Values and Valuing

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The concept of value is more complex than it might initially appear. Values can range across personal preferences as indicated by pleasures, desires, wants, and needs to more objective goods such as health, efficiency, progress, truth, beauty, and more. Values can also be negative as well as positive, and in the former case they are commonly termed "disvalues," with examples being pain or illness. Values in all these senses both influence and are influenced by science and technology.

However, what precisely makes each of these diverse phenomena into values is more difficult to indicate. The concept of value, its manifestation in values, and the process of valuing (and evaluation) have been subject to diverse economic, social scientific, and philosophical analyses, each of which introduces numerous distinctions of relevance to any description and assessment of values in and resulting from science, engineering, and technology. Because of such difficulties, the present review attempts no more than some general introductions to three areas of discussion and includes a briefly annotated bibliography to mostly philosophical references.

Economic Perspectives

The term value is derived from the Latin valere, to be worthy or strong, the root as well of valiant, valor, and valid. It can be used as a noun ("Science is one of the primary values in modern culture") or verb ("We value modern technology"), or turned into a modifier ("Engineering is a valuable activity"). The term first emerged during the rise of the modern period to refer to the monetary worth of some commodity. Eighteenth-century economists conceptualized value as dependent on humans, and as such value was subtly opposed to premodern notions of goodness as a transcendental manifestation (along with truth and beauty) of being as such.

In the labor theory of value, commonly referenced to the English philosopher John Locke (1632–1704), value is created by humans when they technologically transform nature. In classical economics the market price of a commodity was thought to reflect the objective value contributed to it by human labor. But critics of this view argued in favor of price reflecting almost wholly the values that consumers attribute to products in a competitive marketplace. Exchange value replaced use value as the primary form of value. In economic science the basic concern has thus become to analyze interactions between human values and market behavior.

Social Scientific Perspectives

A different analysis of values developed in the social sciences, where the concern was more with how values are rooted in or related to the self and how they constitute society or influence political behavior. One mid-twentieth century effort to promote the scientific study of social values was advanced by the pragmatist philosopher Charles Morris (1901–1979). Extending earlier work, Morris (1956) distinguished between operative, conceived, and object values; did an empirical, cross-cultural analysis of value preferences among college students in Canada, China, India, Japan, Norway, and the United States who completed a "ways to live" inventory; and then speculated about the social, psychological, and biological determinants of values. The results of this psychometric research, which revealed both stability in structures among thirteen different ways of life and differences between national samples, were not especially profound, but they nevertheless promoted the idea that values are amenable to empirical investigation. This was in opposition to any assumption that the fact/value distinction would exclude values from scientific examination.

On a more personal level, one of the most widely referenced psychological analyses of value is that of Abraham H. Maslow (1908–1970). According to Maslow (1971) human beings try to satisfy needs or pursue values in the following order of priority: physiological needs (air, water, food), safety (security, stability), needs of belongingness and love, esteem needs, and self-actualization. The need for self-actualization was further associated by Maslow with the pursuit of what he called B(eing)-values such as truth, goodness, and beauty.

An observation by Langdon Winner bears on the implications for science and technology of many psychological (and even some economic) approaches to values. Once values are subjectivized, "[r]aising the question of value is no longer so much an occasion to think about the qualities of things or conditions outside us [as it is] an opportunity to look within, to perform an inventory of emotions" (Winner 1986, p. 158). Persons no longer purchase objects because the objects themselves have value as they are likely to purchase objects to realize their own values.

In sociology and anthropology values are described not so much in individual or personal terms as dimensions of culture. Shared values create collective identity and solidarity in culture and society. Socialization is a process of inculcating values from one group or generation to another. Sociologists of science analyze what particular values are shared within communities of technical professionals and how the inculcation and reinforcement of such values takes place. Values are both expressive and functional more than cognitive.

It should also be noted that within modern societies as a whole, one of the features that defines them as modern is the shared value placed on science and technology. Some critics of technological society in turn argue that this shared commitment to and/or acceptance of science and technology may undermine other socializing values such as religion. Questions thus arise about the absolute value of scientific knowledge—and about the possibility of technologies configured by alternative values.

Philosophical Perspectives

In philosophy the examination of values is closely linked to ethics. The philosophical examination of values and valuing as distinct from ethics came of age in the mid-twentieth century in different ways in the pragmatic, analytic, and phenomenological traditions.

PRAGMATIC TRADITION. In the pragmatic tradition, work by John Dewey (1859–1952), Ralph Barton Perry (1876–1957), Stephen C. Pepper (1891–1972), and C. I. Lewis (1883–1964) has been central. For Perry, value is defined as "any object of any interest" (1926, p. 115), so that to say that X is valuable means that Y takes an interest in X. Pepper sees Perry's definition as too narrow and argues more generally that values are constituted by "all selections by a selective system that are relevant to human decisions" (1958, pp. 690–691).

Dewey and Lewis continued the pragmatic empiricism of Perry and Pepper by arguing the foundational character of the human creative act of valuing. For Dewey, values are ends-in-view, that is, always provisional and able to become means to another end-in-view. Going beyond sheer animal impulses or appetites that produce effects, human interest, desire, "having ends-in-view, and hence involving valuations, is the characteristic that marks off human from nonhuman behavior." Moreover, when science is put to "distinctively human use" its knowledge about the nonhuman world is utilized to assess such ends-in-view in terms both of whether they are likely to be achievable by the proposed means or capable of becoming means themselves for further provisional ends. "In this integration not only is science itself a value (since it is the expression and the fulfillment of a special human desire and interest) but it is the supreme means of the valid determination of all valuations in all aspect of human and social life" (1939, p. 66).

Like Dewey, Lewis sees evaluations as forms of empirical knowledge related to courses of human action. Values have empirical content, although this content bears solely on personal preferences and courses of action, which makes values subject to democratic choice and scientific assessment. The general study of values, which can involve more than ethical values, is for pragmatists more properly termed theory of value or axiology than ethics.

ANALYTIC TRADITION. In the analytic tradition, the early leaders were Charles L. Stevenson (1908–1979), A. J. Ayer (1910–1989), and R. M. Hare (1919–2002). According to Ayer, the philosophical analysis of values is better described as metaethics than as ethics, because its goal is more the clarification of the meaning of terms than normative argumentation. Adopting a positivist interpretation of science as the paradigm of knowledge, Ayer and Stevenson argued that ethical and value statements were simply noncognitive expressions of likes and dislikes. Hare subsequently merged metaethical analysis with ordinary language philosophy to undertake a critical examination of the "language of morals." Linguistically, value statements were argued to entail a universalization of likes and dislikes.

Another even more abstract metaethical approach to values can be found in the work of G. H. von Wright (1916–2003), a student of Ludwig Wittgenstein. Von Wright (1963) subjects a particular value, goodness, to extended conceptual analysis. For von Wright it is not so much the value of goodness that is a creative projection of human action as a human commitment to a specific value that establishes that value as a norm. Von Wright and others such as Sven Ove Hansson (2001) have further sought to develop a formalized logic of values and norms reasoning.

PHENOMENOLOGICAL TRADITION. In the phenomenological tradition the defining work was that of Max Scheler (1874–1928). Whereas pragmatism focused on the process of valuing and analytic philosophy on the meaning and logic of value propositions, Scheler sought a conceptual elucidation and critical assessment of the substantive value feelings people experience. Scheler undertook his phenomenological descriptions of experienced values in opposition to Kantian formalism and universalism—a formalism echoed in metaethical formalism. For Scheler, prerational or intuitive preferences are at the basis of substantive ethics. These feelings can be grouped into five basic types: sensible values, pragmatic values, life values, intellectual values, and spiritual values. For Scheler (and most subsequent phenomenologists) technology is constituted by pragmatic values and science by intellectual ones.


The philosophical study of values yields a number of distinctions used in reflecting on relations between science, technology, and values. Such distinctions include those between instrumental and final values (means and ends), between extrinsic and intrinsic values, and subjective and objective values. Although related, these distinctions are subtly different. For instance, instrumental or use values may be extrinsic or designed into technological artifacts so as to become intrinsic values that have subjective and objective dimensions.

In relation more specifically to science and technology there are three interrelated issues with regard to values: What sort of property is involved with having a value or being valuable? (That is, are values primarily aspects of things or of knowers and users?) Is this property subjective or objective? (That is, to what extent is value subject to scientific study?) How might this property be designed into products, processes, or systems? (That is, can values be part of engineering design and technological invention?)

By and large values are taken in economics and in philosophy to be second-order properties that arise in interactions among human beings (markets) or depend on human beings (their interests). Values are thus not determined by science though they are certainly manifested in science, and science can study values in at least three ways: inventorying what values people express, analyzing structural relations among values, and criticizing specific values as likely or not to be able to be realized given the way the world is. The engineering design of products, processes, or systems is always undertaken with some values in view both with regard to process and project termination. That is, questions are increasingly asked about whether certain values such as user-friendliness, gender equity, or democratic participation can be designed into technologies. But the degree to which such a question can be answered in any systematic manner remains problematic.

The problematic character of the values–science relation is another continuing issue. One of the most persistently defended distinctions in science and technology is that between facts and values. Although widely criticized—because it is not clear whether the distinction is itself a fact or a value or both—one of the most persistent difficulties is to figure out how best to relate the two once distinguished. Even those who want to defend the difference also want to argue that values should have some bearing on what kind of science gets done and how it is done, and on which kind of technology gets created and how it should be used.

One general effort to address such questions is Loren R. Graham's Between Science and Values (1981), in which the author distinguishes between restrictionist and expansionist relationships. In the restrictionist view, science and values are strongly separated, and science is argued to be autonomous with no univocal influence on values. According to Graham, this is a view that is more defensible in physics than in biology, especially when the biology involves research on human beings. In the expansionist view, science is argued to have either direct or indirect implications for values and vice versa. This is the view that Graham thinks is most reasonable, but also one that he admits is both difficult to determine the boundaries for and dangerous. Indeed, as his historical case studies in physics and biology across the twentieth century reveal, almost any effort to deal with the science–values relation has weaknesses as well as strengths. Values and valuing are as much a challenge to science as science is to values.

In conclusion, it is worth observing that discussions of science, technology, and values in the 2000s have become less central than in the 1950s or 1960s. Were Jacob Bronowski's widely read Science and Human Values (1956) to have been published in the 1990s it would more likely have been titled something like "Science and Ethics."


SEE ALSO Axiology;Critical Social Theory;Ethical Pluralism;Existentialism;Neutrality in Science and Technology.


Bronowski, Jacob. (1956). Science and Human Values. New York: Julian Messner.

Dewey, John. (1939). Theory of Valuation. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. An introduction to a pragmatic theory of values or axiology.

Graham, Loren R. (1981). Between Science and Values. New York: Columbia University Press. A historical examination of the interaction of science and values in the twentieth century using cases from physics and biology.

Grice, Paul. (1991). The Conception of Value. Oxford: Clarendon Press. A theory of value drawing on both Aristotle and Immanuel Kant.

Hansson, Sven Ove. (2001). The Structure of Values and Norms. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press. Presents a formal system for the representation of values and norms.

Jonas, Hans. (2000). The Genesis of Values, trans. Gregory Moore. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. Originally published 1997. A historicophilosophical analysis of the work of Friedrich Nietzsche, William James, Émile Durkheim, Georg Simmel, Max Scheler, John Dewey, and Charles Taylor arguing that "values arise in experiences of self-formation and self-transcendence" (p. 1).

Lewis, Clarence Irving. (1946). An Analysis of Knowledge and Valuation. La Salle, IL: Open Court. Argues a naturalist theory of evaluations as a form of empirical knowledge.

Maslow, Abraham H. (1971). The Farther Reaches of Human Nature. New York: Viking. A humanistic psychologist's argument for a hierarchy of needs-values.

Morris, Charles. (1956). Varieties of Human Value. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. An early psychometric study of different value preferences.

Pepper, Stephen C. (1958). The Sources of Value. Berkeley: University of California Press. One of the most systematic and expansive pragmatic theory of values.

Perry, Ralph Barton. (1926). General Theory of Value: Its Meaning and Basic Principles Construed in Terms of Interest. New York: Longmans, Green. Reprint, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1950. Defines value as simply the object of an interest.

Perry, Ralph Barton. (1954). Realms of Value: A Critique of Human Civilization. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. Extends the 1926 interest theory of value into a critical assessment of interests in society, ethics, politics, law, economics, science, art, and more.

Scheler, Max. (1973). Formalism in Ethics and Non-formal Ethics of Values: A New Attempt toward the Foundation of an Ethical Personalism, trans. Manfred S. Frings and Roger L. Funk. Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press. Originally published 1913–1916. Distinguishes five basic feeling values: physical, useful, vital, mental, and religious.

von Wright, Georg Henrik. (1963). The Varieties of Goodness. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul. A conceptual analysis of goodness as a type of value.

Winner, Langdon. (1986). The Whale and the Reactor: A Search for Limits in an Age of High Technology. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. A collection of influential essays.