Encyclopedia of World Problems - Archived Information

Status message

You are currently in UIA's online document archive. These pages are no longer maintained. To search the full archive click here.

The Encyclopedia is currently undergoing redevelopment !

2.2 Definitions

1. Multiplicity of definitions

A Club of Rome report for UNESCO (1987) noted that: "The concept of value refers to two contrasting ideas. At one extreme we speak of economic values based on products, wealth, prices --on highly material things. In another context, however, the word value acquires and abstract, intangible and non-measurable meaning. Among such spiritual values are freedom, peace, justice, equity. A value system is a group of interconnected values that form a system and reinforce each other. They are anchored in religion or in humanist traditions. To be precise, it is necessary to distinguish clearly between the values themselves and the means of attaining them. In many cases there is broad agreement over ethical goals, but there are differences of opinion over rules of conduct...In any society, therefore, you will now find different systems of values co-existing -- but not peacefully -- side by side."

There is considerable confusion surrounding the definition of values. Kurt Baier (1969) notes that sociologists employ a bewildering profusion of terms, ranging from what a person wants, desires, needs, enjoys, prefers, through what he thinks desirable, preferable, rewarding, obligatory, to what the community enjoins, sanctions, or enforces. He cites the following more popular definitions to show the great variety and looseness of the terms employed:

  • "A thing has or is a value if and when people behave toward it so as to retain or increase their possession of it." (George Lundberg)
  • "Anything capable of being appreciated (wished for) is a value." (Robert Part and E W Burgess)
  • "Values are the obverse of motives...the object, quality, or condition that satisfies the motivation." (Richard T LaPiere)
  • "Values are any object of any need." (Howard Becker)
  • "A desideratum or anything desired or chosen by someone, at sometime - operationally: what the respondent says he wants." (Stuart C Dodd)
  • "By a social value we understand any datum having an empirical content accessible to the members of some social group and a meaning with regard to which it is or may be an object of activity." (Znaniecki)
  • "(A value is) a conception, explicit or implicit, distinctive of an individual or characteristic of a group, of the desirable which influences the selection from available means and ends of action." (Clyde Kluckholn)
  • "Values are the desirable end states which act as a guide to human endeavour or the most general statements of legitimate ends which guide social action." (Neil J Smelser)
  • "The noun "value" has usually been used to imply some code or standard which persists through time and provides a criterion by which people order their intensities of desiring various desiderata. To the extent that people are able to place objects, actions, ways of life, and so on, on a continuum of approval-disapproval with some reliability, it appears that their responses to a particular desideratum are functions of culturally acquired values." (William R Catton, Jr)
  • "Values are normative standards by which human beings are influenced in their choice among the alternative courses of action which they perceive." (Philip E Jacob and James J Flink)
  • "What we properly call a value in life is an organic mixture of need, interest, feeling, purpose and goal..the production and conservation of values is one of the main concerns of human existence." (Lewis Mumford)
  • "A value is anything of interest to a human subject." (Perry)
  • "Values may refer to interests, pleasures, likes, preferences duties, moral obligations, desires, wants, needs, aversions and attractions, and many other modalities of selective orientation." (Stephen C Pepper)
  • "I find it confusing to give the word "values" any narrower meaning than will comprehend interests and expectations, as well as standards of judgement." (G Vickers)
  • "A value is a belief upon which a man acts by preference." (Gordon W Allport)

2. Related concepts

Understanding of the nature of human values may be so intimately associated with what might otherwise be considered to be distinct concepts that they cannot be effectively separated from some perspectives:

(a) Economic value: The concept of the value of a thing is central to traditional economic value theory for which value is the so-called exchange or market value of a commodity. Economists distinguish between value in this sense and the values of individuals or societies which in welfare economics mean much the same as preferences or tastes. Such values may then be realized by the appropriate allocation of resources.

(b) Value assessments and imputations: Baier (1973) distinguishes between value assessments and value imputations. Value assessments are assertions to the effect that something did, will or would favourably affect the life of someone. Value imputations are assertions to the effect that someone or some group has, holds, or subscribes to some value (eg achievement, work, altruism, comfort, equality, thrift, friendship), or that some such thing is one of his values. The word value then means different things in these two contexts. Assessed values then become measures of the capacities of various kinds of entities, including persons, to confer benefits, whereas imputed values are measures of tendencies of persons to promote certain ends, for certain reasons.

(c) Instrumental and intrinsic values: A distinction may also be made between instrumental values, which are the means to something else, and intrinsic values, which are those desired for themselves (such as goodness, truth, and beauty).

(d) Attitudes and opinions: Many surveys of the "values" held by people do not find it useful to distinguish between attitudes or opinions held by people and the values that they hold. A survey of values then becomes a survey of attitudes and opinions. Presumably some attitudes may be considered as relating to values, but the distinction is then difficult to establish in that context. It is difficult to identify "values" from such survey data.

(e) Lifestyles: Increasingly clusters of attitudes and opinions arising from survey data are used to identify distinct lifestyles. Each such lifestyle is then seen as reflecting a cluster of values, although these are usually considered implicit.

3. Elusive nature of values

Despite extensive discussion of values, and the importance given to "values" in the abstract, it seems to be quite difficult to identify specific values. Although many international organizations claim a strong interest in values, and would claim to be acting to enhance certain values, it is quite difficult to determine exactly what the range of possible values is.

It might for example be assumed that some of the major international conventions or declarations, such as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, would constitute a prime source from which values could be identified unambiguously. This does notappear to be the case. It would be difficult to respond to the question "How many values are specified in the Declaration?".

Such difficulties are disguised by the ease with which obvious values are named: peace, justice, health, security, and the like. These might perhaps be treated as "first order" values. Typically, in many studies and list, the number of such values is of the order 5 to 20.

These values can usefully be seen as elements in a much larger set of values. This would then lead to several questions:

  • (a) How large is that set and what other elements does it contain?
  • (b) Is it useful to look at sets of values composed of 500, 1,000 or 10,000 elements?
  • (c) How might such a set be clustered or ordered?
  • (d) Do particular values subsume other values in the set?
  • (e) How do the first order values emerge from such larger sets?
  • (f) Which values tend to be neglected or ignored in focusing on first order values?
  • (g) To what extent do the identified values in the set overlap one another, namely to what extent is the set artificially enlarged by the presence of synonyms?
  • (h) Where distinct values terms may be judged by some to be synonymous, is the distinction meaningful to others, and valued by them?

4. Working definition

From the above confusion of definitions, anything may be taken to be a value. For the purposes of this exercise, human values are understood in the very broad sense covered by Nicholas Rescher (1969) in the following. "Sometimes "human value" is restricted to the area of personal values (of character and personality). But we take it to include not only what the individual may prize in himself and his associates, but also what he prizes in his society, his nation, his culture, his fellowmen in general, and his environment. We thus view this idea extended over a very broad domain - ranging from individual to social and universal values." In his own tentative list of (American) values, Rescher notes "We deal here with overtly espoused and publicly appealed to values to the exclusion of (a) unconscious motives..and (b) traits of national character...The factors included in the register are such that explicit or overt appeal to them can well be expected from publicly recognized spokesmen for values: newspaper editorialists, graduation exercise speakers, religio-moral sermonizers, and political orators."

5. Value complexes and "baskets" of values

Many surveys of values use questionnaires which identify value clusters or domains using phrases composed of what amount to "code words". It is often difficult to determine what values are in relation to such domains, if this question can be considered to be a meaningful one. The intention with such surveys is often to identify which "baskets" of values are considered important, without having to deal with the nature or contents of the basket. The survey is then free to focus on the preferences of people for different baskets in the light of their projection of significance onto the labels attached to the baskets. Conclusions concerning life-style preferences and the like may then be made without looking any further into what specific values are involved. Efforts may also be made to impose specific baskets of values as being universal, or required, for a desirable world society. Some examples of such value complexes are given below:

(a) World Order Models Project: A fourfold universal value framework was first suggested by a transnational group of scholars representing all major regions of the world and participating in the World Order Models Project (Saul Mendlovitz). The value complexes identified were: "peace without national military arsenals", "economic well-being for all inhabitants on the earth", "universal rights and social justice", and "ecological balance". Presumably the values in question are the key qualitative operators in each phrase, for example: peace, balance, universality, etc.

(b) US Foreign Policy: In a study of the values implicit in US foreign policy (Robert C Johansen, The National Interest and the Human Interest, 1980) identified the following professed values: "to serve US security interests", "to protect or improve economic benefits from international trade and investment", and "to express humanitarian concern for helping people in need". The study then compared the second of these with the four values of "global humanism" identified by the World Order Models Project.

(c) Futuribles International Survey: With UNESCO support the organization Futuribles International surveyed eminent persons, world wide. One portion of the 180 questionnaires received focused on social values, prioritized by continental region. The values included a mix of single-term and multi-term values:

- single-term values included: freedom, health, money, friendship, peace, education, leisure, honesty, responsibility, power, fulfilment, solidarity, honour;

- multi-term values included: social equality, cultural tolerance, humanization of work, sexual satisfaction, frugal way of life, human rights, environmental protection, law and order, political independence, material possessions, social status.

(d) VALS Project: A major study of values in the USA has been made through the VALS project at SRI International since 1978. It has given rise to many papers. For them: "By the term "values" we mean the entire constellation of a person's attitudes, beliefs, opinions, hopes, fears, prejudices, needs, desires, and aspirations that, taken together, govern how one behaves. One's interior set of values -- numerous, complex, overlapping, and contradictory though they are -- finds holistic expression in a lifestyle." In their work they have looked at "well over 800 facets of people and find that different lifestyle groups have unique patterns in almost every area. We now have powerful evidence that the classification of an individual on the basis of a few dozen attitudes and demographics tells us a good deal about what to expect of that person in hundreds of other domains." (Arnold Mitchell, 1983).

The VALS typology comprises four comprehensive groups that are subdivided into nine lifestyles, "each intended to describe a unique way of life defined by its distinctive array of values, drives, beliefs, needs, dreams, and special points of view." These are:

- Need-driven groups (survivor lifestyle; sustainer lifestyle);

- Outer-directed groups (belonger lifestyle; emulator lifestyle; achiever lifestyle);

- Inner-directed groups (I-am-Me lifestyle; experiential lifestyle; societally conscious lifestyle);

- Combined outer- and inner-directed group (integrated lifestyle).

(e) Western values:

Using the general structure of the VALS typology, Joseph Plummer (Changing Values, The Futurist, 1989, Jan-Feb, pp 8-13) compares traditional and new values. The pairs identified are: self-denial ethic/self-fulfilment ethic; higher standard of living/better quality of life; traditional sex roles/blurring of sex roles; accepted definition of success/individualized definition of success; traditional family life/alternative families; faith in industry, institutions/self-reliance; live to work/work to live; hero worship/love of ideas; expansionism/pluralism; patriotism/less nationalistic; unparalleled growth/growing sense of limits; industrial growth/information and service growth; receptivity to technology/technology orientation.

6. Exclusions

For the purpose of this exercise, the following are specifically excluded from the values identified:

(a) Tangible objects: Specifically excluded from this exercise however are tangible objects which an individual "may prize", for example: automobile, house, stereo- equipment, pet, children, land, etc. The first is best illustrated by the advertisement "Buy a Buick; something to believe in."

(b) Value complexes: Because of the preliminary nature of this exercise, and the effort to identify the components of more complex values, no effort is made to include value complexes in the scope of this study.