What’s the difference between principles and values?
You hear both words thrown around a lot, but not everyone is clear about what either of them are and how they differ.
Values and principles are both critical to our understanding of human behavior and its consequences.
And while the two often get confused, they’re not the same.
So, how are they different?
And where do they come from?
Read on to see why any of this matters.
What Are Principles?
There’s a reason you often see the word “guiding” in front of the word principles, but that only tells part of the story.
Principles do help guide your behavior, but only if your values are in alignment with them.
Here are few things you should know about principles:
- They don’t change with the times.
- They don’t depend on the values you hold dear.
- They’re independent of religions and personal belief systems.
While plenty of religions take credit for the existence of principles, it’s more accurate to say principles, in concert with personal values, guided the creation of religions and other beliefs.
Look up the word “principle,” and you’ll see phrases like “comprehensive and fundamental law” and “the facts of nature.”
In other words, they’re not up for debate.
What Are Values?
Put simply, your values are your “Why” — the reasons why you do what you do and think what you think. Values are part of your internal guidance system.
That said, to be effective, values must be actionable. It’s not enough to say your values are honesty, courage, and tenacity if your actions suggest otherwise.
What else should you know about values?
- They’re personal and subjective.
- They can change with time.
- Their merit depends on their alignment with principles.
Your habits and the actions you take speak more about your values than your words do.
Principles vs. Values: The 7 Key Differences Between Them
In any discussion of values vs. principles, you’re likely to find confusing explanations that make them sound more similar than they actually are.
The following seven distinctions can help you mentally separate the two.
1. Values govern your behavior; principles govern the consequences.
Your personal values drive your behavior and determine your chosen habits. Deeply-held values are more likely to influence you than those you admire but haven’t yet internalized.
On the other hand, principles have more to do with the consequences of your actions — from condemnation or praise to punishments and rewards.
The more your values and resulting behavior diverge from universal principles, the more likely you’ll be judged and punished for them.
2. Values are the maps; principles are the territory.
Values help you navigate the terrain in which you live, work, and learn. Principles are inherent to the terrain itself — your entire world and many of the laws that govern it.
Whatever you bring to that world, principles are already there. You have no role in their creation or maintenance. And if your values are not in agreement with those principles, your maps and navigation systems will fail you.
3. Values are subjective and emotional; principles are objective and factual.
Your values depend on the choices you’ve made and on your personal preferences, as well as what you’ve learned from others.
Principles are independent of subjective experience and preferences. Based on facts or universal realities, they’re objective and irrefutable.
Whatever you believe and however you behave, principles just are.
4. Values are personal; principles are universal.
Your values are your own. Once you identify the values you hold most dear, they’re intensely personal. They’re who you are or who you want to be — or both.
Principles are universal and don’t rely on individual choices, beliefs, or moral codes. They’re more likely to influence all three.
The more personal values in a community align with those universal principles, the more cohesive and supportive that community is likely to be.
5. Values are internal; principles are external.
Values are formed and maintained inwardly — as part of your internal guidance system. Your set of values exists only within you.
Another person may share some of the same values, but their unique set and its inherent prioritization will likely differ from yours.
Principles are external to you and to individuals in general. They exist outside of your mind and heart. And your will has no effect on them.
6. Values are chosen or adopted; principles are not.
You choose your own values. Or you adopt them from someone who’s influenced you. And you can, over time, choose to abandon some values in favor of different ones.
Principles aren’t chosen. They exist independent of your will and understanding. You can choose values that align with them, but you can’t choose the principles themselves.
But you can choose to live by them. That’s what values are for.
7. Values can be destructive; principles cannot.
Values aren’t based on an inherent sense of right and wrong. Your values govern your actions — even when the latter do more harm than good.
Values that don’t align with universal principles — like justice, equality, and altruism (i.e., concern for the welfare of others) — are toxic and destructive.
Principles, on the other hand, cannot be destructive. It’s a diversion from or defiance of those principles that causes most of (if not all) the problems we face.
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What Are Examples of Principles?
It’s not enough to recognize that principles are universal and unchanging. If you don’t know what they are, you can’t align your values with them.
But what are some examples of principles?
- Fairness — Most people will take offense at an egregious violation of someone’s inherent rights, as well as the gross inequality of wealth and opportunity.
- Equality — One living person has the same rights as another, and those rights should be protected. And each person should have equal access to high-quality things and services they need.
- Community — Each of us is responsible for the impact of our behavior and our words on other people.
As for consequences…
- The natural result of dishonesty is a loss of trust.
- The legal results of unlawful behavior are arrest, conviction, and imprisonment.
- The predictable result of injustice is protesting or revolution.
What Are Examples of Values?
If you’re unsure of what your personal values are, there are two things you can do to identify them:
#1: Think of values you find repellant when you see them in someone else. The opposites of these values are likely to be those you hold dear.
For example, if one of your values is honesty, you’ll find it harder to tolerate someone who lies to get something they want, especially when they blame others to protect themselves.
#2: Look at actions you’ve taken in your life that fill you with pride. Think of your finest moments and what you did, despite the challenges you faced. You’ll find your values in those actions — as well as in habits you consider important.
For example, if you’re proud of how you stood up to a bully in your workplace and called them out for their toxic behavior, you no doubt value courage and straightforwardness.
What are your principles and values?
Now that you’ve learned the differences between the two, you can offer a helpful answer to anyone who asks, “What are personal values and principles?”
If you’re unsure of your own personal values, this post can help you understand what they are and where they came from?
Which ones did you consciously choose? And which did you adopt from people you trust and admire? How well have those values served you and the people you love?
Ultimately, values will help you grow only insofar as they align with universal principles.