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Value theory concerns itself with the worth, utility, trading or economic value, moral value (virtue), legal value, quantitative or aesthetic value of people and things - or the combination of all these.


Research suggests both human beings and at least some other sentient organisms can hold values, which express themselves in behavioural dispositions - the predisposition to act by choice in a certain way, when faced with a certain condition or stimulus which permits different responses. The expression of this predisposition ranges from very primitive behavioural routines, to very complex ones which may be difficult to detect or elucidate.


Values are implicitly related to a degree of behavioural freedom or autonomy by organisms which goes beyond a conditioned response; values steer or guide the organism, on the basis of internally chosen options. Thus, values imply the (conscious) prioritising of different behavioural alternatives which are perceived to be possible for the living organism. Conversely, value-conflicts can disorient the behaviour of the organism, throwing it out of balance.

Values are at the basis of all moral, political and economic behaviour. Individual values may be contrasted with social values, but individual values may mean nothing, unless they are socially understood, accepted and acknowledged. The ability to form individual values usually has social presuppositions, and their formation involves a learning process, communication process or socialisation process of some sort.


In psychology, value theory refers to the study of the way in which human beings develop, assert and believe in certain values, and act or fail to act on them.

Attempts are made to explain experimentally why human beings prefer or choose some things over others, how personal behaviour may be guided (or fail to be guided) by certain values and judgements, and how values emerge at different stages of human development (see e.g. the work by Lawrence Kohlberg and Kohlberg's stages of moral development).

In psychotherapy and counselling, eliciting and clarifying the values of the client can play an important role to help the client orient or reorient himself or herself in social life.


In sociology, value theory is concerned with personal values which are popularly held by a community, and how those values might change under particular conditions. Different groups of people may hold or prioritise different kinds of values influencing social behaviour. Major Western theorists include Max Weber, Karl Marx, Emile Durkheim and Jurgen Habermas, and methods of study range from questionnaire surveys to participant observation.

Ecological Economics

In Ecological Economics value theory is separated into two types: donor-type value and receiver-type value. Ecological economists tend to believe that 'real wealth' needs a donor-determined value as a measure of what things were need to make an item or generate a service. (H.T. Odum 1996). An examples of receiver-type value is 'market value', or 'willingness to pay', the principle method of accounting used in neo-classical economics. In contrast both, Marx's labour theory of value and the 'Emergy' concept are conceived as donor-type value. Emergy theorists believe that this conception of value has relevance to all of philosophy, economics, sociology and psychology as well as Environmental Science.


  • Odum, H.T. (1996), Environmental Accounting: Emergy and Environmental Decision Making, Wiley.

See also

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