What is Value?

Only when we are able to attribute a real meaning to the world and to life shall we be able to give ourselves to such action as will produce results of real value. – Albert Schweitzer

At its roots, economics is a metaphysical, rather than a mathematical science, in which intangible spiritual values and attitudes are at least as important as physical assets and morale more fundamental than the money supply… A national economy, like an individual business or a specific product is the sum of the spiritual and mental qualities of its people, and its output of value will be only as strong as the values of society … Without the civilizing force of universal moral standards, particularly honesty, trust, self-respect, integrity, and loyalty, the marketplace quickly degenerates… A nation whose values are declining should not be surprised at a declining economy. As Ralph Waldo Emerson postulates, ‘a dollar is not value, but representative of value, and, at last, of moral values’. – Warren T. Brookes1

17th century British philosopher Jeremy Bentham (1948:1) set out his utilitarianist approach to defining value.

Begin with any one person … and take an account,

  1. Of the value of each distinguishable pleasure which appears to be produced by it in the first instance.
  2. Of the value of each pain which appears to be produced by it in the first instance.
  3. Of the value of each pleasure which appears to be produced by it after the first. This constitutes the fecundity of the first pleasure and the impurity of the first pain.
  4. Of the value of each pain which appears to be produced by it after the first. This constitutes the fecundity of the first pain and the impurity of the first pleasure.
  5. Sum up all the values of all the pleasures on one side, and those of all the pains on the other. The balance, if it be on the side of pleasure, will give the good tendency of the act upon the whole, with respect to the interests of that individual person; if on the side of pain, the bad tendency of it upon the whole.
  6. Take an account of the number of persons whose interests appear to be concerned; and repeat the above process with respect to each. Sum up the numbers expressive of degrees of good tendency … do this again with respect to each individual, in regard to whom the tendency of it is bad … Take the balance; which, if on the side of pleasure, will give the general good tendency of the act … if on the side of pain, the general evil tendency with respect to the same community.

We could do no better than to take up where Bentham left off and bring to bear information not available to him concerning complex self-regulating systems, networks, and cybernetics, and apply them in fashioning a holistic system appropriate to our age and, more critically, to our continued existence.

…ultimately, evolutionary values will be perceived and defined and will provide the basis for human values. – Jonas Salk

Values are the result of cognition; shifts in awareness result in reassignment of value.2 There is no limit to the imagination and to aspirations so a value-based economy is only constrained by environmental limits. While values can be subjective, there are underlying values that are universal and can be agreed upon (Fig. 1).

Psychologists have found that the value we put on things depends greatly on the other things we can choose from. Humans and slime molds alike choose according to relative values, rather than trying to calculate absolute ones. – Carl Zimmer3

A century ago, pioneer planner Patrick Geddes (1915) maintained that fundamental external change follows immaterial changes in underlying attitudes and consciousness, a shift in values towards higher levels of consciousness and co-operation. The slogan “Think global, act local” is attributed to him. Influenced by the work of French sociologist Frederic Le Playʼs (1802–1886) triad of ʻLieu, Travail, Familleʼ — which Geddes rendered as “Work, Place, Folkʼ — he integrated values in his approach to regional and town planning. He put people and their lives front and center within the environmental specifics of their place and region.


Figure 2. Values related to place (Geddes, 1915)

An array of more concrete, tangible values based on needs (Max-Neef, 2010) includes:

  • subsistence

  • protection

  • affection

  • understanding

  • participation

  • leisure

  • creation

  • identity

  • freedom

Trust, confidence and respect among the world’s peoples are the primary values upon which a new planetary economy will be built. If nothing else, globalization has demonstrated how interdependent we are and how suicidal it would be for any one group to arrogate power and resources to itself. It is delusional for any country to think isolation will lead to more resilience. Reverting to nationalism and defensive xenophobia, appropriate perhaps to the 19th century, makes matters worse. Climate change, rising sea levels, and a nuclear meltdown in Fukushima affect everyone. The complexity and ubiquity of present challenges require a holistic, coordinated global response and not primal defensive reflex actions.

A new set of values – holistic, syncretic, relationship and process oriented, organic, spiritual – is rising within us and around us. Though forces of entropy and fear seek to contain or regress us, we know there is no going back. Our complex time requires a wiser use of our capacities, a richer music from the instrument we have been given. – Jean Houston (2000)

In the intervening century since Geddes, there have been any number of enlightened, progressive approaches put forward by numerous thinkers and innovators but their conceptions have remained just that. While they may have recognized that money has usurped value and become its sole measure, they have mostly ignored the sacred cow, the elephant in the room, and have not called for its demise or replacement.4 Unless that is done, values will remain noble but peripheral ideals with no place in the real world.

Human communities, as they got larger and more complex, evolved leadership and governments just as eukaryote cells had evolved nuclei and just as animal bodies had evolved brains. Every holon that grows larger and more complicated must evolve some way of organizing itself to simplify and manage its complexity if it is to survive. – Elisabet Sahtouris (2000)

…Humans have always unknowingly affected all Universe by every act and thought they articulate or even consider. Fortunately the unrealistic thinking of humans has had little effect on Universe and evolution whereas realistic thinking has cosmic effectiveness in pure principle. Realistic, comprehensively responsible, omnisystem-considerate, unselfish thinking on the part of humans does absolutely affect human destiny. If the realistic thinking can conceive of technically feasible options facilitating satisfactorily effective human fulfilment of its designed functioning as local Universe information inventorying and local Universe problem-solving in support of the integrity of eternally regenerative Universe, then the accomplishment of that realistic conceptioning is realistically effective in satisfying Universe that human mind is accomplishing its designed evolutionary role. – Fuller (1981, p.47)

From an evolutionary perspective, value can be assessed in terms of where it falls in the trajectory from entropy to syntropy, from simple to complex, from inertia to sentience.5 Here we move from the purely subjective and anthropocentric appraisal of value to a more objective measurement, placing ourselves more appropriately as a minor part of a whole complex system, but with inordinate influence. It is against this standard that we should assay our actions.


Figure 3. Entropy-Syntropy

From this perspective, John Stewart (2014) has identified two evolutionary trends toward increasing diversification and integration. The former is evidenced by the proliferation of life forms in ever diversifying niches. The latter is demonstrated by the organization of human societies into ever larger and more complex groupings.6 These have been projected to evolve from nation-states and regional groupings to coalesce into a global entity, the emergence of the next holarchic level. This is hardly the much maligned New World Order warned against by conspiracy theorists but a development more along the lines of the global mind incipiently represented by the internet. A value index may be seen in this light as the next logical development and necessary dimension of the noosphere.

Trajectory John Stewart

Figure 4. Evolutionary trajectory. Source John Stewart 2014

1 From the essay, “Goodness and the GNP,” in Frank Schaeffer, Ed. Is capitalism Christian?: Toward a Christian Perspective on Economics. Crossways Books, Westchester. 1985.

2 A conventional valuation which is established as the outcome of the mass psychology of a large number of ignorant individuals is liable to change violently as the result of a sudden fluctuation of opinion … the market will be subject to waves of optimistic and pessimistic sentiment, which are unreasoning and yet in a sense legitimate where no solid base exists for a reasonable calculation. – John Maynard Keynes (2012: 154)

3 “Can Answers to Evolution Be Found in Slime?” New York Times, October 3, 2011

4 Notable exceptions are the Zeitgeist Movement, Free World Charter, Mark Boyle and the Freeconomy Movement, but these have been idiosyncratic, none offering applicable systemic solutions.

5 Earlier dualistic thought may have correlated entropy with binary evil as self-stultifying. “When evil is given free rein, either by individuals or by societies, it always ends by committing suicide… either physical or psychological. The evil individuals or societies may be literally killed off, or reduced to impotence through mere exhaustion.” – Aldous Huxley (1960)

6 John Stewart, The direction of evolution: The rise of cooperative organization, in Biosystems

Volume 123, September 2014, Pages 27–36