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E study of basic human values by psychologists is not new. Probably the best-known theory of basic values in psychology is abraham maslow's hierarchy of needs, which dates from the early 1940s. But the psychological study of values has been growing, in both volume and empirical quality of research, and philosophers interested in ethics ought to know something about it.
Unfortunately, growing though it may be, the psychological study of values is nevertheless not in a particularly advanced state of development. Accordingly, there are multiple, conflicting theories of human values (and corresponding virtues) in the psychological literature. A sampling that I spent just a few minutes pulling together is: braithwaite and law (1985), cawley, martin, and johnson (2000), crosby, bitner, and gill (1990), feather and peay (1975), hofstede (1980), maloney and katz (1976), peterson and seligman (2004), rokeach (1973), schwartz (1994, 2012), and wicker et al. (1984). My impression is that on the one hand there is considerable loose agreement in the results of these studies, but on the other hand the agreement is indeed loose, and there are significant differences between theories, especially when it comes to the conceptualization of the results.
I myself am not well enough acquainted with this research to comment on these differences. What I want to do in this post is just describe the one of these theories that seems to me to be the most serious, ambitious, well-developed, and well-supported, namely the schwartz theory of basic values, due to shalom schwartz (1994, 2012). At the end I will briefly discuss some implications of schwartz's theory for political philosophy.
By values we refer to beliefs concerning what situations and actions are desirable. However, values for schwartz are not attitudes toward particular situations or actions, like having a chicken dinner right now or having $20k in my bank account. He restricts the term value to broad motivational goals. Schwartz sees values as stable standards by which we evaluate everything else, including the appropriateness of any norms, attitudes, traits, or virtues that may be suggested to us. It is also characteristic of values that some are more important than others. Multiple values are normally implicated in any proposed action, for better or worse, and the all-things-considered evaluation of an action will depend on the relative importance of the competing values it implicates.