Clarifying values

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—What we find most important

Introduction[edit | edit source]

What is most important to you? What does not really matter? What are your priorities? What really ticks you off? What is worth defending and protecting? How do you choose among conflicting goals? Answering these questions begins to identify your values—enduring beliefs of what is most important to you. Checking your list of values against the decisions you make and the actions you take reveals much about what you truly hold to be important. Our values establish what goals are more important and what goals are less important to us. Values transcend specific actions and situations and provide us stability and guidance as we encounter obstacles, distractions, opportunities, ambiguity, ambivalence, conflict, and temptations throughout our lives. Unless we stand for something, we shall fall for anything.[1] What are your values? Let’s find out.

Our values guide us toward what is most important.

Objectives[edit | edit source]

The objectives of this course are to:

  • Explore the concept of values.
  • Examine various value sets.
  • Choose among various values.
  • Guide you in clarifying our own values.

This course is part of the Applied Wisdom curriculum. This material has been adapted from the page on value, with permission of the author.

If you wish to contact the instructor, please click here to send me an email or leave a comment or question on the Talk page.

Definitions and Related Terms[edit | edit source]

Values can be defined as:

  1. What you find most important,
  2. Intrinsic worth,
  3. Your standards for judgment and appraisal.

Several English language words describe merit, worth, or importance, including convictions, ideals, ideology, merit, morality, principles, standards, and worth.

Values become virtues when they are internalized as enduring character traits. For example, the value of "truth" becomes the virtue of "honesty" when truth becomes a consistent motive for your behavior.

Widely Held Values[edit | edit source]

After interviewing 24 courageous and thoughtful men and women of conscience from around the world, author Rush Kidder concluded that eight values are widely, almost universally, accepted[2]. These common values are:

  • love (compassion)—Caring for others, helping others,
  • truthfulness—honesty, keeping your promises, communicating clearly and accurately, veracity, being trustworthy,
  • fairness—following the Golden Rule, equality, impartiality,
  • freedom—freedom of expression, freedom from oppression, freedom of action when combined with personal responsibility,
  • unity—community, inclusiveness, cooperation, valuing our interdependencies,
  • tolerance—acknowledging the dignity of all, respecting the rights of others, refusing to hate, being open to other points of view,
  • responsibility—care for yourself, care for others, care for the future, and
  • respect for life—do not kill.

In a separate study Christopher Peterson and Katherine Dahlsgaard identified six virtues endorsed across the thinking of many philosophers, religious leaders, statesmen, and other ancient and modern luminaries from around the world.[3] These virtues are:

  1. Wisdom and Knowledge: creativity, curiosity, open-mindedness, love of learning, perspective
  2. Courage: bravery, persistence, integrity, zest
  3. Humanity: love, kindness, social intelligence
  4. Justice: teamwork, fairness, leadership
  5. Temperance: forgiveness and mercy, humility, prudence, self control
  6. Transcendence: appreciation of beauty and excellence, gratitude, hope, humor, spirituality

Martin Seligman uses these as the basis for identifying signature strengths.

For Plato, all virtues were a product of the cardinal virtues of: courage, wisdom, temperance, and justice.

Abraham Maslow identified 16 subtle (easily displaced, vulnerable, fragile, delicate, intricate) values common to self-actualizing people he called Being-Values, or B-Values. These are:

  • Truth: honesty; reality; simplicity; richness; oughtness; beauty; pure, clean and unadulterated; completeness; essentiality
  • Goodness: rightness; desirability; oughtness; justice; benevolence; honesty
  • Beauty: rightness; form; aliveness; simplicity; richness; wholeness; perfection; completion; uniqueness; honesty
  • Wholeness: unity; integration; tendency to one-ness; interconnectedness; simplicity; organization; structure; dichotomy-transcendence; order
  • Aliveness: process; non-deadness; spontaneity; self-regulation; full-functioning
  • Uniqueness: idiosyncrasy; individuality; non-comparability; novelty
  • Perfection: necessity; just-right-ness; just-so-ness; inevitability; suitability; justice; completeness; "oughtness"
  • Completion: ending; finality; justice; "it's finished"; fulfillment; finis and telos; destiny; fate
  • Justice: fairness; orderliness; lawfulness; "oughtness"
  • Simplicity: honesty; essentiality; abstract, essential, skeletal structure
  • Richness: differentiation, complexity; intricacy
  • Effortlessness: ease; lack of strain, striving or difficulty; grace; perfect, beautiful functioning
  • Playfulness: fun; joy; amusement; gaiety; humor; exuberance; effortlessness
  • Self-sufficiency: autonomy; independence; not-needing-other-than-itself-in-order-to-be-itself; self-determining; environment-transcendence; separateness; living by its own laws

Jonathan Haidt provides further insights. His research shows that we are born with an inherent sense of five foundations for morality. These are:

  1. Care for others, do not harm them.
  2. Be fair and reciprocate, follow the golden rule
  3. Be loyal to those in your group, cooperate and help group members succeed,
  4. Respect authority
  5. Purity and sanctity, practice self-control and avoid toxins and filthy behaviors.

As we grow toward maturity people universally continue to value the first two of these: care and be fair. However, an important divergence occurs with the last three values. People who are high in the personality trait of “openness to experience”—often characterized as liberal thinkers—reject the last three values. Other people—those who are politically conservative and low in the openness trait—continue to value loyalty, authority, and purity.  Both viewpoints are valid and necessary. The conservative viewpoint recognizes the importance of organizing into groups, and those groups require some authority structure and self-restraint to make them effective. At the same time, the liberals recognize the value of diversity, the need to challenge authority to effect positive change and overcome oppression, and the importance of personal autonomy. We need the stability of institutions and traditions, along with the chaos of change that moves us toward justice for all.

Neuroscientist and Philosopher Sam Harris believes that choices that improve human well-being and help human communities flourish are the better choices, and these can often be objectively identified.[4]

A comprehensive and up-to-date values theory is the Theory of Basic Human Values developed by Shalom H. Schwartz. This theory identifies ten basic values that people in virtually all cultures demonstrate have some persistent level of importance in guiding decision making and choosing actions. These ten values, and the distinct  motivation underlying each, are described in the following table.

Value: Motivation: Examples:
Achievement Personal success through demonstrating competence according to social standards. Success: Achieving goals.

Capability: Competence, effectiveness, efficiency. Ambition: Hard work, aspirations. Influence: Have an impact on people and events.

Benevolence Preserving and enhancing the welfare of those with whom one is in frequent personal contact (the ‘in-group’). Helpful: Working for the welfare of others.

Honesty: Genuineness, sincerity. Forgivingness: Willingness to pardon others. Loyalty: Faithful to my friends, group. Responsibility: Dependable, reliable.

Conformity Restraint of actions, inclinations, and impulses likely to upset or harm others and violate social expectations or norms. Politeness: Courtesy, good manners.

Obedience: Dutiful, meet obligations. Self-discipline: Self-restraint, resistance to temptation. Honor parents and elders: Showing respect.

Hedonism Pleasure and sensuous gratification for oneself. Pleasure: Gratification of desires.

Enjoyment in life: Enjoyment of food, sex, leisure, and so on.

Power Social status and prestige, control or dominance over people and resources. Social power: Control over others, dominance.

Authority: The right to lead or command. Wealth: Material possessions, money.

Security Safety, harmony, and stability of society, of relationships, and of self. Family security: Safety for loved ones.

National security: Protection of my nation from enemies. Social order: Stability of society. Cleanliness: Neatness, tidiness. Reciprocation of favors: Avoidance of indebtedness.

Self-Direction Independent thought and action; choosing, creating, exploring. Creativity: Uniqueness, imagination.

Freedom: Freedom of action and thought. Independence: Self-reliance, self-sufficiency. Curiosity: Interest in everything, exploration. Choose own goals: Select own purposes.

Stimulation Excitement, novelty, and challenge in life. Daringness: Adventure-seeking, risk taking.

A varied life: Filled with challenge, novelty, change. An exciting life: Stimulating experiences.

Tradition Respect, commitment, and acceptance of the customs and ideas that traditional culture or religion provide the self. Broadminded: Tolerant of different ideas and beliefs.

Wisdom: A mature understanding of life. Social justice: Correcting injustice, care for the weak. Equality: Equal opportunity for all. A world at peace: Free of war and conflict. A world of beauty: Beauty of nature and the arts. Unity with nature: Fitting into nature. Protecting the environment: Preserving nature.

Certain pairs of these values are inherently conflicting. For example, the stability of conformity conflicts with the spontaneity of stimulation. The asymmetry of power conflicts with the equality of universalism.

A graphic representation of the Theory of Basic Human Values developed by Shalom H. Schwartz

Recognizing the compatibilities and conflicts inherent in these values, the theory arranges them to form a circle as shown here. Conflicting values are shown opposite one another, and the adjacent values are largely compatible. Because of this structure if you choose the value you believe to be most important from the ten listed, then typically you will hold the opposite value lowest, and may attribute it a negative worth. Also, values adjacent to your most important value in the circle will also be quite important to you. The importance decreases the farther removed around the circle, in both directions, from your most important. As a result, your overall values set can be approximately described by simply rotating this circle until your most important value is shown at the top. The circle shown here is oriented to reflect the values of a particularly wise person.

When discussing values, it is important to be clear about “what's up”—what specific values are considered most important.  Sometime careless (or manipulative) speakers will make a general appeal to “uphold values” or “return to values” without identifying the specific values considered important. This ambiguity can be an attractive appeal to a large audience because each listener is naturally thinking about his or her own values (perhaps oriented as show in the figure above). However, the speaker may have in mind a values orientation that may be substantially different, even inverse of yours.

In Buddhism, it is the motivation that counts. The overarching value is genuine compassion for all. An act is unethical if its goal is to cause suffering and it is ethical if it is meant to bring genuine well-being to others.

Before deciding how to act, the Dalai Lama encourages us to ask:

  • Are we being broad minded or narrow minded?
  • Have we taken into account the overall situation or are we considering only selected information?
  • Is our view short-term or long term?
  • Is our motivation genuinely compassionate?
  • Is our compassion limited to our families, or friends, and those we identify with closely?

After considering these widely held values perhaps you believe they provide an excellent standard for judging right and wrong, good and bad, important from trivial. Perhaps you believe something else. Knowing yourself requires a careful examination of your own values and beliefs. What are they? How did they originate? What are they based on? Why do you hold these beliefs? Are they based on reliable evidence? Are your actions consistent with your beliefs? How do your beliefs align with your values? How have they evolved over your lifetime? How do they help you live a gratifying life?

Assignment[edit | edit source]

Know how you know and use your theory of knowledge to carefully choose your own values and beliefs.

(Hint, a shortcut may be to simply rotate the Theory of Basic Human Values circle shown above to place your most important value at the top.)

To begin to create a list of your own values, consider the terms and phrases in the values summaries described above or in the following alphabetical list. Modify, clarify, or add to the list as you like to make it meaningful to you. Choose the five to ten terms that describe what is most important to you. Carefully examine and introduce verbs as appropriate in each values statement to make it active, precise, and meaningful to you. For example, the value “Freedom” may become “exercising freedom”, “defending freedom”, “providing freedom", “expanding freedom”, or some other phrase that more precisely describes your particular values. Ask close friends if the list agrees with how they know you. Examine how your goals, beliefs, and actions align with these values.

Values can become statements of high-level goals. People may say “I believe in freedom” when more precisely they mean “I believe in the value of freedom” or “Freedom is an important value for me” or “Freedom is an important goal that I work to achieve”.

Acceptance, Accomplishment, Achievement, Active lifestyle, Advancement and promotion, Adventure, Aesthetics, Affection (love and caring), Affiliation, Aliveness, Altruism, Appreciation, Arts, Aspiration, Assertiveness, Attentiveness, Authenticity, Authority, Autonomy, Avarice, Awareness.

Balance, Beauty, Benevolence, Betterment, Bravery, Boldness

Care free, Caring, Caution, Challenge, Chaos, Challenging problems, Change and variety, Charity, Chastity, Citizenship, Clarity, Cleanliness, Close relationships, Congruence, Contemplation, Comfort, Commitment, Community, Compassion, Competence, Competition, Completion, Congruence, Confidence, Conflict, Conquest, Conservation, Consideration, Consistency and order, Contentment, Contribution, Control, Cooperation, Courage, Country, Courtesy, Craftsmanship, Creativity, Critical thinking, Cruelty, Cultural Identification, Cunning, Curiosity

Danger, Decisiveness, Dedication, Democracy, Deference, Dependability, Detachment, Determination, Dignity, Diligence, Discernment, Discipline, Discretion, Dominance, Drive, Duty

Ecological awareness, Economic security, Education, Effectiveness, Efficiency, Effortlessness, Ego, Elegance, Emotional Intelligence, Empathy, Endurance, Enjoyment, Enthusiasm, Equanimity, Ethnic identification, Ethical practice, Excellence, Excitement, Exhibition, Expertise

Faith, Faithfulness, Fairness, Fame, Family, Fast living, Fidelity, Financial gain, Financial Security, Fitness, Flexibility, Flow, Foresight, Forgiveness, Fortitude, Fortune, Freedom, Free will, Friendliness, Friendships, Frivolity, Fulfillment, Fun

Generosity, Gentleness, Genuineness, Gluttony, Goodness, Gratification, Gratitude, Greed, Growth

Happiness, Hate, Having a family, Health, Hedonism, Helpfulness, Helping society, Heritage, Heroism, Honesty, Honor, Hope, Hospitality, Humanity, Human Rights, Humility, Humor

Idealism, Ignorance, Imagination, Impartiality, Impulse, Independence, Individuality, Indulgence, Industry, Influencing others, Ingenuity, Inner harmony, Innovation, Integration, Integrity, Intellectual Intelligence, Intellectual stature, Intellectual stimulation, Interpersonal contact, Innovation, Insight, Intuition, Involvement

Job Satisfaction, Job tranquility, Joy, Justice

Kindness, Knowledge

Liberty, Lightheartedness, Leadership, Learning, Legacy, Leisure, Location, Logic, Love, Loyalty, Lust

Macho, Magnanimity, Market position, Mastery, Meaning, Meaningful work, Mercy, Merit, Meritocracy, Moderation, Modesty, Money, Morality

Nature, Nonviolence, Now, Nurturing

Obedience, Openness, Optimism, Order(tranquility, stability, conformity), Originality

Pacifism, Parsimony, Passion, Patience, Patriotism, Peacefulness, Peace of mind, Perfection, Perseverance, Persistence, Personal development, Personal Freedom, Perspective, Philanthropy, Physical challenge, Piety, Playfulness, Pleasure, Positivity, Power and authority, Prayerfulness, Prestige, Privacy, Progressivism, Prudence, Public service, Purity, Purposefulness

Quality of what I take part in, Quality relationships, Quality of Life.

Rationality, Reality, Rebellion, Reciprocity, Recognition (respect from others, stature), Reflection, Relatedness, Relaxation, Reliability,  Religion, Reputation, Resilience, Respect, Respect for life, Restraint, Responsibility and accountability, Revenge, Reverence, Richness, Righteousness, Risk Taking

Sacrifice, Safety, Security, Self-actualization, Self-awareness, Self-confidence, Self-control, Self-discipline, Selfishness, Self-reliance, Self-respect, Self-sufficiency, Self-worth, Sensitivity, Sensory pleasure, Serenity, Service, Sharing, Significance, Simplicity, Sincerity, Sloth, Sobriety, Social skills, Sophistication, Spirituality, Stability, Status, Stature, Steadfastness,  Strength, Supervising others, Symmetry

Tactfulness, Teamwork, Temperance, Tenacity, Thankfulness, Thrills, Time freedom, Tolerance, Tradition, Tranquility, Transformation, Transcendence, Trust, Trustworthiness, Truth, Truthfulness, Tyranny

Understanding, Uniqueness, Unity

Valor, Variety, Vigor, Violence, Vision

Wealth, Whimsical, Wholeness, Will, Winning, Wisdom, Wonder, Woo, Work under pressure, Work with others, Working alone, World Peace


Now write down the list of your ten most important values.

Notice as you go throughout your day and live your life if you consistently hold these values as most important as you decide and. Adjust your actions or values list to bring them into congruence.  

Recommended Reading[edit | edit source]

Students interested in learning more about choosing values may be interested in the following materials:

  • Haidt, Jonathan (2012). The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion. Pantheon. pp. 448. ISBN 978-0307377906. 
  • Kidder, Rushworth M. (1994). Shared Values for a Troubled World: Conversations with Men and Women of Conscience. Jossey-Bass. pp. 332. ISBN 978-1555426033. 
  • Robinson, Ken; Aronica, Lou (December 29, 2009). The Element: How Finding Your Passion Changes Everything. Penguin Books. pp. 320. ISBN 978-0143116738. 
  • The real difference between liberals and conservatives, Jonathan Haidt on
  • Gensler, Harry J. (March 21, 2013). Ethics and the Golden Rule. Routledge. pp. 256. ISBN 978-0415806879. 
  • Values That Various People Have Associated With Wisdom
  • Basic Human Values: An Overview by Shalom H. Schwartz The Hebrew University of Jerusalem
  • Ricard, Matthieu; Daniel Goleman (2007). Happiness: A Guide to Developing Life's Most Important Skill. Little, Brown and Company. pp. 304. ISBN 978-0316167253  . 
  • A Rose by Any Name? The Values Construct, by Meg J. Rohan, School of Psychology University of New South Wales, Personality and Social Psychology Review, 2000, Volume 4, Number 3.
  • Science can answer moral questions, Sam Harris, February 2010,
  • The World Values Survey.
  • Declaration toward a global ethic, Parliament of the World's Religions, September 4, 1993

References[edit | edit source]

  1. Unknown author. See:
  2. Kidder, Rushworth M. (1994). Shared Values for a Troubled World: Conversations with Men and Women of Conscience. Jossey-Bass. pp. 332. ISBN 978-1555426033. 
  3. Peterson, Christopher; Seligman, Martin E. P. (2004). Character Strengths and Virtues. Oxford: Oxford University Press. ISBN 978-0195167016. 
  4. Harris, Sam (2011). The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values. Free Press. pp. 320. ISBN 978-1439171226.