Popular Definition As Reference Definition
I will be defining "values" in at least three ways: as the term is used popularly in America, how the term is used by social scientists, and how secular, Western philosophers define the term. I will also muck about with the definitions as we go along, in this series of articles; but we need a starting point.
To discuss values in general, we need a reference definition that points to what values are for the people who talk about them and who say values are important in their lives. To provide a reference definition, therefore, I need to define the term without explaining how people come to have values, without a theory of values, and without providing a history of values. (I must, in other words, avoid a post-modern approach to values.) My definition will be in stilted language, so we can identify precisely the parts of the definition. We will deal later with secondary meanings of values; here is primarily what people think "values" are:
Values are ethical laws that are independent existents in the universe.
What the Definition Says
"Ethical": Values concern the obligations people have to each other.
"Laws": Values are imposed on persons. Persons are obligated to follow them. We are obligated to fulfill our obligations - no weaseling allowed. The laws are stated in language, that is, words, but the essence of values as ethical laws is not the words and their taxonomic construction. Values, as ethical laws, are not codes, though they can be stated as codes. To have a lawyerly argument about what the words say misses the point. The essence of values is the injunction to behave in prescribed ways and not to engage in proscribed behavior. To put the issue as a familiar cliche, values are the spirit of the law, not the letter of the law. We are supposed to know how to adapt to the spirit of the law in novel situations and not use the letter of the law to engage in behaviors that are not explicitly disallowed.
"Independent existents": Values exist somehow as a fundamental class of things in the universe. I am using the term "existent" to avoid using terms that would imply that values are material objects, or extraterrestrial entities, or immaterial spirits, or conscious ideas (to use familiar categories in popular literature). Values are existents with their own way of existing.
Values are not the properties of other things. They are not characteristics of atoms. They are not properties of physical objects. They are not states of mind or emotions. They are not psychological projections of our mind out onto the world.
"In the universe": The universe is the total collection of things that exist and can be known by human beings, that is, that may have objective existence.
To put it in popular parlance, values are real.
What the Definition Implies
What does it mean to state that values have their own existence in the universe? Imagine that we are going to categorize all the contents of the universe. We are going to take every thing that manifests itself as existing, no matter what in what form or manner it exists, and assign it to a category of similar existing things.
Doing that, we would, for example, have a category of physical objects that have the characteristics of the things studied by physicists - bullets, chairs, mountains, galaxies, electrons, magnetic fields, and so on. Another category of things would contain consciousnesses - my awareness and self-awareness, your awareness, the awarenesses of other persons. We would have a third category of biological organisms to contain plants, animals, viruses, and our biological selves too. We might have a category for social arrangements and events, such as political parties and baseball games. Clearly this categorizing game can be played in many ways and go on for a long time; there might be many categories.
What the popular definition of values, given above, says is that, when we categorize things in the world, no matter how we do the categorizing, values as ethical laws will be a separate category of their own as things that exist.
Values are not products of our human minds or human culture, though they are manifested in our minds and in culture. They are not the results of social processes. While we can be conscious of values and can think about them, their existence as existents does not depend on our being aware of them and thinking about them. Also, values are not social or behavioral patterns. They are not some artificial aggregate or collective property of social groups.
Everything else, except values, could be removed from the universe and values would still exist, even though there would be no persons around to perceive them and to express them.
Values are - there is no other way to say it - existents.
Why Haven't I Given Examples?
I have not given examples, because examples would lead away from the issue of definition. We need to start by seeing that values have intellectual integrity in a general way, which is how people think of them. Values have reality independent of their manifestation in instances in our daily lives. Values are not invalidated by counter-examples.
If you insist on examples, ask some persons, your neighbors maybe, to state, or define, their values; then determine whether their statements fit in the definition above. If you ask people for specific examples of their values, most of them would cite the Ten Commandments, or some platitude that sounds like they are recalling from childhood. I don't think this is a productive way to proceed. As popular concepts and as lived commitments, values have been resilient in the face of a century of attempted secular debunking and trivialization by social science and academic philosophy. Their resilience is based, I believe, on intellectual sophistication, as well as usefulness. The resilence is not simply the result of the persistence of religious institutions or lack of education among ordinary folk. We need to avoid exampling values in a way that creates weak, discreditable versions of what are, as observable fact, strong positions.
Am I Completely Satisfied With This Definition?
No. I am not completely satisfied with the word "law". It sounds too formal, too much like a code, and that would be misleading. I use the word, because I want a word that does not immediately make people think of anthropology or psychology or philosophy. Law at least conveys the sense of an intellectual order that exists independently of us and has logical and intellectual sophistication. The word, principle (as in moral principle), for instance, does not convey the same sense of an intellectually connected system of ethical injunctions. Perhaps later we will be able to work out a better term.
What Critics Would Say
Critics of popular culture would say that the popular conception of values is religious mythology. All the definition above does is define values in terms of Biblical stories about God telling Adam and Eve not to do something and God giving laws to Moses. The definition is just the Old Testament with God and God-language stripped out. Social scientists would say that the popular conception of values is an illusion (or a delusion). Marxists would say that the definition simply reifies social and economic power. Philosophers would say that the popular conception is really bad philosophy and Platonist and Medieval to boot.
Okay, so critics would say these things. So what? I'm not impressed; we'll deal with them later. All we are trying to do here, in this brief article, is to identify what people primarily mean when they talk about "values".
- 1. Introduction
- 2. Definitions Not Used
- 3. Popular Definition
- 4. Social Science Definitions
- 5. Philosophical Definition: Existentialism
- 6. Cultural Relativism
- 7. The Fact-Value Distinction
- 8. Collapsing the Fact-Value Distinction
Updated. July 29, 2007.