A Short History of the Study of Values

Twenty-four hundred years ago, the philosopher Plato searched for the ideal values by which he thought the citizens of Greece should live. He came up with some good ones, too, including courage, justice, happiness, knowledge, and truthfulness. Plato believed that the people who lived according to these values possessed character of a higher order and reaped lifestyle benefits as a result. He felt that ignoring these values led to all manner of societal evils and disharmony.

In 1931, psychologist Gordon Allport came up with a list of what he called traits, what we would now call values, easily recognized consistencies that are unique to you and define your life. Allport also devised six categories of values:

  • Theoretical (such as truth)

  • Economic (such as usefulness)

  • Aesthetic (such as beauty)

  • Social (such as love)

  • Political (such as power)

  • Religious (such as unity)

  • He was among the first to study values more as concrete links to ordinary life and less as concepts tied to virtuous living.

    Other researchers in the 1930s were interested in finding out how a person's values affected fulfillment, success, and happiness. Some of them developed new ways to classify values, while others sought to come up with a definitive list. In 1935, The Journal of Abnormal Psychology published A. Hunt's list of seventy-six values, which included Plato's courage as well as others that would make a Boy Scout proud: cheerfulness, cleanliness, initiative, good sportsmanship, dependability, and such intangibles as effectiveness. In the 1950s, W. A. Scott came up with eighteen “moral values” that overlapped some of Hunt's but also included righteousness, intelligence, loyalty, respect for authority, and humility.

    Instrumental and Terminal Values

    In his book, The Nature of Human Values (Free Press), Milton Rokeach identified a concept of values as “an enduring belief that a specific mode of conduct…is personally and socially preferable to alternative modes.” He published his own list of eighteen “instrumental” values and eighteen “terminal” values. Instrumental values help you determine how you behave. They include capable, self-controlled, logical, independent, and forgiving. Terminal values are idealized end-states that you hope to achieve in your life or that you hope will come to characterize the world around you. They include equality, salvation, wisdom, a world of beauty, an exciting life, and a comfortable life. Still a popular instrument, the Rokeach Value Survey asks a person to rank the relative importance of each value in the lists of terminal and instrumental values.

    Values and Fulfillment

    In the 1960s, Abraham Maslow was one of the first to recognize the integral role of values in a person's inner decision-making process, particularly in decisions regarding self-actualization, or developing one's full potential. Maslow asserted that good values motivate a person to get where he or she wants to go. While some people feel that core values are immutable and enduring throughout one's life, Maslow felt that people could choose the values by which they acted and that some values produced more positive benefits than others. He observed that self-actualizing individuals had more confidence, joy, and zest and were what he termed “healthy” humans.

    Universal Values

    More recently, researchers have tried to reach consensus on the most important or universal values. In the 1980s, Darrell Franken started with all of the lists generated by his predecessors and added key values gleaned from seven major religions and disparate organizations and disciplines such as Rotary, Tae Kwon Do, and Alcoholics Anonymous. The result was a synthesis of thirty-one values, many of them recognizable from the earlier lists, but also including others such as optimism, imagination, thrift, harmony, thankfulness, and humility. The value rated number one, meaning it appeared most frequently among all the sources Franken consulted, was compassion.

    Finding True North includes an inventory of 125 values built from thirty years' work by Henderson's colleagues in Brazil, Australia, and elsewhere. His list includes a few newly coined words, such as ecority. to capture values that previously lacked specific words. (Henderson defines ecority as “the personal, organizational, or conceptual influence to enable persons to take authority for the created order of the world and to enhance its beauty and balance through creative technology in ways that have worldwide influence.”)

    Optimum Values

    Since 1998, Martin E. P. Seligman, Mihaly Csikszentimihalyi, and others have been promoting research in a field they call positive psychology. They want to find out what values shape a person's destiny, what it is that makes some people, but not others, function well, achieve success, and become personally fulfilled. They have continued the search for universal values, which they call “signature human strengths,” those core values that are consistent across cultures and time. They say people can be taught kindness and generosity. Signature strengths arise from something deeper. Their six main values are wisdom, courage, humanity, justice, temperance, and transcendence. Each can mean something different to different people and under different circumstances. The fact that some of Plato's values from 2,500 years ago are still on the list argues in favor of at least some universal human values.

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