One of the strangest characteristics of the human race is that no two human beings have the exact similar nature. Even siblings possess different attributes and values. It is possible that while one brother is a saint, the other is a criminal. Similarly, no two people are similar in any organisation or in any country for that matter.
Why do people differ from each other when they are brought up in the same environment, same home or in the same culture?
When we investigate the matter deeply, we find that people are different because they value different things in their lives differently. For example, in a government organisation, some officers value power, some money, some service, while others may value honesty and integrity. In a family, children grow up valuing different things as well. Some children respect their parents while others don’t, some study hard while others play, some are honest while others lie.
Our values are shaped by numerous parameters. While some values come from outside viz. parents, society, culture and the nation, other values derive from the inherent nature of a person. It is due to differences in the inherent nature of people that even siblings possess different values despite being brought up in the same environment.
Definitions of Human Value
We are familiar with values. Whenever we go to the market, every commodity is assigned a value, which is represented in the form of a price. We pay a price and buy a commodity. Some things are more valuable than others. For example, gold is more valuable than silver while silver is more valuable than iron.
However, in the context of human beings, it is difficult to define human values because every country, every society, every family and every individual possesses different values. What is valued by a person most may be of little value to another person.
Value has been defined as ‘important and lasting beliefs or ideals shared by the members of a culture about what is good or bad and desirable or undesirable’. Values have major influence on a person’s behaviour and attitude and serve as broad guidelines in all situations. These serve as guiding principles of what people consider important in life.
According to American philosopher, psychologist and educational reformer John Dewey, ‘Value means primarily, to price, to esteem, to appraise, to estimate. It means the act of cherishing something holding it dear; and also, the act of passing judgement upon the nature and amount of its value as compared with something else.’
According to Professor R.K. Mukerjee, ‘Values are socially approved desires and goals that are internalised through the process of conditioning, learning, socialisation and aspirations.’
Values are thus the standards and principles using which we judge the worth of people, objects, actions, ideas and situations. Accordingly, we find some things to be good, worthwhile, desirable or on the other hand, find others as worthless, despicable, undesirable.
In ethics, value denotes the degree of importance of some thing or action, with the aim of determining what actions are best to do or which is the best way to live (normative ethics), or to describe the significance of different actions.
We can thus associate value with the desirability of an action from the perspective of the society. It means that the actions which are ‘good’ for the society have a high value, while the actions that are ‘bad’ for the society are of lower value. From this perspective, we consider ‘truth’ of high value because it promotes trust and goodwill in the society while ‘lying’ has a low value because it promotes distrust and ill will in the society.
Human values can also be connected with ethical values because what is of higher human value is also of higher ethical value.
Types of Human Values
1. Universal values
Human values are subjective and vary across cultures and nations. However, some values seem to cross all boundaries of religion, geography and culture. These values are accepted all over the world. We may call these values universal. Some examples of universal values are:
2. Local values
While some values are universally accepted, others are quite localised in nature. For example, eating meat may be a sin in many communities in India but it is a norm in many countries and is quite acceptable in other communities in India. Alcoholism may be considered bad in some societies and cultures, while it is a drink of celebration in many parts of the world.
Every society evolves in a unique manner and hence, it tends to value things differently. These values are created over a period of thousands of years, and are the result of the history, geography, religion, culture, politics, social and spiritual leadership of an area. Social values are like a social agreement between different members of a society so as to live peacefully with each other. These values balance the aspirations of different sections of the society. The purpose of local values is to minimise the conflict resulting from violation of universal values. Some of these values are:
• Eating habits (vegetarians, non-vegetarians)
• Consumption of intoxicants like alcohol
• Marriage traditions
• Family values
• Respecting elders
• Dressing modestly or liberally
3. Situational and Sustainable values
Some values are products of a given situation. There is nothing more valuable to a hungry person than food. A hungry person can do anything to get food. However, a person who is assured of his income and hence his basic needs, hardly values food as dearly. The situational values change from one society to other and change in different times even within the same society.
Situational values are often considered the opposite of ‘sustainable values’. Leaders, companies, or individuals guided by situational values do whatever the situation will allow, no matter the wider interests of their communities. For example, a banker who gives a loan to someone he knows who is unable to make the payments over time is acting on situational values, because such an act can help him meet the target, enhance his performance or get higher bonus, but may cause loss to the company later. In the same way, a tax officer booking a superficial case to achieve his revenue target is following situational value. The people following situational values are interested in short-term benefits rather than in the long-term implication of their decisions.
People inspired by sustainable values act just the opposite and they behave in ways that sustain the interest of the employees, customers, suppliers, environment, country and their future generations. Hence, they shall never sanction such a loan or book a superficial tax case.
4. Personal values
Personal values exist in relation to cultural values, either in agreement with or diverging from prevailing norms. A culture is a social system that shares a set of common values, in which such values permit social expectations and collective understandings of the good, beautiful and constructive.
Personal values provide an internal reference for what is good, beneficial, important, useful, beautiful, desirable and constructive. Personal values form the behaviour and influence the choices made by an individual. These values may help to solve common human problems concerning survival by comparative rankings of value, the results of which provide answers to questions of why people do what they do and in what order they choose to do them. The problem is that each person has a separate set of values and these values are chosen based on personal benefits rather than on social or national benefits. It is, therefore, quite common for personal values to clash with each other and create conflicts within the society and even within the family.
5. Cultural values
Values of a society can often be identified by examining the level of honour and respect received by various groups and ideas. For example, in America, most voters would not willingly elect an atheist as president, suggesting that believing in a God is generally a shared value. In the same way, in India people value the government jobs much more than the corporate ones, while the situation is quite opposite in countries like America.
Cultural values are not static and they keep changing with time. For example, it has been observed that in most of the countries, over the last few decades, the college students have shown an increased interest in personal well-being and a decreased interest in the welfare of others.
If a group member expresses a value that seriously conflicts with the group’s norms, the group tries in various ways to force conformity in the individual by either reward or punishment. For example, neighbours or relatives can boycott a person for not following the cultural values or the state can make a law that can imprison the person for violating a social norm.
Most people in a society accept the cultural values even if they don’t agree with them since they wish to be part of the society and don’t want to be isolated from it. Internalisation of social values reflects an individual’s ability to synthesise with the society and live harmoniously with it.
6. Positive and Negative values
Sometimes, a distinction is made between the values as positive and negative. The positive values represent the actions that must be pursued or maximised while the negative ethic values are something that must be avoided or minimised. Examples of positive values are truth, honesty, faithfulness; while lying, corruption and unfaithfulness are negative values.
7. Intrinsic and Extrinsic value
The intrinsic value of something is said to be the value which that thing has ‘in itself’, ‘for its own sake’, ‘as such’, or ‘in its own right’. It means that the good values are itself the source of joy and not a means to an end. If you do good things in life, you get instant satisfaction rather than trying to achieve something of value by following virtuous actions.
Extrinsic values are the values which are not intrinsic. It means that we do the right things for the sake of others whether or not we like to do the act. However, intrinsic and extrinsic values are not mutually exclusive. For example, helping others in time of need is thought to be extrinsic. However, you can’t do good to others for long unless you are feeling good by helping others. Only such people help others on sustainable basis who experience joy and happiness in doing so. Hence, helping others may be both an intrinsic and extrinsic value to a person who likes helping others. However, if you help someone for the sake of glory, fame or recognition while feeling unhappy inside by your act, it becomes a purely extrinsic value.
8. Absolute and Relative Ethical values
Absolute ethics holds that there is one universal moral code which is final and applies equally to all men of all ages and that changing situations or changing views make no difference whatsoever to this absolute moral code.
Relative or relativistic ethics hold that the moral standard varies with different circumstances. There are so many cultural and religious differences and in some circumstances, it may be ethically correct to do certain things but in other situations it might be completely immoral to do them.