Values are constructs that guide human behavior, helping people distinguish between the desirable and undesirable. On the individual level, they are conceptions that motivate personal action. On the aggregate level, they reflect collective experience and provide general orientation to a society. Values have emotional connotations. We feel when something is unacceptable and undesirable even when we don’t know what is wrong with a situation. Values cannot be simply empty axioms. To have directive force, they must be embodied in concrete individual and social practice. We can talk of “family values,” but these are meaningless unless actualized in living experience. Researchers cannot observe values, but they can study their behavioral impact.
Virtually all disciplines concerning human affairs use and propose definitions for values because evaluative standards are fundamental to human existence. Homo sapiens are evaluative animals that exhibit few innate, invariant, complex behavioral patterns. Our species has a very open biogram (the biological substrate that supports/sustains our humanity; i.e., what is essentially shared by all humans) and is able to override basic biological predispositions and capacities. We may be predisposed to eat, reproduce, and protect our lives, activities that make perfect sense from an evolutionary angle, but we can also choose to starve ourselves, not procreate, and seek martyrdom. Equally important, our words or deeds have arbitrary and multiple significances because the human brain supports symbolic thought and action. Symbols allow us to refer to the nonimmediate and nonexistent and to propose imaginary scenarios. Biology thus predisposes us to make judgments of what is, what could be, and what ought to be in the realms of both ideas and actions. The evaluation and transformation of the conditions of existence is the main adaptive strategy of Homo sapiens.
Social scientists have debated extensively the nature of value systems and what value systems contribute to individuals and societies. Because all human societies hold standards concerning what is acceptable, good, and desirable, many have postulated functional explanations that emphasize behavioral or mental aspects. Those favoring the phenomenal (behavioral) viewpoint tend to focus on the problems of choice. Values reduce the ambivalence of choice by suggesting preferred states of affairs. When individuals confront decision-making situations, preferential standards limit the possibilities for action, reduce the cognitive load created by diverse alternatives, and possibly make the individuals more efficient actors. For example, if a woman feels that honesty is important, she will be less hesitant to report there is some uncharged item left in the shopping cart. If honesty is not an issue, the decision-making process will be more prolonged and complex. Values can reduce the burden of choice frequently experienced in ordinary living.
Values can also promote a general collective order by increasing behavioral predictability. Human plasticity at the ideational and phenomenal levels can create chaos on the organizational plane. When individuals share few fixed patterns of action, their coordination potential diminishes substantially. Values motivate individuals to choose certain options over others and to pursue the most acceptable path in a particular context. Furthermore, they offer standards by which to judge the actions of others and provoke sanctions that help induce conformity and promote order. The best way to understand the relevance of a value is to observe closely its transgressions and their corresponding responses.
Researchers stressing the functions of values from the mental viewpoint implicitly focus on the elusive quality of symbols. Our symbolic capacity creates a chasm between self and other: We cannot know what others are doing until we know what others are thinking. Values help bridge the gap between “what is” and “what could be” by fostering shared sentiments and postulating “what ought to be” in a situation. Common standards of preference and appreciation help uphold reciprocal expectations and reduce the ambivalence of significance that characterizes human relations. For example, if one accepts aid from a stranger, it is because one feels goodness in the situation and believes there is mutual understanding and coincidence of expectations. Values help forge and lubricate the bonds of trust required to establish enduring interpersonal relations.
Because societies display a certain level of coherence in the arena of values, researchers occasionally use the terms value system and value orientation. Values tend to appear in association, possibly in configurations that involve ranking orders. Some values seem to prevail over others and permeate most aspects of social life (core values); others seem to relate to specific domains of activity (focal values) or have idiosyncratic roots and private influence (personal values). In the United States, for example, regard for individual rights pervades nearly every facet of life (core value); the appropriateness of competitive achievement, however, may be questioned in the family context (focal value). Notwithstanding postulated rankings, it is crucial to remember that values must be linked to contexts of practice and that values guide us even when we are unable to perceive them or articulate them (implicit values).
When scholars draw attention to the functions of values, they overlook myriad problems associated with values and value-oriented research. Values may reduce ambivalence of choice and significance and promote collective order, but they also amplify differences between groups. Humans learn to understand and respond according to the preferential standards shared by members of their group; they acquire values transmitted and enacted in their socialization contexts.
Variations in preferential standards create opportunities for misunderstanding and conflict. When we visit an exotic culture, for example, we are likely to experience disorientation and discomfort. And when unfamiliar groups come in contact, dominant groups are likely to impose their values on subordinates. Whereas some disciplines lay emphasis on absolute, panhuman (universal) standards, others stress the diversity of evaluative patterns and obstacles to cross-cultural analyses. To compare, we must de-contextualize values and disregard the patterning of different value systems. Equally important, we must assume that the mental constructs, relations, and activities of distinct systems of values have identical significance.
Albeit apparent integrative functions, value systems are not perfectly congruent or coherent. Standards of preference may come into conflict in particular contexts. When values clash in actual instances, individuals tend to invoke core values to justify their claims and to challenge opposing views. Although these moral axioms permeate all domains of activity, they never eliminate the possibility of disagreements. For example, if a man robs a woman to secure better comfort, few Americans would hesitate to condemn his action because respect for others stands above personal satisfaction. If, on the other hand, a career-oriented woman decides to end an early pregnancy, the verdict would be less conclusive because the rights of the fetus and the woman stand in direct opposition. Coercive measures might be used to settle conflicts when core values cannot be reconciled.
Standards of preference may be enduring, but they are not eternal. Values and value orientations change as cultures change, with transformations in social productions and the conditions of living. All values, however, do not change at the same rate, and values cannot be imported from another social system. The Japanese strongly prefer teamwork, yet Americans who recognize its utility face colossal difficulties to promote such views and ways. Because systems of values (like cultures) are generally integrated and coherent and intimately linked to action, societies resist value change. Those who attempt to import or export values ignore a fundamental human reality: Values must be embodied and enacted through lived experience; they cannot exist apart from contexts of action even though they are easily articulated as ideals or ideologies.
In the domain of values, doing is as important as, or possibly more important than, verbalizing standards. Thanks to our symbolic capacity and behavioral flexibility, we can easily become masters of deceit. We can say what we don’t mean and mean what we don’t say. We can fool others into believing what is not, and we can even believe such pretenses ourselves. In Homo sapiens, only embodied standards of preference close the gap between word and deed and the chasm between what is, what could be, and what ought to be.
Maria de Lourdes Villar
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