Union of Intelligible Associations
Union of Intelligible Associations

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Human Values Project (Explanations)

Defining values: Value confusion

Human Values Project


It could be said that there are various kinds of confusion about human values:

1. What are values?

There are many definitions and innumerable studies. No definition has attracted widespread consensus. One would be hard put to locate a useful definition of values within the international community that is not challenged by some alternative definition that is valued by others. This does not of course prevent frequent reference to the "fundamental importance" of values by major organizations and other authorities. In an important sense it might be concluded that values do not lend themselves to ready definition (for which politicians may be more than thankful). They may even be valued precisely because they readily escape the facile definitions and labels with which they are associated. Indeed important conflicts arise over differing interpretations of values, however defined.

2. How many values are there?

This question raises the issue of whether it is even appropriate to conceive of values as in some way discrete. There are a few checklists of values but they have attracted little attention. The international community has no checklist of values. What tends to happen is that values are buried in texts of declarations and resolutions in such a way that it becomes impossible to register them effectively or to deduce how many values are recognized by UNESCO, for example -- despite the importance attached to values by that body. Some academic studies of prime interest to commercial market research have given rise to a limited number of value clusters. Such clusters are however more descriptive of individual behaviour patterns of consumers than they are of values such as peace, justice, etc. There would indeed be many who would not regret the difficulty in enumerating values.

3. Values and language

To what extent is the nature of values conditioned by the language used to refer to them? Whether from a deconstructionist or a constructionist persepective, any traditionally straightforward approach to values fails to account for significant advances in understanding over past decades. And what of the plethora of words through which values are labelled -- many of them synonyms or overlapping in connotation to different degrees, with many others carrying nuances which the arts cherish in articulating sensitivity to value variants ?

4. Consensus on fundamental values

There have been many initiatives over the past decades to identify a core set of universal values on which "everyone should agree". It is safe to say that those constituencies who have been convinced by this perspective have each generated sets of 5 to 10 values that have significantly failed to convince others -- as religious initiatives failed before them in imposing their respective versions of the "Ten Commandments".

Whilst token acknowledgement may be given to such forms of value consensus, initiatives of this kind tend to be based on an extreme form of naivety in expecting that such consensus will be of any operational significance across cultures. The Asian preparatory meeting for the UN Human Rights Conference of 1993 offered a warning signal. It could be argued that this approach has been less than successful in part because of the almost pathological fear of any form of disagreement exhibited by its proponents. As a result any consensus is conceptually simplistic and fails to explore richer patterns of coherence that allow for (and may even depend upon) a high degree of disagreement (Judge, 1992).

5. Value relativism

There is an increasing need to deal with value relativism and to be able to relate to those holding different values. Value relativism is even advocated as a valuable advance over the constraints of traditional value patterns. For some "anything goes".

6. Value creation

The emergence of a high degree of value relativism, however much it is regretted in some quarters, has favoured educational programmes emphasizing "value creation". By this is meant that individuals should develop whatever values they themselves consider appropriate to their circumstances. Thus Walter Truett Anderson in an analysis of the collapse of belief in the USA notes:

"A home economics book...had the following statement: 'Values are subjective. They vary from person to person. You will be able to understand and get along with other people better if you keep an open mind about the value judgements they make'. Another text said that 'one cannot go to an encyclopedia or a textbook for values,' that they 'come out of the flux of life itself'. A handbook for values clarification activities told teachers that such learning could not even be graded...: 'There are no wrong answers, and grading would only serve to stifle trust, honesty and a willingness to self-disclose.'" (Reality Isn't What It Used to Be. San Francisco, Harper, 1990)

Such views are of course strongly opposed by fundamentalists of different persuasions.

In some sense values may themselves take the form of an "emergent" phenomenon -- a matter of concern if their future emergence is not to be inappropriately constrained. From this perspective, to what extent does chaos theory offer new insights through which a richer approach to values can emerge? This should presumably strike a more fruitful balance between the relativism of individual values and a measure of collective constraint in a turbulent society.

From Encyclopedia of World Problems and Human Potential