powerful information: empowering local people to tackle social injustice and build a better future

What's New?
About Us
Projects & Partners
Monitoring & Reporting
Activities in the UK
Videos of Our Work
How you can SUPPORT US
Educational Resources
    Access to Information
    Alternative Dev Policy
    Cultural Difference
    Community Development
    Digital Divide
    Millennium D.Goals (+1)
    Quality of Life
    Role of Small CSOs
    Social Capital
    Social Profit
    What's Illiteracy Like?
    Women's Rights
    Why Give Aid?
    Interesting Quotes
Contact Us

website access:

log in

On Values

 "Throughout history, above and beyond the fray of competing political parties or rival economic powers, one constant force has remained: the enduring strength of human values. The common desire by all people to give meaning to life transcends our differences based on race, gender, ethnicity, language, economic condition or political expression. No matter who we are, or where we come from, we seek to find fulfilment and peace in life. Values, then, are our road markers along the way. They are the basis for the simplest and the most profound steps we take in life. They enable us to know the right way from the wrong one -- and if we are strong, to choose the first route, albeit an often longer road. If our decisions are truly guided by values, we are more likely to find harmony within ourselves, our homes and families, our neighborhoods and nations. Individual honor and mutual respect, justice, solidarity, and love -- these are the core values we take from our elders, and seek to pass on to our children."

 Ambassador Juan Somavia (in Brahma Kumaris WSU, 1995)

The following is an edited version of some work we prepared back in 2002 for a project on 'Vision and Values'.

There appears to be no definition of 'values' that is universally accepted. One major study of values* notes that this fact "does not of course prevent frequent reference to the 'fundamental importance' of values by major organisations 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" (UIA; 2003).

Equally, no-one has been able to identify a core set of values on which people from different societies and cultures can agree. Here are some definitions** -- which shows just how loose the term can be!:

  • "values are the obverse of motives...the object, quality, or condition that satisfies the motivation";  
  • 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";
  • "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";
  • "values are normative standards by which human beings are influenced in their choice among the alternative courses of action which they perceive";
  • "a value is a belief upon which a man acts by preference";
  • values: "anything capable of being appreciated (wished for)".
  • Baier points out that sociologists actually employ a bewildering profusion of terms when discussing social values, 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.

    Milton Rokeach, who has also written widely on the subject, defines values as "an enduring belief that a specific mode of conduct or end state of existence is personally or socially preferable to an opposite or converse mode of conduct or end state of existence". (Rokeach, 1973).

    One other facet of values is worth mentioning: the distinction between values and problems (which is discussed in the UIA report). Problems, it notes, tend to be recognised and dealt with as concrete, practical matters. By contrast, human values, are intangible, and yet there is an intimate relationship between the two: basically "no problem is recognizable except in the light of a value. If 'justice' is not a recognized 'value', then 'injustice' cannot be recognized as a problem ... Problems tend to be explicit, whereas values tend to be implicit. But both are artefacts of the human mind."

    Whilst protest groups can unite under a common banner of 'freedom' or 'equality', there may be little or no consensus on what concrete actions are required to achieve these two worthy ends.

    Types of Values

    People have classified and dealt with values in different ways. One crucial distinction is whether values are universal ie they exist independently of culture or whether they only exist within cultures -- an important point when relating values to cultural change!

    The Norwegian philosopher Arne Naess (2002) tackles this point: In ethics, he notes:

      "we distinguish between value objectivism (or realism) and value subjectivism (or emotionalism). The latter implies that the declaration of value is merely an expression of the preferences of particular people or groups (whereas) objectivism is based on the proposition that there are true values independent of differing opinions of their nature. Reality can be considered as socially constructed reality or as a reality that exists independently of all social conditions.

      Without using elevated language, we may perhaps say that some of us have a tendency to add, in all modesty, 'In my view ...' or 'I feel that ...' when we talk, while others say, 'It's like this' or 'This is the case'. Value objectivism maintains that there are values in the same way as there are numbers... In postmodernism on the other hand, the social relativism of ethics seem to have been accepted. Values are social in character. Philosophical postmodernists, however, most probably concede that the concept of social construction is itself a social construction."

    Some (like Hofstede) see values as either 'desirable' or 'desired'. Others prefer terms like 'intrinsic', 'instrumental' or 'terminal'.

    Another distinction that is sometimes made is between single-term values and multi-term values: examples of the former include 'freedom', 'friendship' and 'solidarity'; examples of the latter, 'cultural tolerance', 'human rights' and 'social status'.

    Desirable values might include 'personal integrity' ('honesty' and 'truthfulness'), 'consideration for others', and 'compassion' and 'justice' (fair-play). These are in effect moral beliefs***.

    Desired values might include 'knowledge', 'achievement', 'wealth', 'beauty', and 'good health'. These are personal characteristics, situations or things individuals value.

    For instrumental values we might think of 'being cheerful', 'forgiving', 'helpful' and 'imaginative'; whereas terminal values could include, 'happiness' and 'inner harmony'.

    Another possible way of categorising values was suggested by one of our colleagues, Arie Fokkink, who wondered whether values might usefully be put in groups, for example, values related to oneself; values related to one's social context or one's local environment, and then larger-scale abstract values. Others have drawn a distinction between 'local values' and 'global values'.

    We have provided a list of more than fifty potential values at the end of this section. The list in many ways unsatisfactory, not because it is incomplete, but because it uses words in isolation to express rich, often over-lapping, concepts or conditions. We recognise this criticism -- lists, though common, do not explore the intricate and highly complex relationships between many of the values; nor do they address the fact that many values do not translate comfortably between languages or cultures. Terms such as 'peace' and 'love' can be interpreted and understood in so many different ways

    Which Values are Socially Desirable?

    Elsewhere in our report on the Vision & Values Project we introduced the idea of NGOs as agents of social change. And noted that before you can attempt to change some aspect of public mentality you need to think deeply about what you want to change it to and why. There are often implicit assumptions that one's own set of core values will be shared by society at large, and even other societies which have very different heritage and culture.

    We also noted that there is no universally accepted set of core values for humanity as a whole. Not least because individual value terms are understood very differently in different cultures and languages. (This was very much our experience when attempting to discuss values in our Vision and Values Workshop!)

    They also lend themselves to every variety of (mis)interpretation. And all values, however universal they may seem, can conflict with each other, for example, the conflict between 'responsibility' and 'honesty' that we introduced at the end of the corruption section (in our main report). Indeed, most of the world's problems can be said to result from actions guided by differing interpretations of 'peace', 'love' and 'justice'. One example of a set of what are described as 'higher values' is proposed and poetically described by the Brahma Kumaris World Spirituality University in the book 'Living Values' (1995). There are 12: 'co-operation', 'freedom', 'happiness', 'honesty', 'humility', 'love', 'peace', 'respect', 'responsibility', 'simplicity', 'tolerance', and 'unity' -- core values that it claims are:

      "fundamental to the well being of humanity (because they) touch the core of the individual, perhaps inspiring positive change which can contribute to world transformation. The world will automatically become a better place when each individual becomes a better person."

    These difficulties should not however stop individuals and organisations from trying to define and prioritise their values. The debate, even if it proves inconclusive, is usually informative, enjoyable and can greatly improve understanding. (Preparing this material has increased our understanding of the issues enormously.) It is something you can return to again and again.

    Organisational Core Values

    The issue of personal values is highly complex! But how do we define the core values of an organisation? We have found defining our organisation's core values a useful way into the values debate.

    Core values provide a reference point for shaping and building the work of the organisation. Management consultants define them along the following lines, as a clear and specific set of beliefs that define the expectations and preferred modes of behaviour of the organisation.

    Having a set of core values can help in managing change, whether this involves planning new initiatives, handling crises, or managing growth. Plans and actions should be conceived and implemented within the context of the organisation's core values. In principle, employees make better decisions because they know what the organisation stands for and what standards they are to uphold. Having shared values also means that employees are likely to be more motivated because their work has more meaning. But what does this mean in practice?

    Reflecting on the distinction drawn between personal values that are 'desirable' and those that are 'desired', we found it helpful to distinguish between core values as things that are desirable, and working style as things that are desired in our work.

    In non-profit organisations, where there is a clear separation between governance and management, it is the responsibility of the Board (i.e. governance) to define the core values and see that the staff (i.e. management) properly abides by them. Where there is no clear separation this can become a problem.

    Values Inventory

    The following list forms a good starting point for a discussion of the nature of values :

    achievement; adventure; an exciting life (stimulating experiences); appreciation of beauty; awareness of self; compassion; consideration for others; courage; creativity (uniqueness, imagination); devotion; dignity; discipline; emotional well-being; equality (equal opportunity for all); fairness; freedom (of action and thought); generosity; gentleness; health; humility/modesty; humour; independence; initiative; inner harmony (at peace with myself); integrity; intuition; justice; kindness; knowledge; mature love (deep emotional & spiritual intimacy); meaning in life (a purpose); national security (protection of nation from enemies); optimism; passion; peace (world fee of war and conflict); physical appearance; pleasure (gratification of desires); politeness (courtesy; good manners); power; reciprocation of favours (avoidance of indebtedness); recognition; respect for elders; respect for nature; respect for tradition (preservation of time-honoured customs); responsibility; reverence for life; security; self-discipline (self-restraint, resistance to temptation); sense of belonging; social order (stability of society); social power (power over others); spirituality; tolerance; wealth (material possessions, money); wisdom.

    And here is a somewhat smaller set, proposed by Rokeach (1973), that uses the categorisation 'terminal' and 'instrumental':

    Terminal Values: a comfortable life; an exciting life; a sense of accomplishment; a world of peace; a world of beauty equality; family; security; freedom; happiness; inner harmony; mature love; national security pleasure; salvation; self-respect; social recognition; true friendship; wisdom

    Instrumental Values: ambitious; broadminded; capable; cheerful; clean; courageous; forgiving; helpful; honest; imaginative independent; intellectual; loving; logical; obedient; polite; responsible; self-controlled.

    (Please note our earlier comments about the simplification involved in merely listing concepts, many of which overlap and or relate to one another, like honesty and integrity.) 

    Here's a thoughtful quote to conclude the discussion: 

    "At a time of crisis, we are again at a point of recognising the need for values ... Values are the treasure of life, making humans wealthy and rich. Values are friends, bringing happiness in life ... Values bring independence and freedom, expand the capacity to be self-sufficient, and liberate one from external influences... Values offer protection, and one who experiences this is able to share this protection with others. Values bring empowerment, and it becomes possible to remove weakness and defects ... Values open the heart and transform human nature so that life is filled with compassion and humility. As we develop values within the self, we share the fragrance of those values with the world around us, and in this way move forward to a better world."

     Dadi Janki, Brahma Kumaris World Spiritual University (1995)


    * The 'Human Values Project' is impressive by any standard. It was undertaken by the Union of International Organisations over many years (UIA; 2003). We have found some of its conclusions highly illuminating, although have to admit to having been defeated by some of the mathematics! This raises important issues about how to bridge the gap between detailed and sometimes hard-to-comprehend academic debate and the understanding of ordinary people. This is an area we are particularly interested in: extracting important information from often complex analysis and making it intelligible to ordinary mortals.

    ** The quotes are taken from a paper by Baier and quoted by the UIA.

    *** Moral beliefs are an overlapping set of principles that make social life possible.