

So instead of criteria or values, I'll say I moved between four "attentional policies" in this choice.

<aside> 📖 Attentional Policies.

Routine places where our attention goes, as a matter of policy, when we make a given kind of choice.


Why use attentional policy and not "criteria"?

In this essay, I'll stress the importance of these earlier choices. It's in these moments—when we change our policies about what to attend to—that we update our values.

If we understand a value as a kind of attentional policy, this locates a person's values in their behavior and lifeline. Changes in values can be observed, verified, and disambiguated. One person can be said to have inspired a value in another, and the moment in which the second person's values changed can be narrowed-down.

That's a big advantage of thinking in terms of attentional policies. Here's another: attentional policies shed light on what's meaningful to a person, what they hold to be wise and good ways to live, and which modes of evaluation they identify with.

In the list above, some breakfast-choice attentional policies say more about my life situation (like cost and filling-ness above), while others say more about who I am, and what's important to me (such as feeling healthy in my body, and being carried away by the taste of things).

I'll show that a person's attentional policies can be sorted into these two piles, based on the kind of decision they made to adopt the policy. Policies that were adopted from one kind of decision correspond to what's meaningful to the person, and to what they feel is wise and good.

Such a list of someone's sources of meaning is extremely useful.

When we say "everyone deserves meaningful work" or "people need to participate meaningfully in a democracy" or "people have meaningful interactions on facebook" we're being vague. By collecting someone's attention policies and highlighting the meaningful ones, we can break down precisely what's meant by meaningful work, meaningful interactions, and meaningful relationships. We can assess if they're really happening, and see how they could happen more.

We can also evaluate systems by whether they support specific kinds of meaning. Many current crises (in ecosystems, global economics, media, etc) are caused by systems designed around metrics (dollars, clicks, views, votes) that are divorced from life meaning. This leads to so many problems: depression, isolation of the elderly, soul-crushing workplaces. Reevaluating these systems in light of a specific account of meaning could solve these problems.