Values and Anti-Values

The pages below explore ways in which values and anti-values can be employed as critical thinking tools. It presumes a version of value pluralism: We care about many things, and often these things conflict with one another. A values list for the humanities is analogous to the periodic table for the sciences.


Values are simply the labels and categories we create to identify the motivations and desires we believe will usher us towards a good life, though in practice, values regularly conflict with one another. I value comfort and deliciousness while simultaneously valuing health and industry.

Anti-Values are values that have a predictably bad outcome. These include dominance, revenge, sadism, ideology, hardness, and exclusivity. Presumably in our primordial past, these anti-values ensured some measure of security and flourishing, but they no longer have a beneficial role in our modern communities.

It’s important to note that anti-values are not synonymous with the excess or deficiency of another value. Cowardliness is a deficiency of courage. Foolhardiness is an excess of courage. Neither cowardliness nor foolhardiness designate a value that anyone strives for. They are therefore better designated as vices.

I regularly use a list of values in class to help students brainstorm and generate arguments. The list is not meant to be comprehensive. The anti-values listed are the roots of violence identified by Steven Pinker in his book, The Better Angels of Our Nature.

The Benefits of Teaching Values and Anti-Values Explicitly: 

1. Priming with values helps students generate arguments. If I want to argue that cats are wonderful, I can simply go down the values list and come up with reasons why cats are good for: health, safety, education, freedom, etc.

2. Understanding the motivating values behind arguments is essential for evaluating the relative strengths and weaknesses of those arguments. This can be devastating skill in debate if you can successfully counter an argument by referencing the same value: You think cats make us healthier? Cats maul thousands of toddlers every year! 

3. Values can be used as effective analytical tools to evaluate the motivations and subsequent efficacy of various historical and literary figures.

4. Values are often the underlying language of conflict. To understand the competing values involved in a dispute is a major step towards successful negotiation.

5. Working with values helps to build moral identity. Students build a habit of articulating underlying motivations, including their own.

Summary Points: 

1. Understanding values as our primary motivators throws back the curtain on the vast majority of human disputes (the subject of most history and English courses), and allows students to better identify and solve root conflicts.

2. Using a list of values as a regular resource improves the quantity and quality of analysis, especially in written work on literary or historical themes.

3. Regularly thinking about values contributes to a supportive culture. A values-based vocabulary becomes part of the furniture of the room, and students are primed towards positive achievement (see studies by Dan Ariely on cheating and Geoffrey Cohen on closing the achievement gap). Once anti-values are defined and vilified, they are less likely to serve as explicit motivations within the class community (this is especially true of revenge and dominance).

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