What are values?

Jeroen Seynhaeve / Word count [ 644 ] View all [ 41 ] / Vertaal naar Nederlands

Venice, Italy

We don’t randomly pick and choose values for living our lives. Rather, values provide (rational) reasons for motivating, evaluating and justifying our and others’ actions, and they need to make sense in our broader vision of what we consider a good life.

For a value to be compelling, it needs to be empirically and rationally consistent with a particular vision of the good life, and conducive to establishing this vision in the world. Nicholas Rescher reaches this conclusion in his search for a definition of “value” after first defining values in terms of how they are manifested and the expectations this raises in us, and secondly by connecting these manifestations to our vision of the good life, and the role values play in planning and realising this vision in the world.

We expect consistency between manifestations of values, as well as between values and the good life they represent and aim to establish.

Firstly, we manifest our values in discourse (talk and thought) and actions. When someone subscribes to a value, or when we ascribe a value to a person, we expect that person to express support for this value in all instances and manners of discourse – including decision-making, and in justification, approval and recommendation of actions. This is what Rescher calls the “rationalisation” of action – providing (rational) reasons for behaviour and attitudes. We express values in ‘slogans’ – concise representations of values in ordinary language, in single words or more complex phrases. Seeing that slogans externalise values that may be held internally or implicitly, they allow us to analyse values held by people and societies. At the same time, we expect these same values to be expressed in action – in the overall patterns of behaviour and in the choices with regard to the spending, or willingness to spend, of resources like time, energy or money, towards realising a particular vision of the good life in the world.

Secondly, humans set out goals in the world, and rationally go about planning the steps to accomplish these goals. Some actions contribute to realising these goals, others don’t. The values we subscribe to, or ascribe to others, drive these goal-oriented actions, with a very specific goal in mind: to establish a particular vision of the good life in the world. Because we invoke values to provide rational reasons for our behaviour and attitudes, they can be scrutinised with rational analysis and empirical verification, and they can be defined objectively right or wrong. Values are not a matter of personal taste, or randomness, but they are either well founded or ill founded. They are well founded if they contribute to the realisation of our vision of the good life in the world, and ill founded if they don’t.

Rescher’s concluding definition of value is twofold, giving expression to the rational consistency of values that is expected in two directions. On the one hand, values provide rationally consistent reasons for our actions, talk and thought. People that say that they subscribe to a particular value, but deny this in their actions – people that talk the talk, but don’t walk the walk – are inconsistent. As a result, we don’t ascribe this value to them. On the other hand, values must be rationally and empirically consistent with our vision of the good life, and contribute to the realisation of this vision in the world. It would simply not make sense to subscribe to a value that opposes your vision of what constitutes a good life.

“A value represents a slogan capable of providing for the rationalisation of action by encapsulating a positive attitude toward a purportedly beneficial state of affairs.”

Reference list

Rescher, N. 1969. Introduction to Value Theory. Englewood Cliffs: Prentice Hall, pp. 1-12.