Common Value Systems


This page offers an overview of three widespread value systems in Western society: 1. The Warrior Ethos, 2. The Intellectual Ethos, and 3. The Common Man Ethos. They are identified by Charles Taylor in his very long book, Sources of the Self. I have simplified them here. Using these lenses helps students understand cultural norms, analyze common sources of conflict, and evaluate the underlying motivations of numerous characters, both real and imaginary.


1. Students will understand how a set of values can become an ethos and evolve into a cultural force.

2. Students will be able to identify and classify a wide variety of historical, literary, and real-world material as examples of the Warrior, the Intellectual, or Common ethos.

3. Students will evaluate the value of each ethos in different circumstances.

4. Students will understand how value systems and norms are enforced both implicitly and explicitly.


Each ethos is a system of values that with widely recognized cultural norms in Western society.

The Warrior Ethos – To Be the Best is to Prove You’re the Best

Key Values: Discipline, Achievement, Strength, Obedience, Authority, Integrity, Loyalty, Dominance, and Revenge.

Rules: No crying, No whining, No mercy, No showing weakness.

Select Cultural Exemplars: Odysseus, Alexander the Great, The Spartans (especially as portrayed in the movie 300), Julius Caesar, Attila the Hun, Beowulf, Genghis Khan, William Wallace, Andrew Jackson, Ulysses S. Grant, Douglas MacArthur.

This ethos emphasizes honor, toughness, and dominance above all. It is an ethos overwhelmingly associated with masculinity and commonly transmitted through team sports, action movies, and shoe commercials.

At its best, this ethos eschews comfort and pushes us to strive along an arduous path towards a higher goal. It teaches us to stand fast against adversity and to meet challenges with strength and fortitude.

At its worst, this ethos mistakes the path to a higher goal for the goal itself. It pushes aside other values and demands a near-constant posturing of power and dominance. Revenge is a common motivator, and anger is one of few acceptable emotions.

From Pop Culture:

Daniel Boone: Man

The Cobra Kai Dojo from The Karate Kid:

Beat It by Michael Jackson:

The Intellectual Ethos – To Be the Best is to Be Educated

Key Values: Sophistication, Education, Expertise, Reason, Success,  Individuality, and Exclusivity

Rules: Maintain high standards, Be critical, Push yourself, Stay open-minded,

Select Cultural Exemplars: Pythagoras, Plato, Cicero, Boethius, Augustine, Da Vinci, Isaac Newton, Thomas Jefferson, Mozart, Goethe, Einstein, Lisa Simpson, Sheldon Cooper from The Big Bang Theory

This ethos emphasizes learning above all. Technical vocabulary, depth and breadth of knowledge, and the ability to analyze a problem are all highly valued. A terrible tragedy can become a “learning experience,” and therefore mitigated. Special knowledge is liberating; if you can learn the secrets, you will have a better life.

At its best, this ethos values achievement for the betterment of mankind; scientists cure disease, politicians craft policy, engineers build bridges, and artists lift the spirit.

At its worst, this ethos embraces the elitism of specialized vocabulary and sneers at the uninitiated. In short, this ethos can breed snobbery and pretension.

From Pop Culture: 

Not exactly pop culture, but that’s okay. Richard Feynman discussing the nature of science:

The Common Man Ethos – To Be the Best is to Be Regular (Not that kind of regular, but it helps)

Key Values: Simplicity, Community, Solidarity, Humility, Cooperation, Equality, Loyalty, Inclusivity

Rules: Be modest, Help others, Work together, Conform to the will of the group, Let others have the spotlight, Be modest, Help others, Work together, Self-deprecate.

Select Cultural Exemplars: Karl Marx, William Jennings Bryan, Larry the Cable Guy, The campaign image of George W. Bush, Jim Halpert from The Office. 

This ethos glorifies everyday life and the multitudes of simple pleasures that can be easily overlooked. Accordingly, these pleasures represent the purest and noblest manifestations of the human experience.

At its best, this ethos stresses the shared qualities of all of humanity and the duty of every individual to help those in need.

At its worst, this ethos rejects markers of sophistication, including education. It can lead to passive anti-achievement subcultures and active attacks on perceived elites.

From Pop Culture:

Elwood P. Dowd from Harvey: 

The general sentiment of Sly and the Family Stone’s Everyday People:

The rejection of elitist vegetarianism (?) from this 2014 Chevy Commercial:

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