The study of basic human values by psychologists is not new. Probably the best-known theory of basic values in psychology is Abraham Maslow’s “hierarchy of needs,” which dates from the early 1940s. But the psychological study of values has been growing, in both volume and empirical quality of research, and philosophers interested in ethics ought to know something about it.
Unfortunately, growing though it may be, the psychological study of values is nevertheless not in a particularly advanced state of development. Accordingly, there are multiple, conflicting theories of human values (and corresponding virtues) in the psychological literature. A sampling that I spent just a few minutes pulling together is: Braithwaite and Law (1985), Cawley, Martin, and Johnson (2000), Crosby, Bitner, and Gill (1990), Feather and Peay (1975), Hofstede (1980), Maloney and Katz (1976), Peterson and Seligman (2004), Rokeach (1973), Schwartz (1994, 2012), and Wicker et al. (1984). My impression is that on the one hand there is considerable loose agreement in the results of these studies, but on the other hand the agreement is indeed loose, and there are significant differences between theories, especially when it comes to the conceptualization of the results.
I myself am not well enough acquainted with this research to comment on these differences. What I want to do in this post is just describe the one of these theories that seems to me to be the most serious, ambitious, well-developed, and well-supported, namely the “Schwartz theory of basic values,” due to Shalom Schwartz (1994, 2012). At the end I will briefly discuss some implications of Schwartz’s theory for political philosophy.
By “values” we refer to beliefs concerning what situations and actions are desirable. However, values for Schwartz are not attitudes toward particular situations or actions, like having a chicken dinner right now or having $20K in my bank account. He restricts the term “value” to broad motivational goals. Schwartz sees values as stable standards by which we evaluate everything else, including the appropriateness of any norms, attitudes, traits, or virtues that may be suggested to us. It is also characteristic of values that some are more important than others. Multiple values are normally implicated in any proposed action, for better or worse, and the all-things-considered evaluation of an action will depend on the relative importance of the competing values it implicates.
Schwartz reasoned that since values are motivational goals, basic human values might be derived by considering the most basic needs of human beings, which he divides into three fundamental categories: our biological needs as individuals, our need to coordinate our actions with others, and the need of groups to survive and flourish. By considering these needs more or less a priori, Schwartz derived the following set of ten basic values. Each basic value is described in terms of its motivational goal. A set of more specific values that express the basic value is given in parentheses after each description.
- Benevolence: Preservation and enhancement of the people with whom one is in frequent personal contact [meaning especially family]. (helpful, honest, forgiving, responsible, true friendship, mature love)
- Universalism: Understanding, appreciation, tolerance, and protection for the welfare of all people and for nature. (broadminded, social justice, equality, world at peace, world of beauty, unity with nature, wisdom, protecting the environment)
- Self-Direction: Independent thought and action—choosing, creating, exploring. (creativity, freedom, choosing own goals, curious, independent)
- Security: Safety, harmony, and stability of society, of relationships, and of self. (social order, family security, national security, clean, reciprocation of favors, healthy, sense of belonging)
- Conformity: Restraint of actions, inclinations, and impulses likely to upset or harm others and violate expectations or norms. (obedient, self-discipline, politeness, honoring parents and elders)
- Hedonism: Pleasure or sensuous gratification for oneself. (pleasure, enjoying life, self-indulgent)
- Achievement: Personal success through demonstrating competence according to social standards. (ambitious, successful, capable, influential)
- Tradition: Respect, commitment, and acceptance of the customs and ideas that one’s culture or religion provides. (respect for tradition, humble, devout, accepting my portion in life)
- Stimulation: Excitement, novelty, and challenge in life. (a varied life, an exciting life, daring)
- Power: Social status and prestige, control or dominance over people and resources. (authority, wealth, social power, social recognition, preserving my public image)
Some of the more specific values may seem a little odd (why is reciprocation of favors an expression of security?), but they have been empirically confirmed to express the basic values they were postulated to express. The sort of empirical testing that Schwartz’s theory has undergone is illustrated by the figure below, which shows the result of a type of multidimensional scaling analysis called Simple Space Analysis.
The figure was created as follows. A questionnaire was prepared that asked participants to rate the importance to themselves of each of the specific values in the figure on a 9-point scale ranging from 7 to –1, where 7 indicates supreme importance, 0 indicates no importance, and –1 indicates that the participant regards the item as opposed to his own values. The questionnaire was administered to thousands of participants worldwide. For instance, the study reported in Schwartz (1994) included 97 samples in 44 countries from every inhabited continent, for a total of 25,863 participants. Most of the participants in Schwartz (1994) were evenly split between public school teachers and university students, but about 15% were occupationally heterogeneous adults (or, in the case of two samples, teenagers). The ratings were averaged across all participants and then intercorrelated. A Simple Space Analysis then arranged the average ratings in a 2-dimensional space in the way that best represents their intercorrelations as distances, so that points close together in the space are highly positively correlated and points far from each other are highly negatively correlated. The resulting space was then examined to see if the specific values clustered together in groups corresponding to the 10 basic values. Since they did indeed cluster in the predicted way, partition lines were drawn through the space to mark the basic values.
The fit between theory and data observed in the diagram is impressive. This type of study has been replicated many times in the years since Schwartz first presented his theory. The (1994) study is itself a replication and extension of work first presented in 1992. Other instruments have been used to measure basic values besides direct ratings, and specific values than those presented here have been tested. The spaces produced by Simple Space Analysis have been examined by independent raters looking for clusters that might imply basic values other than Schwartz’s ten. But alternative basic values have failed to emerge.
Note that Schwartz’s strategy of postulating a structure of values derived from basic human motivational goals and then testing it empirically differs from other strategies that have been used, such as the lexical strategy of gathering all the value terms to be found in the dictionary and eliminating redundancies and the cross-classification strategy of gathering lists of basic values from multiple traditions and cultures and looking for commonalities. Cawley et al. (2000) used the lexical strategy, which is also the basis of nearly all work in personality psychology. Peterson and Seligman (2004) exemplify the cross-classification strategy. Each strategy has certain merits, obviously, but the Schwartz approach seems to me to have an advantage in being grounded in the functional role of values as motivational goals rather than in the way people (lexical strategy) or intellectuals (cross-classification strategy) happen to talk. The randomness of the lexical strategy in particular seems unfortunate and may have something to do with why it took so many decades for a dominant theory of personality to finally emerge.
Schwartz originally postulated an 11th basic value, spirituality, encompassing specific values such as a spiritual life, meaning in life, inner harmony, and detachment, but it was dropped from the system due to failure to find cross-cultural validation for it. In other words, it didn’t pass empirical muster as a basic, universal human value. Schwartz (1994) speculates that this may be because spirituality is not clearly related to any of the three fundamental categories of basic human needs identified above. Those categories all depend on human functional needs. It may be that spirituality values are not functionally driven.
Notice that happiness is not represented on Schwartz’s list, either of basic or specific values. This is deliberate. Schwartz sees happiness as the result of attaining one’s values.
Notice also that there are specific values on the chart, such as self-respect and moderation, that are not listed along with any basic value in the basic values list. This is because they are associated with more than one basic value (self-respect with both self-direction and achievement, moderation with both tradition and security). They satisfy elements of the motivational goals of more than one basic value. They therefore tend to sit on the borderline between basic values and to be associated more or less closely with their basic values in different empirical studies.
This brings us to another important part of the Schwartz theory, which is that the basic values do not form a loose and unrelated collection but are systematically connected. The connections are expected and predicted by the theory. They have two sources. First, they result from overlap between motivational goals. For example, in an obvious way both power and achievement involve social superiority and esteem. Achievement and hedonism both involve self-centered satisfaction. Hedonism and stimulation both involve desire for affectively pleasant arousal. And so on. I won’t go through all the pie slices in Schwartz’s diagram, since most of the connections are pretty obvious. (The two papers I’ve cited give all the details for anyone who wants them.) Note that conformity and tradition were originally predicted by the theory to be ordinary adjacent pie slices like the others. But that is not the way things worked out empirically, hence their configuration as a split slice.
Second, the basic human motivational goals represent different and sometimes competing or conflicting interests. Thus, the pursuit of one basic value may often conflict with the pursuit of another. For example, the pursuit of personal power or achievement will conflict with the pursuit of universalist values like equality. People who value both must prioritize and often find separate activities by which to pursue each.
Thus, Schwartz’s ten basic values form a continuous, closed circle. Basic values that are adjacent in the circle have overlapping motivational goals and are mutually supporting, whereas basic values on opposite sides of the circle have competing goals and are mutually opposed. Moreover, the circle has a 2-dimensional opponent structure. One dimension contrasts basic values of self-enhancement (achievement and power) with basic values of self-transcendence (universalism and benevolence). The other contrasts basic values of openness to change (self-direction and stimulation) with basic values of conservation (conformity, tradition, and security). Note that hedonism is positively associated with both self-enhancement and openness to change. The diagram below is a schematic version of the one above that makes explicit the two opponent dimensions and the circular structure of adjacency between the basic values.
The 2-dimensional opponent structure of the circle is yet another prediction of the theory. So it is additional confirmation of the theory that the predicted dimensions show up in the diagram produced by the Simple Space Analysis and that a 2-dimensional SSA does the best job of modeling the data. (At least, I assume Schwartz tried SSA models with more than two dimensions. He does not explicitly say.)
Note that openness to change and self-enhancement both focus on the personal side of life, while conservation and self-transcendence focus the interests of others and one’s relation to society. So the left side of the diagram represents values with a personal focus and the right side represents values with a social focus. Again, conservation and self-enhancement both express anxiety-driven motivations, to secure oneself against loss, gain power to overcome threats, maintain the current order, and so on. By contrast, openness to change and self-transcendence both express anxiety-free motivations of growth and expansion. So the top of the diagram represents anxiety-free values, and the bottom represents anxiety-based values.
There is one final aspect of the theory that should be mentioned. Although values obviously differ widely in importance between individuals, Schwartz found, remarkably, that when individual ratings of basic values are averaged over all the members of a society, the priority order that results is more or less the same in all societies. The basic values were listed above in their order of cross-cultural priority (highest listed first): benevolence, universalism, self-direction, security, conformity, hedonism, achievement, tradition, stimulation, and power. That is, in most societies benevolence is the most prized basic value, and power is the least. The ranking is curious, and I would be inclined to pay it little attention if it weren’t strongly supported empirically. It is striking that only one personal value (self-direction) is in the top half of the order. This may reflect a universal tendency for socialization processes to emphasize pro-social values. Schwartz (2012) spends some time speculating about why the values are ranked the way they are. For instance, he takes the primacy of benevolence to reflect the central role of the family in a person’s cooperative relations, social connections, and development of all further values. Recall that in Schwartz’s system, benevolence is based on local, personal relationships—this is the key point of difference between benevolence and universality. Thus benevolence ranks highest, and is higher than universality despite universality’s plausible claim to be the pro-social value par excellence, because local and family relations are fundamental and generally trump relations with strangers and out-group members.
To summarize, the Schwartz theory of basic values seeks to identify a core set of basic human values grounded in the motivational goals inherent in (1) our individual, biological needs, (2) our need for smooth coordination and cooperation with others, and (3) the need of groups of people to survive and grow as groups. The system of 10 basic values derived from these goals forms a continuum arranged in a closed circle as in the above diagrams. The space within the circle contains specific values that express various aspects of the basic values that subsume them. Proximity in the space indicates closeness of values in terms of their motivational goals. Proximity to the perimeter indicates strength of commitment to the relevant basic value. Moreover, the basic values themselves are subsumed by four master values arranged on two opponent dimensions: self-enhancement vs. self-transcendence and openness to change vs. conservation. Because of the opponent structure of the dimensions, values on opposite sides of the center of the space will tend to compete with each other for priority. The theory claims that the set of ten basic values and their structural relations are universal. That is, although individuals may differ in their particular value priorities, the basic values and their structural relations are common coin among all humanity in all cultures. The theory has not only intuitive and theoretical plausibility but a very impressive record of empirical support gathered in dozens of studies using multiple measures and employing tens of thousands of participants worldwide.
I promised to conclude by saying something about the implications of all this for political philosophy. Political philosophy commonly arranges political views along a dimension with endpoints designated “left” and “right,” where the defining feature of this dimension is an opponent contrast between equality on the left and hierarchy on the right. If you read a thinker like Allan Bloom, for example, you will get this stark opposition repeatedly (see for instance Bloom 1987). And this dimension admittedly does a powerful job of organizing diverse political positions and explaining many of their similarities and differences. It illuminates many of the differences between American liberals and conservatives, for example, as well as the many social movements in favor of democracy, income equality, racial equality, sexual equality, etc. that became ascendant in the West in the later 18th century and have intensified and spread across the world ever since. But it is irksome to libertarians, who are inclined to think that it treats as primary an issue—equality vs. hierarchy—that does not deserve that status. Libertarians would prefer to focus on an alternative issue, which might be captured by a dimension with endpoints designated “freedom” and “slavery,” or perhaps “individualism” and “collectivism.”
I suggest that the Schwartz theory of basic values can help us to understand this conflict between the libertarian way of analyzing political systems and the standard one. The suggestion, of course, is that the two political dimensions, equality vs. hierarchy and freedom vs. slavery, correspond to the Schwartz dimensions of self-transcendence vs. self-enhancement and openness to change vs. conservation. Concerning the dimension favored by standard political philosophy, equality is the nonpareil specific value of universalism (this is indicated by its position in the first diagram above), and in general the specific values that are grouped under universalism and benevolence (social justice, protect environment, world peace, forgiveness, broadminded, helpful) are suggestive of equalitarian politics. On the other side, the values of power and achievement, which cannot be equal (that is the point of valuing them) suggest a politics of rank. As for the dimension beloved of libertarians, freedom and independence are the premier specific values of self-direction, a basic value whose congruence with a politics of individual liberty couldn’t be more obvious. Other specific values grouped under self-direction and stimulation are among the most celebrated by libertarians: creativity, curious, choosing own goals, varied life, daring, exciting life. At the other end of this dimension, the conservation values of tradition, conformity, and security embody just the sort comfortable obedience and passivity that aligns with a politics that preaches the supremacy of group interests. The person who is at home in this region of the value space values obedience, the sense of belonging, health, social order, humility, self-discipline, moderation, security, and—most strongly, to judge from its position in the diagram—“accepting my portion in life.” Clearly, these are values that encourage political positions that promise safety and good order in the bosom of the group and maintenance of traditions.
Some implications of this analysis are the following. First, libertarians are right to complain that the freedom vs. slavery political dimension is at least as important as the equality vs. hierarchy dimension and that the freedom vs. slavery dimension has been wrongly neglected or ignored by standard political philosophy.
Second, it would be a good idea for partisans of either dimension to drop the habit of reductionism with regard to the other. That is, recognize the other dimension. Both dimensions are real and both are about equally important and illuminating, so do not treat your favored dimension as the only one that really matters. Furthermore, stop trying to paint all your opponents with a single brush dipped in the color of the opposite end to yours of your favored dimension. The other dimension may be at least as great a source of disagreement. For example, just because someone does not place the same value on freedom that you do does not necessarily mean that his main political impulses are collectivistic. Those who emphasize equality, for example, often do so in part because they see it as essential to individual autonomy. (I believe this was Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s motivation.) They see any sort of draconian collectivistic consequences of the push for equality as incidental and avoidable. Whereas I think a typical libertarian view is to see emphasis on equality as mere cover for a deeper, collectivistic impulse. But that is quite wrong in many cases, if the present analysis is correct.
Third, no political philosophy that wants to have a chance of adequacy can afford to embrace one side of either dimension to the complete exclusion of the other. Equalitarians must make room for the inescapable values of self-enhancement (for details, see “Harrison Bergeron”), and libertarians must make room for the equally inescapable values of security and social order. (And don’t anybody comment to tell me about “spontaneous order.” I know all about it. The point is that not all desirable social order is spontaneous.)
Fourth and last, we should expect there to be no such thing as a pure libertarian or equalitarian (or conservative). Libertarianism stakes out a position on only one dimension. Every libertarian must be expected to have some orientation with respect to the other dimension as well, and so be either a “conservatarian” or “liberaltarian.”And of course, notoriously, this is exactly what we find. The same will be true of liberals and conservatives. Some should really care about freedom, others not. Since the two dimensions seem to be largely orthogonal, extreme devotion to one end of either dimension, freedom vs. slavery, equality vs. hierarchy, should be no help whatever in predicting what a person’s position will be with respect to the other dimension. We must take both dimensions with equal seriousness.
- Bloom, Allan. 1987. The Closing of the American Mind. Simon and Schuster.
- Braithwaite, V. A. and H. G. Law. 1985. “Structure of Human Values: Testing the Adequacy of the Rokeach Value Survey.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 49: 250–263.
- Cawley, M. J., J. E. Martin, and J. A. Johnson. 2000. “A Virtues Approach to Personality.” Personality and Individual Differences, 28: 997–1013.
- Crosby, L. A., M. J. Bitner, and J. D. Gill. 1990. Organizational Structure of Values. Journal of Business Research, 20: 123–134.
- Feather, N. T. and E. R. Peay. 1975. The Structure of Terminal and Instrumental Values: Dimensions and Clusters. Australian Journal of Psychology, 27: 151–164.
- Hofstede, G. 1980. Culture’s Consequences: International Differences in Work-Related Values. Sage.
- Maloney, J. and G. M. Katz. 1976. “Value Structures and Orientations to Social Institutions.” Journal of Psychology, 93: 203–211.
- Peterson, Christopher, and Martin E. P. Seligman. 2004. Character Strengths and Virtues: A Handbook and Classification. Oxford University Press.
- Rokeach, M. 1973. The Nature of Human Values. Free Press.
- Schwartz, Shalom H. 1994. “Are There Universal Aspects in the Structure and Contents of Human Values?” Journal of Social Issues, 50: 19–45.
- ———. 2012. “An Overview of the Schwartz Theory of Basic Values.” Online Readings in Psychology and Culture, 2(1). http://dx.doi.org/10.9707/2307-0919.1116
- Wicker, F. W., F. B. Lambert, F. C. Richardson, and J. Kahler. 1984. “Categorical Goal Hierarchies and Classification of Human Motives.” Journal of Personality, 53: 285-305.