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Something is of universal value if it has the same value or worth for all, or almost all, people. This claim could mean two importantly different things. First, it could be that something has a universal value when everybody finds it valuable. This was Isaiah Berlin's understanding of the term. According to Berlin, "...universal values....are values that a great many human beings in the vast majority of places and situations, at almost all times, do in fact hold in common, whether consciously and explicitly or as expressed in their behaviour..."[1] Second, something could have universal value when all people have reason to believe it has value. Amartya Sen interprets the term in this way, pointing out that when Mahatma Gandhi argued that non-violence is a universal value, he was arguing that all people have reason to value non-violence, not that all people currently value non-violence.[2] Many different things have been claimed to be of universal value, for example, fertility,[3] pleasure,[4] and democracy.[5] The issue of whether anything is of universal value, and, if so, what that thing or those things are, is relevant to psychology, political science, and philosophy, among other fields.



The principle areas of philosophy concerned with values are axiology and value theory, but values also play an important role in ethics, aesthetics and political philosophy.


Ethics and universal value

Universal value plays a different role in virtue ethics, deontological and teleological or consequentialist moral theories. Consequentialist theories are based on the idea that right actions are those that lead to a result that has universal value.[6] Some utilitarians, Jeremy Bentham for example, have argued that pleasure and pain are the only things that are of universal intrinsic value; that is, that pleasure and pain are the only things that are valued for themselves, and other things are of value only because they produce pleasure or pain. Because utilitarians are consequentialists, this means that utilitarians who hold pleasure and pain to be the only things of universal value then argue that actions are right when they maximise pleasure and minimise pain, when everyone is considered equally.

Psychology and the search for universal values

S. H. Schwartz, along with a number of psychology colleagues, has carried out empirical research investigating whether there are universal values, and what those values are. Schwartz defined 'values' as "conceptions of the desirable that influence the way people select action and evaluate events".[7] He hypothesised that universal values would relate to three different types of human need: biological needs, social co-ordination needs, and needs related to the welfare and survival of groups. Schwartz's results from a series of studies that included surveys of more than 25,000 people in 44 countries with a wide range of different cultural types suggest that there are fifty-six specific universal values and ten types of universal value.[8] Schwartz's ten types of universal value are: power, achievement, hedonism, stimulation, self-direction, universalism, benevolence, tradition, conformity, and security. Below are each of the value types, with the specific related values alongside:

Schwartz also tested an eleventh possible universal value, 'spirituality', or 'the goal of finding meaning in life', but found that it does not seem to be recognised in all cultures.[9]

See also



  • Bolin, Anne, and Patricia Whelehan (1999). Perspectives on Human Sexuality. SUNY Press.
  • Diamond, Larry Jay, and Marc F. Plattner (2001). The Global Divergence of Democracies. John Hopkins University Press.
  • Jahanbegloo, Ramin, (1991). Conversations With Isaiah Berlin. McArthur & Co. Reprinted 2007, Halban Publishers. ISBN 1905559038, ISBN 978-1905559039
  • Mason, Elinor, (2006). 'Value pluralism'. In The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. (Accessed 13 Nov 2007).
  • Pettit, Philip (1996). The Common Mind: An Essay on Psychology, Society, and Politics. New York: Oxford University Press.
  • Schwartz, S. H. (1992). 'Universals in the Content and Structure of Values: Theory and Empirical Tests in 20 Countries'. In M. Zanna (ed.), Advances in Experimental Social Psychology (Vol. 25). New York: Academic Press: 1-65.
  • Schwartz, S. H. (1994). 'Are there Universal Aspects in the Structure and Contents of Human Values?'. Journal of Social Issues, 50 (4): 19–45.
  • Schwartz, S. H. and W. Bilsky (1987). 'Toward a Universal Psychological Structure of Human Values'. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 53: 550-562.
  • Sen, Amartya (1999). 'Democracy as a Universal Value'. Journal of Democracy, 10 (3): 3-17.

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