What is value?

Value goes beyond a dollars and cents measure; those terms are useful as currency for exchange. While we might agree that most people understand the idea of value, to articulate its meaning is difficult.

I started thinking of value as being best described as the things I want to protect. Yet, this doesn’t seem to fit quite right. While food—for example—provides nutrition, the value is that it sustains me, and I want to be healthy. However, I protect it because I value it for the utility it provides, not implicitly because of the existence of the thing. Furthermore, that protectionist idea seems a little self-centered. The idea of value that seems to resonate with me is that it should be far reaching. If our environment provides everything afforded to humans, then protecting that environment seems paramount. If that is true, then in our most actualized state, we are acting as stewards and caretakers of our environment. In this sense, that would mean everything goes beyond having value; everything is value.

So, back to the question: What is value? Considering where I landed at the end of the previous paragraph, I came up with this:

I value that which provides an opportunity to enhance the human condition.

This allows room to value basic necessitates (food, water, etc.), aesthetic things (poetry, music, etc.), and even biological things (biodiversity). This definition can also help with some stickier notions. For example, while I may think that sports figures make exorbitant sums of money, I can still value sport as it provides an opportunity to glimpse inspired performance.

Part of why I like this definition is that it tends to favor the universal. If we look to define value from an individual’s standpoint, we might get bogged down. For example, how can anyone judge what one person values and weigh it against what another person values? Can we ascribe relative value to things such as sunrises, or fishing trips, in a meaningful way?

The understanding of simple things may be easy to take for granted, but when we look closer, they may be the most difficult to define. By looking to the universal, we may be able to understand value in a way that works with everyone’s views, for everyone’s benefit.

The Milky Way, as seen from Padre Island National Seashore. Photo by Quinn McColly

Author: Quinn McColly

Quinn McColly is a post-doctoral research associate with the Socio-Economics Group at the Harte Research Institute for Gulf of Mexico Studies. He has a deep appreciation of the natural world and hopes to help improve environmental conditions for future generations.