What is value? What are values?

December 27, 2012 by Joshua
in Blog, Evolutionary Psychology

There it is at the top of every page, right under my name [Edit: I changed the page design since writing this post]:


What does value mean? What are values?

Everybody knows the value of values. You can find plenty of books on values-based leadership. Everybody knows you should stick to your values. Nobody suggests knowing you should know your values less.

Few people can define the meaning of values precisely. Yet I suggest, in Socrates’ spirit that the unexamined life is not worth living, that you’ll never appreciate values any more than you understand what they are. In other words, the better you understand the concept of value, the more value your life will have. Or at least the more value you can bring to your life.

I’m going to give a simple definition of value that works as well or better than any I’ve seen. First I’ll talk about values in general, then give a couple definitions I don’t find that useful.


We want things of value in our lives. We don’t want to lose value. We know different people have different values, as do different cultures and eras. We think our values stay constant but we know they change too. We also know most or all sane people share at least some values — community, health, family, and personal safety, to name a few.

Some essential things for life like water, air, and protection from the elements are incredibly valuable to everyone, yet few list them as personal values. Why not? Does taking them for granted mean they aren’t valuable or so valuable we couldn’t imagine not having them?

As much as we use the term, people generally only vaguely understand the term, or at least can only vaguely define it.

Definitions of value

The dictionary has many definitions of value. The one relevant to us already highlights its vagueness:

something (as a principle or quality) intrinsically valuable or desirable values instead of human values — W. H. Jones>

Now we have to look up valuable:

a : having desirable or esteemed characteristics or qualities

b : of great use or service

with the following examples

  1. The watch is extremely valuable.
  2. A lot of valuable advice can be found in this book.
  3. I learned a valuable lesson.
  4. He made many valuable contributions to the field of science.
  5. The volunteers provide a valuable service to the community.
  6. She is a valuable member of the staff.
  7. Clean air is a valuable natural resource that needs to be protected.
  8. Please don’t waste my time. My time is very valuable.

The conflict in those definitions

Now, I put to you that the use of valuable in each example is, like beauty, in the eye of the beholder. But neither definition of valuable suggests subjectivity. They both imply the value is in the object or service.

So which is it? Is value subjective or objective?

Let’s look at another source.

Wikipedia suffers yet more vagueness. The page on value (personal and cultural) starts with two warnings that the page needs cleanup to meet standards and needs citations. The first content defines values in terms of values:

A personal value is absolute or relative ethical value, the assumption of which can be the basis for ethical action. A value system is a set of consistent values and measures. A principle value is a foundation upon which other values and measures of integrity are based. Those values which are not physiologically determined and normally considered objective, such as a desire to avoid physical pain, seek pleasure, etc., are considered subjective, vary across individuals and cultures and are in many ways aligned with belief and belief systems. Types of values include ethical/moral value, doctrinal/ideological (religious, political) values, social values, and aesthetic values.

Besides describing the word with itself, the description reads like academic philosophy — that is, not that useful for everyday life. If you want to understand your values by understanding the concept of value better, I suspect Wikipedia will set you backward.

The page on value (ethics), to which one of the links in the above page links, is even more academic and less useful:

In ethics, value denotes something’s degree of importance, with the aim of determining what action or life is best to do or live (Deontology), or at least attempt to describe the value of different actions (Axiology). It may be described as treating actions themselves as abstract objects, putting value to them. It deals with right conduct and good life, in the sense that a highly, or at least relatively highly, valuable action may be regarded as ethically “good” (adjective sense), and an action of low, or at least relatively low, value may be regarded as “bad”.

While I wouldn’t suggest Wikipedia or a free online dictionary as the best place for deep philosophical concepts, I don’t think the concept of value should be that esoteric a concept.

My definition

Defining a term in vague  terms like integrity, ethical action, importance, and so on that need just as much definition doesn’t help. I want a definition based on things you know without looking them up.

I came to my definition through my Model, which is based in the human emotional system, but you don’t need to know the model. You only have to know your emotions.

Something’s value describes the type of emotions it evokes in you.

That is, you value what makes you feel emotions you like and devalue what makes you feel emotions you don’t like. Things that don’t evoke emotions have little value. The characteristics of something’s value comes from the characteristics of the emotions something evokes. So something that evokes enduring emotions, like an education, has enduring value. Something that evokes simple emotions, like candy, has simple value. (The Model talks more about emotions and characteristics.)

Something that creates happiness in you has good value. Taking it away takes away value. Something that makes you feel miserable has negative value — you don’t want it.

Things that affect your emotional response to something cause you to change how you value something. I used to value candy more than vegetables. As my beliefs about food changed, so did how I value candy relative to vegetables even though candy and vegetables haven’t changed much.


For most parents, their children create the most intense, complex, and enduring emotions they have. As a result their children are the most valuable things in their lives. Oxygen generally doesn’t evoke emotions so doesn’t seem valuable. Taking it away creates intense fear and hysteria — emotions you don’t want, so you devalue losing oxygen. Restoring oxygen when you thought it was gone creates intense relief, meaning you recognize its value under those conditions.

Since your emotional reactions to things change your values change. When you adopt a puppy it has some value to you because it makes you happy (assuming puppies make you happy — hopefully not too much of a stretch for you cat people out there), although this isn’t absolute because if you had too many puppies already another would bring you grief and therefore not have value to you. Before you adopt it, most puppies would have the same value to you as any other — they all tend to bring emotions related to adoring and caring.

After you spent time with one puppy you would find it creating more complex emotions based on your time together. Then you’d find yourself valuing that puppy more than others. Likewise, you probably consider all human life valuable (since you expect we can all help each other, which you like), but the people you’ve interacted with most have built the most emotions with you, and you value them more. Most people have spent the most time with family members and value them highly.

They spend even more time with themselves and value themselves the most. Probably every legal system recognizes self-defense as a justification for killing someone else, recognizing that everyone values their life more than someone else’s, even though an attacker is one person too. As obvious as this may seem, it stems from the emotional basis of value, a simpler and farther-reaching foundation than just saying self-defense makes sense.

Ultimately our emotions come from our emotional systems, which evolution created. To the extent all humans share some emotional reactions, we all agree on values and we consider them universal. Commonalities in all our ancestors’ environments lead nearly everyone to feel the same emotions regarding, say, helping a helpless baby or fearing getting eaten by a lion. So nearly everyone values helping children and running away from lions.

When nearly everyone agrees on a value it seems objective. It means evolution selected a common emotional response for everyone. When people disagree, values seem subjective. Differing emotional responses could come from differences in emotional systems but could also come from different environments, beliefs, behaviors, etc.

Many people mistakenly attribute value to things. Value, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder — or more precisely, in the emotional system. If there were no people, no one consider anything valuable, at least until people could find a way to interact with it.

Living by your values and adding value to your life

If you want to live by your values and you want to add value to your life, you can’t do better than understanding your values, which means understanding your emotional system in general and your specific emotional responses.

If you know what makes you happy or sad and what creates what emotional response in general, you know what your values are. Then you can act on it. If you don’t you don’t and then you can’t. The Model helps you understand your emotional responses, which helps you live by your values and have more value in your life. It’s not the only way, but it works.

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1 response to “What is value? What are values?

  1. Pingback: Overview of Understanding leadership, values, meaning, purpose, importance, passion — six key concepts of this web page » Joshua Spodek

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