Research line 1

What Are Values?

Home > Project > Research lines > …


To develop a notion of value that is applicable to sociotechnical systems (project objective 1). 

How Can We Understand the Notion of Value?

Values are sometimes defined very broadly. In the literature on Value Sensitive Design (VSD), values are usually defined as referring “to what a person or a group of people consider important in life”. In the psychological literature, somewhat more precise definitions can be found. Rokeach (1973) defines values as “enduring beliefs that a specific mode of conduct is personally or socially preferable to an opposite or converse mode of conduct or end-state of existence”. According to Schwartz & Bilsky (1987) “[v]alues are

  • (a) concepts or beliefs,
  • (b) about desirable end states or behaviors,
  • (c) that transcend specific situations,
  • (d) guide selection or evaluation of behavior and events, and
  • (e) are ordered by relative importance.”

In order to develop a theory of value change in sociotechnical systems, we need to become more precise on what values exactly are. The project will do so by building on the philosophical idea that values are about what is good. This means that values can be distinguished from a number of other related concepts in the following ways:

  1. From attitudes. The difference is that values are more stable and enduring and are also more general and abstract than attitudes;
  2. From interests and preferences. While some authors have associated values with interests, values are not just beliefs or expressions about what is in the interest of an agent but rather expressions or beliefs about what is good either for an agent or more generally.
  3. From norms. Norms are more specific than values and contain prescriptions (including recommendations, obligations, prohibitions, restrictions) for action often based on sanctions . They belong to the deontic domain of normativity while values belong to the evaluative domain. Values help to evaluate certain state-off-affairs in terms of goodness and can therefore be understood as varieties of goodness.
  4. From goals and aims. Goals and aims are more specific and concrete than values. Values help to evaluate state-of-affairs and may thus suggest certain goals or aims to strive for but they are not themselves goals.

Research line 1 will start with developing a working definition of value based on the above characterization. This working definition will be the basis for the other research lines. During the remainder of the project and in interaction with the other research lines, it will be further elaborated and refined building on two main ideas:

  1. We will assume a certain correspondence between values and reasons. Although there is no agreement in the philosophical literature about whether values or reasons are metaphysically prior, many positions suppose a certain correspondence between values and reasons of the following kind: V: If x is a value then one has reasons (of a certain kind) for a positive response (a pro-attitude or a pro-behavior) towards x. This statement is intended to be neutral with respect to the question whether values ground reasons or reasons ground values or that neither can be reduced to the other. As Dancy notes, whatever position one takes in this debate something like V seems to be true. The account of values we develop therefore will be in line with statement V.
  2. Second, in addition, the account of value will be built on the sociological idea that values are shared rather than purely individual expressions or beliefs about what is good. Values are so to say social constructs that are culturally available and although they may differ in different parts of the world or may be rejected by certain individuals, they are shared social and cultural resources. This emphasis on the social or public character of values is particularly appropriate for the context of sociotechnical systems as we are interested in values for which these systems have been designed and that have become embedded in them.


Prof. Dr. Ibo van de Poel

Prof. Dr. Ibo van de Poel

Project leader

Logo google scholar logo logo research gate

Dr. Olya Kudina

Dr. Olya Kudina

Postdoctoral Researcher

ORCID logo

Dr. Michael Klenk

Dr. Michael Klenk

Postdoctoral researcher

Logo  logo research gate

Related events

Related Publications


van de Poel, Ibo

Design for value change Journal Article

Ethics and Information Technology, 2018, ISSN: 1572-8439.

Abstract | Links | BibTeX