Values and norms

From The Embassy of Good Science

Values and norms

What is this about?

Values are important beliefs or ideals of a person in a community, serving as a motivation for action. Norms are action-guiding rules. The difference between a value and a norm is that a value is general, referring to an overall ideal, whereas a norm is concrete, specifying certain things that have to be done (or omitted). Values can be operationalized in specifying norms; norms refer to and are justified by underlying values.

Why is this important?

In codes of conduct for scientific research, the concepts of values and norms are often used interchangeably. Yet, it is crucial to distinguish between the two concepts [1][2]. Values are general ideals. They underlie norms, which are action-guiding rules. There are three kinds of such rules: permissions, orders or commands and prohibitions. Values show what persons and communities hold as important. Norms say what has to be done in order to realize values. Without a reference to underlying values, rules lack motivation and justification. Without corresponding norms, values lack specification and concrete direction.

Values and norms can be formal (that is: explicitly formulated) or informal (that is: implicitly assumed). Often, when values are discussed, corresponding norms are not explicitly mentioned. On the other hand, when norms are posed, the underlying values often remain implicit. Yet it is important to be aware of the concrete action-guiding rules envisaged when a certain value is mentioned, and of the general ideal behind a specific norm. An important aim of moral reflection is to provide such clarifications.

  1. Tranøy, K.E. (1977). "Norms of Inquiry: Methodologies as Normative Systems", in G. Ryle (Ed.), Contemporary Aspects of Philosophy. London: Oriel Press: 1-13.
  2. Tranøy, K.E. (1998). "Science and ethics. Some of the main principles and problems", in A.J.I.Jones (Ed)., K.E. Tranøy, The moral import of science. Essays on normative theory, scientific activity and Wittengenstein. Bergen: Sigma Forlag: 111-136.

For whom is this important?

What are the best practices?

Values and norms are core concepts in moral reflection about research integrity.  For instance in Moral Case Deliberation (MCD), a method  used to reflect on morally troublesome situations, investigation of values and norms is used to deepen the understanding of the situation at stake.[1] A core element in this investigation, guided by a facilitator, is analysing the case by looking at the values and norms of all relevant perspectives (persons involved in the case and/or participants in the MCD meeting). Which values motivate each person? How can these values be specified into norms? For example, a moral issue might concern supervision. Should one, as a supervisor of a PhD student, in preparing a response to a reviewer, give guidance and correct mistakes, or at some point take over the writing? A relevant value for the supervisor in the case might be: autonomy. The corresponding norm in the case could be: I should give the opportunity to the PhD student to try this herself. Another value might be: effectiveness. The norm related to this value in the concrete situation could be: the article should be accepted and published. In analysing the case from the perspective of the supervisor, the group becomes aware of these conflicting values. This may then give rise to a dialogue on what value is most important in this situation. This can lead to a conclusion on the most desirable norm and related course of action. Also, the dialogue might provide insights in how to deal with the conflicting value which turns out less important. How can one do justice to the value which will not be realized? In the example, efficiency might turn out to be the most important for the supervisor, meaning that, at a certain point, she will take over the writing. In order to do justice to the value of autonomy, the supervisor might, for instance, propose that the PhD student will get more responsibility for writing the response after submission of the next article. MCD can thus foster decision making, not by prescribing a rule, but by encouraging reflection and dialogue, enabling participants to achieve a new and richer view of the situation.

It is useful to differentiate between three different types of scientific values and norms: internal values and norms, external values and norms, and linkage values and norms.[2] Internal values and norms of science justify and guide the practice of science itself. Examples of scientific values of the internal kind are: truth, honesty, simplicity, consistency, coherence, economy, exactitude and completeness, openness, open-mindedness, confidence, originality and ‘interestingness’.  External values and norms comprise general ideals and rules for action, which are relevant for science, but are not constitutive of the practice of science itself. Examples of external values are human (and animal) welfare notions, which are related to the wider social and cultural context in which scientists operate. Finally, we have a different set of values and norms guiding scientific research, which represent normative points of contact - linkage - between the research community and the community at large, between internal and external values and norms. Examples are requirements of fruitfulness and relevance.  

  1. Stolper M., Molewijk B., Widdershoven G. (2016). Bioethics education in clinical settings: theory and practice of the dilemma method of moral case deliberation. BMC Medical Ethics, (0)6 -016 25 -0125 -1
  2. Solbakk JH (1998).The concept of goodness in medical research. An action theoretic approach.In: Weisstub D (Ed.) Research on Human Subjects. Ethics, Law and Social Policy. Elsevier Sciences: Oxford: 73-87

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