What Are Values?

Values are mind-brain processes that combine cognition and emotion.

Posted Apr 16, 2013

Last month, I attended an exciting workshop at Penn State University on socially responsible philosophy of science. Philosophers from Waterloo, Michigan State, Notre Dame, and Penn State started a consortium concerned with making philosophy responsive to social needs connected to science and technology, on issues such as climate change, the environment, weaponry, indigenous peoples, and gender diversity. Everyone agreed that the practices and policies of science should be based on values, but we did not address the question of what values are.

The traditional view in philosophy is that values are abstract ideals that somehow can be grasped by people. Plato thought that values like justice were eternal ideas, but science-based philosophy requires an account of values closer to human reality. Taking values as behaviors or linguistic expressions also does not capture the way in which values motivate human action. For example, many of us are concerned with climate change because we value human wellbeing that will be severely harmed by rises in sea level and increases in extreme weather events.

Advances in cognitive science provide an alternative, empirically plausible account of the nature of values. Values are mental processes that are both cognitive and emotional. They combine cognitive representations such as concepts, goals, and beliefs with emotional attitudes that have positive or negative valence. For example, the values associated with life and death require the mental concepts of life and death and also the emotional attitudes that view life as positive and death as negative.

Advances in neuroscience are making it plausible that such mental states are neural processes that combine cognition and emotion. Concepts operate in the brain as patterns of firing in populations of neurons that can work to classify objects and also make general inferences about them. Such neural representations are continuously bound with emotional activity carried out by populations of neurons in brain areas such as the amygdala, ventral striatum, and ventromedial prefrontal cortex. From this perspective, values are neural processes resulting from binding cognitive representations of concepts, goals, and beliefs together with emotional attitudes.

The emotional component of values might seem to suggest that values are purely subjective, just a reflection of individual whims. In philosophical ethics, the positions called emotivism and expressivism demote value judgments to statements of personal preferences. Such views, however, reflect a naïve view of emotions, which are not just perceptions of physiological states. Emotions combine such perceptions with cognitive appraisals that reflect an estimate of the extent to which your current situation promotes or threatens your goals. Such appraisals can be evaluated based on how the situation actually does affect your goals and on how well the goals you are taking into account fit with your overall goals. Goals need not be arbitrary wants, but can derive from fundamental human needs, including both biological needs such as food, water, and shelter, and psychological needs for relatedness, competence, and autonomy.

Hence even though values are most plausibly viewed as neural processes, they can be objectively correct or incorrect based on the extent to which they fit with human needs. Such values legitimately contribute to deliberation about how science and technology can be socially responsible.