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What Makes Something Valuable: 4 Approaches (With Examples)

Throughout the sprawling expanse of human history and the intricate dance of existence, one profound element has ceaselessly underpinned our actions, decisions, and societal fabric – the enigma of value. This intangible quality, threading its path through the common and the extraordinary, presents a paradox. While intrinsic to our daily choices and exchanges, it shrouds itself in layers of philosophical mysteries and metaphysical dilemmas.

So, what does it mean for something to be valuable and what makes something valuable? Is it intrinsic or extrinsic, subjective or objective? Does it abide by universal laws or does it sway to the rhythm of personal sentiment? Embarking on this voyage of unraveling the essence of value transports us through the fertile landscapes of metaphysics, ethics, economics, and the nuanced contours of the human psyche.

Intrinsic vs Extrinsic Value: The Dance of Inherent Worth and Utility

Our journey commences with an exploration of the core dichotomy in the perception of value – the intrinsic versus the extrinsic. When we talk of intrinsic value, we imply that an entity holds worth inherently, independent of its usefulness or desirability to others. This concept transforms the ordinary into the extraordinary, the transient into the timeless. Picture a magnificent sunset painting the sky with a riot of colors or the rich complexity of a piece of music that moves the soul. Their value isn’t derived from their potential to be used or owned; instead, they resonate with a worth that is inherent, non-utilitarian, and transcendent.

The same applies to human life and dignity, which carries intrinsic value that goes beyond the scope of measurable attributes or external validations. This belief forms the bedrock of human rights and equality – the idea that every human, irrespective of their social status, race, or capabilities, carries an intrinsic and inalienable value.

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Conversely, extrinsic value dwells in an entity’s functionality or desirability to others. It represents a transactional perception of worth, where value is linked to an object’s ability to fulfill a purpose or satisfy a desire. The simple hammer, for example, becomes a symbol of creation and progress due to its utility in building and repairing. A modern smartphone, packed with features for communication, entertainment, and information access, holds extrinsic value because of the functions it performs, turning it into an indispensable tool in the contemporary world.

Subjective vs Objective Value: Perception’s Play

Venturing deeper into the realm of value, we encounter another significant dichotomy – subjective versus objective value. Subjective value emerges from the ocean of personal preferences, emotional connections, and individual needs. It’s highly personalized and often tied to emotional, cultural, or personal significance.

A music enthusiast might attribute immense value to a vintage vinyl record of their favorite band, not because of the object itself, but because of the personal joy, nostalgia, and connection it brings. Similarly, a handwritten letter from a loved one may hold immeasurable value for the recipient, the worth emerging from personal sentiment rather than societal standards.

Objective value, however, proposes the existence of value beyond the confines of personal perception, suggesting a universal agreement or a law-like status. It’s the value that remains constant across varying individual opinions and cultural contexts. For example, the life-sustaining resource, water, regardless of personal preferences or cultural contexts, holds objective value due to its critical role in supporting life.

Ethics and Morality: Principles, Actions, and Value

Any exploration of value would be incomplete without delving into the realms of ethics and morality. Here, the concepts of right and wrong, good and evil, intersect with value, further enriching its complexities. From the perspective of Immanuel Kant’s deontological ethics, actions and principles themselves hold value, independent of their outcomes. Honesty, in this light, would be seen as inherently valuable. Speaking the truth becomes a duty, a moral imperative, its value residing not in the potential benefits it could yield but in the action of honesty itself.

In stark contrast, consequentialism or utilitarian ethics judge the value of actions based on their outcomes. In this frame, an action is deemed valuable if it yields the greatest good for the greatest number. Thus, in certain situations, telling a lie could become valuable if it prevents harm or brings about a greater positive result. This interplay of ethical perspectives offers a rich insight into how value operates in our moral landscape.

Economics and Value: Scarcity, Choice, and Exchange

Economics, a discipline centered around the principles of scarcity and choice, offers yet another perspective on value. Here, worth is molded by forces such as supply, demand, and market equilibrium, which shape our perception of value in terms of monetary exchange.

A classic example is the diamond-water paradox. Diamonds, despite being less useful than water, carry a high market value due to their rarity and the desire they incite. On the other hand, water, despite its critical importance to life, is often undervalued in economic terms due to its relative abundance.


Our odyssey through the intriguing facets of value – the interplay of intrinsic and extrinsic worth, the dance between subjective and objective perspectives, the ethico-moral dimensions of value, and the economic principles shaping it – has taken us to the brink of a deeper understanding of what renders something valuable. Yet, as is often the case with philosophical explorations, we arrive not at a rigid, definitive answer, but at a broadened horizon of understanding, a sharper curiosity, and a deepened appreciation for the complexities of value.

Value’s allure lies not in the absoluteness of its comprehension, but in its transformative potency, its capacity to challenge our perceptions, and its influence on our actions. It nudges us to perceive the world around us with enhanced nuance, to scrutinize our assumptions, and to grasp that the essence of worth is as much about the observer as it is about the object observed.

The quest to discern what makes something valuable transcends the realm of philosophical inquiry, turning into a personal and societal voyage of self-discovery and introspection. As we continue to explore, comprehend, and question, we are actively participating in the collective human endeavor to make sense of our world and ourselves, unmasking the intricate and profound concept of value, which binds the cosmos and us into a shared narrative of existence.