Value theory encompasses a range of approaches to understanding how, why, and to what degree humans should value things, whether the thing is a person, idea, object, or anything else. This investigation began in ancient philosophy, where it is called axiology or ethics. Early philosophical investigations sought to understand good and evil, and the concept of "the good". Today much of value theory is scientifically empirical, recording what people do value and attempting to understand why they value it in the context of psychology, sociology, and economics.
At the general level, there is a difference between moral and natural goods. Moral goods are those that have to do with the conduct of persons, usually leading to praise or blame. Natural goods, on the other hand, have to do with objects, not persons. For example, to say that "Mary is a morally good person" might involve a different sense of "good" than the one used in the sentence "Wow, that was some good food".
Ethics tend to be focused on moral goods rather than natural goods, while economics tends to be interested in the opposite. However, both moral and natural goods are equally relevant to goodness and value theory, which is more general in scope.
In psychology, value theory refers to the study of the manner in which human beings develop, assert and believe in certain values, and act or fail to act on them.
Attempts are made to explain experimentally why human beings prefer or choose some things over others, how personal behavior may be guided (or fail to be guided) by certain values and judgments, and how values emerge at different stages of human development (e.g. the work by Lawrence Kohlberg and Kohlberg's stages of moral development).
In psychotherapy and counseling, eliciting and clarifying the values of the patient can play an important role to help him/her orient or reorient himself or herself in social life.
In sociology, value theory is concerned with personal values which are popularly held by a community, and how those values might change under particular conditions. Different groups of people may hold or prioritize different kinds of values influencing social behavior.
Major Western theorists who stress the importance of values as an analytical independent variable include Max Weber, Émile Durkheim, Talcott Parsons and Jürgen Habermas. Classical examples of sociological traditions which deny or downplay the question of values are institutionalism, historical materialism (including Marxism), behaviorism, pragmatic oriented theories, postmodernism and various objectivist-oriented theories.
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