Values are qualities that are highly regarded or the goods that are valued because of these qualities. They can be distinguished according to different criteria, e.g., moral, esthetic, economic, ecological, energetic, nutritional, etc. In this article the focus will be exclusively on moral values.

From a philosophical perspective, moral values are to morality what freedom is for human action. Although it cannot be proven that freedom exists, and although it certainly cannot be empirically observed or known as a cause similar to and closely related to physical causes, we cannot but act under the presupposition of freedom. In a similar way “values” do not exist as a peculiar kind of object alongside other empirical objects (cf. J. L. Mackie’s famous argument about the “queerness” of such objects, 1979), but when we choose, express our preference, or judge, we necessarily act from values and do so as if they exist. Or in another comparison: just as we normally perceive the world always already in colors, as human beings we experience the world as always already qualified in terms of values.

From an empirical, social scientific perspective values can be identified with the actual valuations that people hold.

Sometimes (e.g., when one refers to so-called distinctions between facts and values) the notion of value is used in a rather broad sense, indicating the whole of morality, including virtues and norms, or even referring to everything that is not “factual.” Used in a more accurate and specific way, value refers to “something” that is “in some way or another” perceived by an evaluative consciousness and that has an effect either through attraction or aversion. The quotation marks refer to discussions on the ontological and epistemological status of values. Ethical theories may be distinguished according to what they consider their most basic concept: for value-based theories it is the concept of (intrinsic) value and the distinction good/bad (teleological), whereas for duty-based theories it is the concept of duty and the distinction right/wrong (deontological).

Conceptual Development.

It is only in the nineteenth century that the concept of value becomes an important topic in philosophy. Terms like “axiology” (Eduard von Hartmann) or “value theory” (Wilbur M. Urban), indicating a branch of philosophy dealing with values, or “value-ethics” (Scheler, 1973), indicating a moral philosophy based on a phenomenological description of values, are even younger. They arise only in the beginning of the twentieth century.

Before this time we find the term “value” in eighteenth-century economic theory (Adam Smith) where it is always used in a relative and comparative sense: a value is always relative to given preferences and its value is comparative to other values. This relative and comparative use of the term interprets a value as a (more or less rational) valuation by a given subject. Cicero’s translation of the Greek Stoic term axia with aestimatio suggests that the relation between “value” and “valuation” also holds for the use of the term in ancient theories. Biblical literature gives the same impression: most dictionaries give no word in Hebrew or in biblical Greek for “value” as a noun. If they do, they give only very few places, where the word has a quite general meaning: the value or price of something (e.g., 1 Kgs 21:2; Matt 27:9; Acts 19:19; Col 2:23), something expensive or luxurious (e.g., Ps 49:12, 20 [Heb vss. 13, 21]) or it refers to the dignity of a person (e.g., Phil 2:29). Related verbs or adjectives do not occur very often (the Greek adjective axios occurs very seldom in the Septuagint and less than 50 times in the New Testament) and have a very wide range of meaning: the verb means “arrange,” “value,” “regard (something) as valuable,” “consider (someone) worthy,” while meanings for the adjective include “corresponding,” “comparable,” “fitting.”

The rise of the concept of value from the nineteenth century on has a philosophical as well as a societal context. With regard to the history of philosophy, we have to refer to Hume’s skepticism and Kant’s Copernican revolution, which put an end to supernatural metaphysics, restricted knowledge to the phenomenal world, and separated theoretical and practical philosophy. Apart from (Hegelian) historicist, (neo-Kantian) psychologist (John Stuart Mill, Wilhelm Wundt, Theodor Lipps), and different kinds of positivist (Auguste Comte, Ludwig Wittgenstein) reactions to this revolution, axiology or value-theory also developed and tried to describe a domain of reality that could not be reduced to empirical data, that was rather to be characterized in terms of validity (values “are” primarily in the sense that they “count”) and that calls for a specific kind of knowledge (Hermann Lotze, Wilhelm Windelband, Heinrich Rickert, Eduard von Hartmann). Scheler claims that values are the ideal objects of intentional acts of feeling or that they are being “given through intuition” and can be described in a phenomenological way.

With regard to the societal context, Jean Wahl (1947) suggests that values emerge as a topic of reflection in conditions where they are felt lacking, the conditions that according to Nietzsche’s philosophy characterize “nihilism”: values as signposts in a world without orientation. Hans Joas (1997) starts his genealogy of values with Nietzsche’s critical diagnosis of the values that determine European culture (religion, morality, as well as science and philosophy) and his appeal for a re- or transvaluation of values. Nietzsche’s criticism of the prevailing values is driven by the question for the assessment of these values. With this question he points to the problem that values are on the one hand the product of (subjective) valuations, for which they on the other hand provide the (suprasubjective or allegedly objective) criteria. Heidegger criticizes Nietzsche’s emphasis on thinking in terms of values as evidence that he was stuck in the “forgetfulness of being.”

In analytic philosophy, several metaethical questions regarding the ontological and epistemological status of values are subject to an ongoing debate, ever since George Eduard Moore in his Principia Ethica (1903) claimed that “good” was a nonnatural and undefinable quality, and since Wittgenstein in point 6.41 of his Tractatus logico-philosophicus (Engl. edition, 1922) stated that values do not belong to the world (i.e., “everything that is the case”). This discussion centers on questions like: do values exist out there, or are they only expressions of emotions (realism versus emotivism); can propositions about values be true or false (cognitivism versus noncognitivism); can we distinguish between intrinsic and extrinsic or instrumental values; if there are several intrinsic values (pluralism versus monism), are they commensurable or can they be in conflict with one another? (For an overview cf. Schroeder, 2012.)

Whereas the philosophy of values remained focused on ontological and epistemological problems, the social sciences took possession of the term “value” as a powerful means to describe, analyze, and predict changes in the attitudes of populations (cf. the Atlas of European Values, 2005). The term “value” refers here to actual valuations of a given population. There are obvious reasons for the strong interest in this kind of research: if people let themselves be guided by their values, knowledge of these valuations and the way in which they can be influenced or manipulated is an important way to understand their behavior and a powerful instrument for marketing purposes as well as for politics. It probably is not by accident that the discussion over the possibility and the need for value-free scientific research (Max Weber) increased with the growth of scientific research on values.

Problems and Discussions; Correlation with Traditional Concepts.

Although the philosophical concept of value emerged only in the nineteenth century, the discourse about the concept of value connects with several problems that are as old as the history of philosophy. For example, the question whether something is good (a value) because it gives reason for action and is desired, or is desirable and gives reason for action because it is a value, is related to the famous Eutyphro-dilemma as described by Plato (is something loved by the gods because it is pious, or is it pious because it is loved by the gods)?

Values are correlative to valuations; it does not make sense to say that they exist independent from evaluating human beings. They can therefore to some extent be compared to the subjective, Kantian forms of perception. Values are different, however, from the universality of the forms of space and time as Kant described them in his Critique of Pure Reason, since values are contingent and variable. This does not mean, however, that they can be reduced to subjective preferences or social constructions, as subjectivist or (social) constructivist interpretations will argue. We experience values, especially “strong valuations” and the “frameworks” in which they cohere (Taylor, 1989), not as products of our own making, but rather as principles that impose themselves upon us and that guide us in what we do and make. To the extent to which our identity is marked by and dependent on our values, we could rather say that values have us, instead of us having values. We judge our preferences, even our second order preferences (Frankfurt, 1971), on the basis of the values we acknowledge. If from time to time values emerge from contrasting experiences (e.g., the value of enduring love may originate in the experience of disappointing love-affairs), this means that they are discovered or disclosed in, rather than construed by that experience. Education is the process through which we become acquainted with values or learn to make our feeling more subtle and sensitive to qualities that we did not know before. A philosophy of values breaks down the subjectivism-objectivism divide. A phenomenological and hermeneutical description of moral experience and of the way in which we experience the world as morally qualified might therefore be more appropriate to the study of values than either a subjectivist scientism or a realist or objectivist metaphysics.

Although sometimes a distinction is made between positive and negative values, or between values and disvalues (e.g., “love” versus “hatred”), according to which their functioning can be described as either attraction or aversion, the concept of “value” is primarily used in a positive sense. As inciting to act in a certain way and opening up possibilities for action through their attractive force, values must be distinguished from norms, which are mainly obliging, prohibiting, or restricting. Scheler opposes his “material value-ethics” to the “formalism” of Kantian moral philosophy. As ideal points of orientation, values are to be distinguished from virtues, which are established dispositions to act in a certain way. The value of forgiveness can, for example, be distinguished from the virtuous attitude of forgiving or clemency; the value of sustainability can be distinguished from a virtuous attitude (of taking care of the natural environment, being cautious not to waste natural resources, etc.) as well as from a norm or rule, which obliges or forbids certain behavior. Despite the usefulness of all of these distinctions, they cannot be maintained very rigidly: the term “justice,” for example, can refer to a value, to an obligating norm as well as to one of the cardinal virtues; and “love” can be called a value as well as a virtue disclosing the value of the beloved.

Values can be distinguished in terms of intrinsic versus extrinsic or instrumental. Instrumental values are only valued because of their use for some other values. Intrinsic values are valuable in themselves. Jeremy Bentham claimed that pleasure is the only intrinsic value, admitting only quantitative varieties. Others state that (human) life, freedom, and knowledge are obvious intrinsic values as well, and it is disputed whether or not all moral values are intrinsic as such. In environmental ethics, in which the notion of value plays an important role, there has been discussion on the question whether sustainability is morally required because the earth or particular eco-systems have intrinsic value or because the earth should be preserved in the service of human life. The question whether or not intrinsic values are always anthropocentric has been an important topic in environmental ethics. For Kant only the human being as a rational and autonomous subject is an end in itself and thus an intrinsic value (Kant speaks of “moral worth” or “dignity”). To allow for nonanthropocentric intrinsic values, some environmentalist authors have suggested that every living organism is a teleological center of life and therefore itself an intrinsic value (cf. Aldo Leopold, 1949; J. Baird Callicott, 1999).

Biblical Values.

Sometimes religion and morality are distinguished in terms of values and norms, respectively; Emile Durkheim, however, claims that both are to be found in religion as well as in morality.

The concept of “biblical values,” “Jewish values,” or “Christian values” is rather recent and is almost exclusively used in missionary or pedagogical contexts. This use of the term does not distinguish values from either “norms” or “virtues,” but simply refers to the moral teaching associated with the Bible. The core values of Christian (esp. Roman Catholic) social teaching (human dignity, common good, solidarity and subsidiarity) certainly have their background in the Bible and the tradition of Christian theology, but they were identified and “canonized” as “core values” only in the late nineteenth century. Of course one could try to specify values that apply explicitly either to the context of the Covenant (e.g., reliability and solidarity among the members of the chosen people as in Exodus) or to Jesus’s preaching (e.g., the Beatitudes in the Sermon on the Mount, Matt 5:3–11, or the evangelical freedom from care, Matt 6:25–34), but the Bible itself does not speak about these matters in terms of values.




  • Callicott, J. Baird. “Intrinsic Value in Nature: A Metaethical Analysis.” In Beyond the Land Ethic: More Essays in Environmental Philosophy, pp. 239–261. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1999.
  • Frankfurt, Harry. “Freedom of the Will and the Concept of a Person.” Journal of Philosophy 68 (1971): 5–20.
  • Halman, Louk, et al., eds. Atlas of European Values. Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 2005. Cf. also:
  • Joas, Hans. Die Entstehung der Werte. Frankfurt: Suhrkamp 1997. English translation: The Genesis of Values (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000).
  • Leopold, Aldo. A Sand County Almanac. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1949.
  • Mackie, John L. Ethics: Inventing Right and Wrong. New York: Penguin, 1979. See esp. ch. 1 “The Subjectivity of Values.”
  • Scheler, Max. Der Formalismus in der Ethik und die material Wertethik. 2 Vols. Halle, Germany: Niemeyer, 1913–1916. English translation: Formalism in Ethics and Non-Formal Ethics of Values: A New Attempt toward the Foundation of an Ethical Personalism (Evanston, Ill.: Northwestern University Press, 1973).
  • Schroeder, Mark. “Value Theory.” In The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, edited by Edward N. Zalta, 2012.
  • Taylor, Charles. Sources of the Self: The Making of the Modern Identity. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1989.
  • Van Tongeren, Paul. “Moral Philosophy as a Hermeneutics of Moral Experience.” International Philosophical Quarterly 34 (1994): 2, 199–214.
  • Wahl, Jean. “Note sur la possibilité d’une théorie des valeurs.” In Actes du IIIe Congrès des Sociétés de Philosophie de langue francṃaise. Louvain, Belgium: Nauwelaerts/Vrin, 1947.

Paul van Tongeren