Part 1: Nature of Values
Values are those elements or phenomena in life whose presence is believed by an agent to bring or sustain happiness.
The necessary condition of belief here is important since obviously (a) something, say an addictive substance, may be valued by an agent despite causing suffering longer-term and (b) something else, say a hidden protective force, may support well-being without being in an agent's awareness and or understanding. Moreover, there may be elements that would bring happiness, but are wholly unknown to, and absent from, an agent's life.
Generally when we speak of values, we are talking about abstract elements like honesty, truth, and peace. This is not to say an agent cannot value a specific object or being; but rather values are usually viewed as categories from which, or principles by which, future amenities and decisions can be extracted.
Part 2: Origin of Values
Values come in two basic flavours:
- Innate, or intrinsic, values are those elements we desire by instinct;
- Acquired, or instrumental, values are learned or discerned by experience.
Both are driven by instinct, but the latter involves a process of instrumental abstraction, wherein an agent learns or discerns the real-world, concrete paths by which intrinsic values, or raw instincts, can be most effectively satisfied. These paths often utilise tools and amenities -- materials, methods, skills -- whose essence forms the basis of instrumental values.
Technically any meaningful experience or interaction can help to discover and refine one's acquired values; yet those experiences producing the most joy or suffering -- first or second hand -- can be expected to make the most lasting impressions.
Moreover, a person is substantially more sensitive to value-defining experiences during childhood. This phenomenon is at least partly why our personality is so heavily influenced by our early years. I have heard that emotional needs unmet during this period may become core values of the person. For example, someone who felt unloved may become codependent; someone who felt lack of control may become authoritarian.
Part 3: Mechanism of Values
Our framework of conceptual, semantic understanding operates through cognitive schemas. From Wikipedia:
In psychology and cognitive science, a schema (plural schemata or schemas) describes a pattern of thought or behavior that organizes categories of information and the relationships among them. It can also be described as a mental structure of preconceived ideas, a framework representing some aspect of the world, or a system of organizing and perceiving new information, such as a mental schema or conceptual model.
Examples of schemata include academic rubrics, social schemas, stereotypes, social roles, scripts, worldviews, and archetypes.
Those listed types of schemas perhaps most pertinent to this discussion are scripts and archetypes. Scripts are lists of behavioural actions, or steps, needed to accomplish some goal, such as making a sandwich. Archetypes are patterns of thought or behaviour which are innate, or instinctual.
As an example, animals may have an archetypal script which says, when thirsty, put water in mouth. Other archetypal schemas would "define" or help identify water, mouth, and thirsty.
The set of these innate schemas is what we call instinct. Those abstract objects and situations referenced in these archetypal schemas as desirable comprise one's set of intrinsic values. Together, these instincts and values comprise one's nature.
Higher values and schemas are then learned through nurture and experience. For example, the idea that water can be found at rivers and streams is a learned schema, from which the idea that streams are beneficial likely results in streams being held as instrumentally valuable. With time, one may generalise and abstract these findings and higher schemas into personal values such as living by bodies of water.
Psychologically, these values are implemented as schema-valence associations, where a positive valence, or affect, is attached to a schema, resulting in a personal value. When schemas are activated, their affect is also activated. Since words are tied to schemas, encountering certain words activates certain schemas, which can evoke their associated emotions. Poetry often takes advantage of this phenomenon.
The strongest values, with the strongest valence, will be those found through the most emotionally significant experiences, especially during formative years.
Part 4: Expectations and Actions
Personal values, being based on emotion, will naturally act as drivers of action. As a process, currently active schemas -- pertaining to values, circumstances, and general feelings -- will compete with one another in terms of priority while further activating auxiliary schemas. Sometimes an instrumentally convergent path can be found to satisfy multiple desires simultaneously; but if not, the most positively activated action schema (script) will have to suffice -- assuming it reaches the volition threshold, or the point where desire exceeds resistance.
Because of these competing motivations, a personal value, particularly in certain circumstances and emotional states, may not result in appreciable action. A person may even choose an opposing action, should an opposing schema have higher activation at that time. Naturally, more strongly held values are likely to retain higher activation, so being more likely followed.
Expectations for the actions of others are more of a social matter. Factors such as social norms, prior social experiences, and an agent's current stage of moral development, are likely big players here. These factors should influence the priority given to group and interpersonal values, as well as any expectations for others. By Lawrence Kohlberg's stages (as linked above), a person at stage three would likely have higher expectations of personal values being respected interpersonally; yet someone at stage four would probably place higher priority on group values; one at stage five were more likely to consider prior agreements; a six-goer might or might not expect anything, depending on ideology; and a seven-stager may expect others to act by their respective natures, or may hold no expectations at all.
Overall, values are emotional creatures while personal actions, and expectations for actions of others, are imperative ideas. Unless a value pertains specifically to actions, rather than to results, one should expect emotions and imperatives to remain distinct. Two people may share the same feeling about the same situation, but have completely separate handlings. Each person probably has a unique set of auxiliary priorities and strategies.
Part 5: Communication and Labels
When someone expresses, even if only to oneself, to hold a certain value, by a simple label like "honesty", the actual thing valued is not fully described thereby. Words are placeholders for, or references to, ideas. And one person's honest is perhaps another person's deception, and vice versa. A word is attached to various schemas, or concepts; and each person can be expected to activate differentially a set of schemas for a given word in a given context. One might even say that every mind is operating under a different implicit context, wherein the only overlap of communication is that of intersubjectivity.
As a rule of thumb, one should not assume labels, as expressed by others, necessarily to have the exact same meaning and connotations between any two persons, or even necessarily between two points in time for a given person.