Values guide action.   In other words, when we value something – or when we have a particular set of values – we think that what we value (or the values we have) give us reasons to act in particular way.  As the philosopher David Ozar puts it, “to value something is to consider it a candidate for action aimed at achieving it.[1]

When it comes to values, and valuing, we tend to talk about them in a number of ways.  Words like ‘value,’ ‘values,’ ‘to value,’ and ‘valuable’ occur in numerous contexts, and encompass a wide range of meaning.  Moreover, we often use words like ‘good’ and ‘bad,’ ‘better’ and ‘worse,’ and ‘best’ and ‘worst’ to ascribe value (or lack thereof), without the explicit use of the term ‘value.’

But all of these meanings and uses build on the idea that “to value something is to consider it a candidate for action aimed at achieving it.”

Indeed, this description seems to capture our everyday notion of value.  Values are ‘action-guiding’ in that we typically pattern our actions after what we take to be of value (i.e. “It is a good/bad job, so I will/will not take it.”  “It would be better/worse to speak to her now, so I will/will not call.” “It would be best/worst, to start early, so we should/should not get to work.”).

Values are sometimes divided into categories, of which ‘intrinsic’ and ‘instrumental’ (or ‘extrinsic’) are perhaps the most common.  An intrinsic value is something that is valuable in itself or for its own sake.  A human life, for example, is widely viewed as intrinsically valuable.

Instrumental, or extrinsic values, are said to be valuable for the sake of something else, that is, for the sake of an intrinsic value.  Money, for example, may be valuable to you, but it is only valuable insofar as it allows you access to other, intrinsic values (i.e. the pleasure of a fine meal, or of experiencing opera).  Money is an instrumental value, in other words, because it loses its value if it does not afford you access to other things.

[1] David T. Ozar. “Values” in The Blackwell Encyclopedic Dictionary of Business Ethics.  P. 645

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