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Introduction

The inquiry into the nature of values isn't merely theoretical; it is a matter of existential importance, especially when the values you've grown up with have been rooted in deception, manipulation, and emotional abuse.

From Distorted Values to Self-Discovery

Inherited from a childhood marred by gaslighting and manipulation, my initial value system was a labyrinth of distortions that dictated the course of my relationships and self-development. Addressing this was not a choice but a pressing necessity; I had to undertake a rigorous, time-consuming journey to dissect and reformulate these core beliefs.

The Price of Transformation

Navigating through this complicated inner landscape was not only mentally taxing but also consumed time and energy that could have been spent on healthier relationships or constructive pursuits. This internal journey ran parallel to external responsibilities, creating a constant tension that divided my focus and diluted my efforts in other life areas.

The Relational Fallout

As I evolved, so did my value system, resulting in a seismic shift in friendships that were originally based on shared but flawed values. This dissonance was a two-way street; I outgrew certain beliefs while my friends held onto theirs, creating an insurmountable chasm.

The Ultimate Question: Are There Universal Values?

This transformation brings us to the heart of the issue. While many of my initial values were distorted, some might still hold universal relevance. It's crucial to determine which values are inherently good, universally correct, or accepted and should be retained, especially when planning any long-term life goals. Given this backdrop, my question is: Are there any universal values, and if so, how can one discern them?

Note: Definition of "Good"

To avoid any confusion, I want to clarify what I mean when I use the term "good" in the context of this discussion. Here, "good" does not necessarily refer to what is morally or ethically commendable, although it can include those aspects. Instead, it refers to what is broadly accepted, or considered beneficial across various cultures, societies, or individual belief systems.

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  • The SEP articles on intrinsic vs. extrinsic values, possibly incommensurate values, value pluralism, etc. will be good starting points for your studies, here. Commented Oct 17, 2023 at 14:38
  • Thank you, Kristian, for SEP articles. These are undoubtedly valuable resources for an in-depth understanding. However, I was hoping to get more concise insights and personal perspectives here on the forum, as I believe it offers a platform for direct discussion and immediate feedback. Would you be able to summarize your viewpoint on whether any values are universal or inherently relative? Commented Oct 17, 2023 at 14:59
  • The good news: you are perfectly normal! Idea: look for good values without worrying about whether they are universal or not. If you come across something better, take it on. Consider looking in to Nonduality.
    – Scott Rowe
    Commented Oct 17, 2023 at 15:07
  • Maybe relevant for today's world: Kant's Perpetual Peace: A Philosophical Sketch (1795). Commented Oct 17, 2023 at 15:08
  • 1
    Are you looking for values that everybody has, a definition of the word good that conforms to its common use but refers to objective measurements, or a good that somehow objectively means something without needing a definition?
    – g s
    Commented Oct 17, 2023 at 15:21

6 Answers 6

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The canonical answer is that according to a number of major linguists, anthropologists, biologists, and psychologists, human are not as diverse as they like to think themselves, and there are universal linguistic, ethical, and cultural values. If one accepts that our genetic being is essentially identical across the human race (we all share at least 99.5% of the same nucleic acid sequences), then the minds that spring from them are also essentially identical. Therefore there are canonical academic arguments that there are both cultural universals and universal values. Some segments of the intelligentsia reject these theories vehemently.

I was made aware of the work Human Universals written by anthropologist Donald Brown by way of Steven Pinker's appendix in The Blank Slate. As a third professional thinker who argues so, Shalow Schwartz, a psychologist, has put forth his Theory of Basic Human Values. Noam Chomsky talks about universal linguistic values in his universal grammar, and linguist Joseph Greenburg proposed there are linguistic universals. Another place where you might find arguments about universal values in comparative religion where ideas like the Golden Rule can be found extensively among different traditions. The mythology populizer, Joseph Cambpell, believed strongly that the values perpetuating in myths were universal as in his famous work The Hero with a Thousand Faces.

It should be noted that in the social sciences, there has developed a thread, what Pinker calls the Standard Social Science Model, that presumes human minds are tabula rasa which is the philosophical ideas that humans can be written into being at the whim of society and therefore one might reach the conclusion that human nature is a bad concept and there are no universal values, just the vagaries of culture and politics; however, disciplines like modern cognitive science looking at culture (SEP), sociobiology (SEP), and evolutionary psychology (SEP) all reject that as a bad metaphor that fails to recognize the biological constraints evolution has prescribed in the function of the brain and the body.

Modern psychology has a subdiscipline called abnormal psychology that presumes there is a norm to be deviant from, and in a sense, those presumed norms (schizophrenia is a disease, not an identity) impute universal norms about the functioning of the brain and the mind, but in the past, particularly with eugenics and biological determinism, such theories have been promoted to unethical ends, so there is a strong distaste about false universals being applied for normative means. And, in contemporary philosophy, the question of whether or not there are universal values is strongly linked to the topic of human nature (SEP):

Alongside such varying and frequently conflicting normative uses of the expression “human nature”, there are serious disagreements concerning the concept’s content and explanatory significance—the starkest being whether the expression “human nature” refers to anything at all. Some reasons given for saying there is no human nature are anthropological, grounded in views concerning the relationship between natural and cultural features of human life. Other reasons given are biological, deriving from the character of the human species as, like other species, an essentially historical product of evolution. Whether these reasons justify the claim that there is no human nature depends, at least in part, on what it is exactly that the expression is supposed to be picking out. Many contemporary proposals differ significantly in their answers to this question.

My sense is that the term universal values applies with the caveat that there are deviant individuals (in the non-normative, statistical sense), and that a lot of what passes for diversity of values is simply related to the values involved with individuals and groups such as in-group-out-group posturing. That is people and groups go to great lengths to exaggerate and defend differences of values for political gain on account of ego-centric psychological motivations. A recent neologism is virtue signaling, where people of all sorts of values, attempt to embed their morals and virtues in conversation in order to shape group dynamics in communication in accordance with the Wittgensteinian notion of the language-game.

The original Star Trek famously satirized this near human universal value with the episode Let That Be Your Last Battlefield, but certainly wasn't the first work of fiction to do so with little-endian and big-endian values famously appearing in Swift's Guliver's Travels. It's somewhat of a cinematic trope to have a young character declare how unique they are while characterization is provided to show that the character adopts a popular group identity of like-minded individuals all of whom are oblivious that there rebellion of identity is ironically cliche. Such a lack of humility creates a sense of comedic relief.

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  • Thank you for your comprehensive response. It's clear you've given a lot of thought to this subject, and I appreciate the various academic perspectives you've brought into the discussion—from anthropology and linguistics to psychology. Your point about human genetic homogeneity leading to shared mental frameworks is particularly intriguing. I do wonder, however, to what extent genetics dictate our value systems versus societal and environmental influences. How much weight should be given to our genetic disposition in the conversation about universal values? Commented Oct 19, 2023 at 8:57
  • @DavitJanashia No worries. Pinker makes the argument that twin studies suggest that our genetics and epigenetics may be the predominant force that shapes us. Consider for instance the influence of biology on political leanings. He presents a forceful argument the details of which are not going to fit in under 500 characters. :D.
    – J D
    Commented Oct 19, 2023 at 12:04
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    I find myself agreeing with the notion that our genetic makeup significantly shapes our core values. My hypothesis is that, while certain 'derived' values may vary due to environmental factors, there are universal 'core' values that remain constant across diverse populations. Perhaps what we perceive as significant differences are just different combinations of the same basic ingredients Commented Oct 19, 2023 at 14:30
  • Well, your question is essentially nature vs. nurture and so, I can think of all sorts of reasons values diverge. Epigenomic differences among identical twins. Cultural differences. Historical differences. Consider the Bushmen of Africa. Consider religion. Before Christianity, slavery and child sacrifice were rather common affairs. People were taught to objectify others. After the spread, there was a widespread collapse of those cultural values because the Bible forbids it. It's a balance as in all things explanatory.
    – J D
    Commented Oct 19, 2023 at 19:18
  • I will say that there are a number of twin study cases where twins marry women with the same name, have the same tics, choose the same occupation, laugh the same way despite never having met each other. It would be easy to dismiss them as fantasy if they weren't the product of the modern scientific method.
    – J D
    Commented Oct 19, 2023 at 19:19
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'which values are inherently good, universally correct, or accepted and should be retained'

Define good. For example, if a guy shoots his grandmother at 500 yards, do you call that a 'good shot'?

Correct according to whom or what? You? Me? Hitler?

Retained for what purpose? Profit? Joy? Benevolence?

'the values you've grown up with have been rooted in deception' Define 'value'.

It is fair to say that any values you were taught were either believed or not believed by those who taught you. How do we know which? The first indication is that they taught you. But did they live by these values themselves? You may say 'value X was/is rooted in deception' because the behaviour of the teacher did not align with the value, or you may have deduced some other way that the value was invalid, incoherent, illogical or demonstrably false, irrespective of the sincere belief in it by your teacher.

But there is another point to bring out here: just because someone does not exemplify a particular value does not automatically imply they don't believe it to be true. Nor does it automatically imply the value itself (irrespective of what your teacher believes or does) is false.

I would suggest that most humans by nature possess an inkling of 'value' or (cue the real question) 'morality'. Maslow wasn't entirely wrong in claiming there are a variety of needs and there is some kind of hierarchy to them. Considering this, what would be your values in the context of starving in a desert? In contrast, what would they be when you living comfortably but are lonely?

I want to draw your attention here to the fact that the sum total of your value set comprises values that momentary, and values that are eternal, and then values which are everything in between. And where you values are at any given moment depends upon many factors, including knowledge and experience, situation, physical state, mental state, emotional state...that is, THEY ARE CONSTANTLY CHANGING.

But for those values that do not pertain to the physical body, could we say that these may be the more important ones?

IF there are values that are (as you say) 'inherently good, universally correct', then I would suggest that the measuring stick by which we attribute to values 'goodness' or 'correctness' is not of our making, but divine. By 'divine', I mean not of this material universe, and also intentional.

C. S. Lewis gives an interesting treatise on 'rules' and a 'rule-giver' in The Pilgrims Regress in which he considers the question of whether or not a 'rule-giver' is needed if we agree with the rules given, or only when we don't agree.

Consider that Hitler disagreed with the rule 'thou shalt not murder'. The question is: does such a rule really exist and if so, who gave it?

  • Evolution?
  • Society?
  • God?

(Darwinian evolutionary theory was a significant driving force behind Hitlers eugenics and the holocaust.)

On what do we base our belief that what Hitler did was wrong? (and I am convinced it was very wrong...)

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Camus' philosophy of absurdity is passé now. This is not the period of the Second World War. France has changed, and so has the world. Indeed, by the mid-50s, Camus himself had abandoned the early exposition of the isolated experience of absurdity in favor of a more political, more communal focus. It is a commonplace to assert that Camus was moving to a philosophy of hope when his life ended tragically, absurdly, in a 1960 car accident. His last novel, The Fall, talked of universal guilt. His last important philosophical work, The Rebel, spoke of moral limits founded on the universal value of human life.

It is of course just naive conjecture to say that Camus had fully worked through 'suicide' as a philosophical question in order to assert a universal value opposed to the most suicidal of self consciousnesses. And it could maybe have no content to say "life" has value (let alone a universal or highest one), rather than a happy or contemplative one. But the claim may be the basis of 'human rights'.

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Values are important for civilized world. There are no absolute values or value systems. It depends on the community , culture , country ,political beliefs etc.

However a Universality of value may arise depending upon the past history. For example if there has been a period of war in the human history then peace becomes valuable and everyone agrees to it. If there has been poverty in the past then money becomes a subject of primary importance.

During these times there are universal values like technological growth which nobody can deny. New Iphones are produced every year. New cars are being produced. People wish to go to Mars etc etc...

But no value is permanent. Values change. Nobody can tell you that this value will remain forever true.Inevitably this involves suffering. So no surprise that you suffered and struggled to find a value system which you can call as permanent or absolute.

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  • I appreciate your inclusion of the time dimension as it adds a layer of complexity to the concept of values. However, even though you suggest that values are transient and shaped by various socio-cultural and historical contexts, does this necessarily preclude the existence of any values that are both universal and enduring? Commented Oct 19, 2023 at 9:46
  • @DavitJanashia Universal values arise , however they are transient. Nothing lasts forever. Commented Oct 19, 2023 at 10:49
  • "Universal values arise, however, they are transient. Nothing lasts forever" is a categorical statement and it contradicts the same statement that no value is permanent Commented Oct 19, 2023 at 11:05
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Up to a point, yes. Humans have evolved as a species, so naturally they have species-wide traits, just as other species do. Most people avoid pain, feed themselves, seek a mate, don't defecate in public, don't like being swindled, dislike complete inactivity, have regular sleeping patterns, take some degree of care about their appearance, strive for betterment, smile in response to a smile, have self doubt, enjoy company, cooperate... I'm sure you could extend the list without too much trouble. However, regardless of which trait you pick, you are likely to find exceptions, so they are not perfectly universal. Also, there is a great variety in the extent to which individuals conform with these traits, and a great variety in the extent to which individuals consciously attach importance to them, so you might reasonably take the view that there are no values which are held to a uniform degree universally.

In the final part of your question, you suppose that some values are 'inherently good' and wonder how to discern them. Those are much trickier issues to sum up. I personally find it difficult to see how a value can be inherently good or bad. Clearly some values seem inherently good or bad, but doubtless I think that way as a result of the particular mix of nature and nurture that governs my outlook. Values evolve. Today, our near-universal values include the view that slavery is wrong, whereas earlier in recorded history slavery was the norm. We are probably well on the way to accepting gender equality as the norm, and doubtless we will soon have new universal values associated with the importance of combating climate change. Those will seem to us to be inherently right, but if so we were universally blind to their importance for most of human history.

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Of course there are universal values. Each stable society has rules like:

  • Do not kill,
  • do not steal,
  • do not tell lies,
  • keep your promises.

These rules show which values are valid in the society. Their universality can be explained most easily by the fact that societies know, possible by experience: Without these rules our society is not stable and life is not safe.

Each of these rules has exceptions. Also this fact can be made plausible by referring to conflicting values which are prioritized in certain situations.

Hence the explanation, why the underlying values are universally valid, is a sociological explanation. It does not discuss a philosophical "value theory".

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    How sure are you that "thou shalt not kill the blues, but thou shalt kill the reds" and "thou shalt not kill the reds, but thou shalt kill the blues" are the same?
    – g s
    Commented Oct 18, 2023 at 0:07
  • @gs What do you mean, could you please give some explanation?
    – Jo Wehler
    Commented Oct 18, 2023 at 3:18
  • An example: Redland and Blueland are fighting a war. Their allies Yellowland and Pinkland join the fight. The Yellowlanders prohibit killing Bluelander soldiers and give out medals for killing Redland soldiers. Vice-versa for the Pinklanders. Do the armies of Yellowland and Pinkland have the same values?
    – g s
    Commented Oct 18, 2023 at 4:53
  • If Yellowland is an allied of Redland, then Yellowland will not give medals for killing Readland soldiers. Who is an allied of whom in your example? - Why not restricting to just two parties, red and blue? Then I would now understand your original example.
    – Jo Wehler
    Commented Oct 18, 2023 at 5:09
  • I believe @gs is questioning the idea that values like 'do not kill' are universally applicable. He points out that these values can vary depending on alliances or conflicts. This view is supported by various religious teachings that permit killing in specific circumstances like war. Additionally, historical practices like the medieval Inquisition and religious sacrifices further challenge the concept that such values are universally upheld Commented Oct 20, 2023 at 10:44

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