Psychology Wiki

Assessment | Biopsychology | Comparative | Cognitive | Developmental | Language | Individual differences | Personality | Philosophy | Social |
Methods | Statistics | Clinical | Educational | Industrial | Professional items | World psychology |

Philosophy Index: Aesthetics · Epistemology · Ethics · Logic · Metaphysics · Consciousness · Philosophy of Language · Philosophy of Mind · Philosophy of Science · Social and Political philosophy · Philosophies · Philosophers · List of lists

A value system refers to the order and priority an individual or society grants to ethical and ideological values.

While two individuals or groups may share a set of common values, they may not give equal weight or preference to those values. The two individuals or groups are said to have different value systems, even though they may have many values in common, if their prioritization of values differs, or if there are different exceptions they attach to these values. Groups and individuals who share many values may still wind up in conflict, ideological or physical, with each other, because of the differences in their value systems. People with differing value systems will thus disagree on the rightness or wrongness of certain actions, both in the abstract and in specific circumstances. In essence, a value system (if sufficiently well-defined) is a formalization of a moral code.

The premise behind the discipline of rigorously examining value systems and the differences between them (given the provisional name ethonomics) is that an understanding of these differences in prioritization of values can lead to greater understanding about the politics (and motivations) of individuals and groups.


In order to define value systems, it is first necessary to define the characteristics of values that could be represented in a value system. The values that a group or person holds may fall into several different categories. The ones that usually concern us in the area of value systems are the ethical and the ideological.

  • Ethical values may be thought of as those values which serve to distinguish between good and bad, right and wrong, and moral and immoral. At a societal level, these values frequently form a basis for what is permitted and what is prohibited.
  • Ideological values deal with politics, religion, economics, and social mores. In theory, ideological values should derive logically as natural consequences of the particulars of fundamental ethical values and their prioritizations. But although ideally a value system ought to be consistent, quite often this is not the case.

Characteristics of Value Systems[]

Value systems can be categorized along multiple axes:

  • They can be personal, held by an individual and applicable only to an individual, or they can be communal or societal, defined by and applying to a community or society. Communal value systems may be legal codes or take on the force of law in many societies.
  • They can be internally consistent, where the broader ideological values derive logically as natural consequences of the particulars of fundamental ethical values, and where values do not contradict each other, or they can be inconsistent. Although ideally a value system ought to be consistent, quite often this is not the case in practice. Note that valuing the consistency of a value system is itself a sort of 'meta-value' that could be present or absent in a given value system.
  • They can be idealized value systems (ideal representations of an individual's or group's value prioritizations) or realized value systems (how such a value system is manifested in reality, in the actions and decisions of the individual or group). Idealized value systems tend to be absolute, in that they are codified as a strict set of proscriptions on behavior, while realized value systems contain conditional exceptions that are rules to resolve collisions between values in practical circumstances.

According to the Spiral Dynamics model originated by Clare W. Graves, an alternative cultural view on value systems is that they are evolutionary. As such, the dominant value systems in a society depend on the existential problems with which the persons in that society are coping.

Personal vs. Communal[]

A value system may be held by a group of people, a community or society, or it might be held by an individual. An individual person's value system might be consistent with or equivalent to the community's value system. Consistency does not imply equivalence, though. An individual's value system might even hold the person to a higher standard, and still be consistent with the community's value system. (Consistency within a value system, described below, refers to the degree to which contradictions and overt situational exceptions are absent from that value system; consistency between value systems means that any action that might be taken in one value system would not contradict the rules associated with another.)


One way of looking at differences between value systems is to think of the exceptions to the "rules" associated with values. These could be abstract exceptions (which are generalized enough in the way they are defined to take hold in all situations) and situational exceptions (which only can be said to be applied in very specific situations). The more generalized the exception, the more useful it is in a wider context for defining a consistent value system. In general, abstract exceptions serve to reinforce the prioritization of values, e.g.: Lying is wrong, but lying to save someone else's life is acceptable, because preserving a human life is more valuable (more highly valued) than the adhering to the principle that lying is wrong. In a formal value system (idealized or realized), the default exception associated with each value is assumed to be "as long as no higher-priority value is violated". However, this hierarchical structure may be too simplistic in practice, and explicit exceptions may need to be specified.

Examples of exceptions in practice:

  • We may commonly agree that telling the truth is an important positive value, and that conversely deception is inherently wrong. But we make both abstract and situational exceptions for circumstances where we may assert that lying is acceptable behavior. Thus lying to avoid causing another person pain as a general rule would be considered an abstract exception, while lying in a particular situation because a specific person, if lied to, might do a specific thing at a specific time would be considered a situational exception.
  • People may agree that stealing is wrong, but some people may believe that stealing if you are starving and want to feed yourself and your loved ones is more acceptable than stealing if you are a habitual thief who makes a living stealing from people, or if you are an already wealthy person whose greed leads you to steal from your partners, your investors, or those you do business with. Others may find nothing wrong with stealing from faceless corporations and business establishments but may frown upon stealing from individuals. Some may define certain acts to qualify as not stealing if they fit into some of these categories.
  • People who think that killing is wrong might make an exception for someone acting in self-defense, placing a higher value on preservation of one's own life than on the principle of "thou shalt not kill". Someone in the military might accept the value that killing another person is wrong yet may see nothing wrong with killing someone (in self-defense or not) in the course of or following the orders of a military commander (assumed to have a valid reason for ordering the killing), placing a higher value on discipline/loyalty and "defending one's country". Conversely, a conscientious objector might prioritize the value that killing is wrong not only over military actions but even over self-defense.
  • Many people in the business world might include the Golden Rule (which says "Do unto others as you would have others do unto you") in their value system, but in practice they might place higher priority on the values like "Every man for himself" or "Let the buyer beware". Conversely, another person might find that prioritization morally repugnant, and accuse the businessman of being unethical (or even of a form of theft) if he sells merchandise he knows to be shoddy, or deceives those he tries to do business with.


A value system whose exceptions are abstract, generalized enough to be used in all situations, is said to be an internally consistent value system. On the other hand, a value system whose exceptions are highly situational, or whose exceptions are inconsistently applied, is said to be an internally inconsistent.

A value system's consistency (or lack thereof) does not necessarily say anything about how 'good' or 'evil' it is. A value system that declares that lying and murder are acceptable, that essentially endorses a 'might makes right' morality, could be internally consistent in its approach. Likewise, an internally inconsistent value system, loaded with inconsistently applied situational exceptions, might be considered perfectly acceptable if the 'meta-value' of consistent application of values is not part of the value system. (The paradox here is that the absence of this value in a value system makes it consistent, because there is no constraint that says it must be consistent. It could be argued that those who explicitly omit this meta-value from their value system implicit endorse consistency as a value in that act of deliberate omission.)

Idealized vs. Realized[]

These exceptions, especially when they are implicitly rather than explicitly defined, often yield a difference between an idealized value system and the realized value system. The idealized value system is the simple listing of values (in priority order) that a person or society would purport that they employ in determining right and wrong. The realized value system is the one they actually use in day-to-day life. While people claiming to employ a particular value system might say they place more value on x than y, more often than not there are deviations from this in practice. A religion may list a strong set of positive values, but its adherents and even those who are leaders of the religion may stray from those in practice. Idealized value systems often list strict rules (perhaps without any prioritizing order) but do not carefully define exceptions, abstract or situational. Realized value systems, in practice, often have a number of exceptions associated with them, but they may not be explicitly defined or consistently applied. Absolutists hold to their idealized value system and claim no exceptions other than the default.

Defining Values[]

Some fundamental values that most people seem to share, at least in theory, are:

  • "It's wrong to hurt, to harm, or especially to kill another person."
  • "It's wrong to steal from another person."
  • "It's wrong to lie."

In practice, realized examples of these values would be a good deal more complicated, with exceptions already embedded within them.

  • "It's wrong to hurt another person, except in self-defense to keep them from hurting you, or if it is agreed upon with the other person as a step towards a mutually acceptable greater good (e.g., a doctor giving a patient a painful injection to cure an ailment)."
  • "It's wrong to take something from someone in a non-consensual fashion without negotiating overtly with the other person and agreeing to a mutually satisfactory transfer or exchange."
  • "It's wrong to deceive another person knowingly for your own gain."
  • "It's wrong to take deliberate overt action to prevent another person from exercising his will as long as that exercise does not interfere with your own exercise of will, except when the other person's will serves to violate the aforementioned principles."

In general, these values declare that "it's wrong to interfere in another person's life unless they do things to interfere in yours" This corresponds in essence to what has been called the Wiccan Rede which declares that "[As long as it] harms none, do what thou wilt". While this may seem an elegant moral principle, in practice it runs into trouble because of the differing priorities people place on specific individual values, because of the way differing value systems define what is and isn't 'harm', and perhaps most of all because of the different exceptions implicitly or explicitly defined in a value system.

Examples of conflicting value systems[]

This section is devoted to the process of using rational analysis to resolve conflicts between value systems.

Individualism vs. collectivism[]

In individualism, the needs and wants of the individual take precedence over the needs and wants of a society or community. The implicit exception inherent in individualism is usually "as long as the actions of the individual do not harm other individuals." Absolutists may claim that even this exception does not hold.

In collectivism, the needs and wants of the society or community take precedence over the needs and wants of the individual. Rarely is the exception invoked that this is true "as long as the actions of the society do not restrict individuals."

It could be argued that a rational value system puts value on the needs and wants of the society or community structure, but does not give this more value than the needs and wants of the individuals within it. It is relatively easy to argue the case for this prioritization: under collectivism, a community could decide (however such decisions might be made) that it would work better if there were no people in it to interfere with the smooth running of society. While this might be true, since people tend to "complicate" the smooth running of any social order, it would create a society without any people, something which is clearly against the interest of the people in that society—would we rationally advocate our own extinction if it made the "system" of society run better?

A rational resolution to the conflict between individualism and collectivism might structure these values in this manner:

  1. The rights of individuals to act as they wish is unencumbered, unless their actions harm others or interfere with others' free exercise of their individual rights, and as long as their actions do not interfere with functions of society that other individuals depend upon, provided those functions do not themselves interfere with these proscribed individual rights and were agreed to by a majority of the individuals.
  2. A society (or more specifically the system of order that enables the workings of a society) exists for the purpose of benefiting the lives of the individuals who are members of that society. The functions of a society in providing such benefits would be those agreed to by the majority of individuals in the society.
  3. A society may require contributions from its members in order for them to benefit from the services provided by the society. The failure of individuals to make such required contributions could be considered a reason to deny those benefits to them, although a society could elect to consider hardship situations in determining how much should be contributed.
  4. A society may restrict behavior of individuals who are members of the society only for the purpose of performing its designated functions agreed to by the majority of individuals in the society, only insofar as they violate the aforementioned values. This means that a society may abrogate the rights of any of its members who fails to uphold the aforementioned values.

Of necessity, as you can see here, the exceptions associated with values like these can become recursive and often convoluted.

The name proposed for the discipline that tries to perform this task—mapping and formalizing value system prioritizations and resolving conflicts between disparate value systems through rational analysis—is ethonomics.

See also[]



Further reading[]

  • Wenstøp, F. and A. Myrmel (2006). "Structuring organizational value statements " Management Research News 29(11): 673 - 683.
This page uses Creative Commons Licensed content from Wikipedia (view authors).