What are Moral Values?

The moral claims on the list we just looked at express different kinds of moral values.

We need to become familiar with the various types of moral values that motivate us and other people.

This is especially important if we want to engage constructively in moral dialogue with other people.

1. What Are Values?

Let’s back up a bit first. Moral values are a type of value. But what is a “value”?

This question can turn unnecessarily philosophical very quickly. The philosophical study of values has a name, actually — it’s called “axiology”. It studies the metaphysical and epistemological status of values, broadly understood.

But for our purposes, it’s enough to say that values are things that people care about.

Values are what matter to us. They are what motivate our behavior. They ground our judgments about what is good or bad, desirable or undesirable.

Any form of activity that involves making judgments about what is better or worse, good or bad, high quality or low quality, right or wrong, successful or unsuccessful, desirable or undesirable … all of these judgments involve values in one form or another.

There are values in sports, values in art, values in social and cultural practices, values in science, values in relationships, values in economic transactions, religious values … our everyday experience is saturated with values and value judgments.

2. What are Moral Values?

The way we care about moral values is different from the way we care about non-moral values.

Moral values are connected to fundamental human emotions and experiences that motivate us in distinctive ways.


  • The overriding love and concern that parents feel for their children.
  • The sympathy and empathy we experience when we perceive the suffering of others.
  • The sense of duty and loyalty we feel to our family and close social groups, or broader communities to which we belong.
  • The anger and indignation we feel toward those who threaten us or those we love.
  • The feelings of unfairness and injustice we experience when we are treated poorly, and others treated better, for no good reason.
  • The positive feelings associated with having the freedom to make our own choices and determine our own future.
  • The admiration we feel toward those who exhibit courage and compassion.
  • The guilt or shame we feel when we have violated a trust or otherwise failed to live up to the values we endorse.

When you examine the character of these feelings and emotions, and how they motivate our judgments and decisions, you’re exploring the moral dimension of our shared human experience.

One of the consequences of this shared human experience is that I don’t have to spend time convincing anyone that moral values matter to us in important and distinctive ways, and that they can function as reasons to believe or do things.

This shared human experience is what makes moral argumentation possible.