Value Conflicts Explained

What is a Value Conflict?

Conflicts are an inherent part of social existence because we are in constant competition for resources.   We also are in conflict because we have different goals and different ideas about our place in society, what our rights, duties, and responsibilities to other people are, and what constitutes right, wrong, fairness, or justice.

We can call conflicts arising out of the evaluation of our own and others’ actions, motives, and notices about what is just and fair and what is good or bad behavior, value conflicts or moral conflicts.  They are a result of different principles or codes of conduct we live by.  Value conflicts are particularly difficult to resolve because once such attitudes form, they are very stable, and their preservation becomes part of our social and political identity. They often are the ideals we consider “worth fighting for.” (Although the author will discuss controversial issues for purposes of illustration, no position for or against any position is taken here.) Well, you can change. One might gain or lose faIth, or switch political parties. But such instances, if they are truly value-driven, should be extremely rare. It may be that the institution one belonged to has changed. Someone once said to the author “I did not leave the Church. The Church left me.”

Sources of Our Values

There are a number of sources for our values, each of which may exert more or less influence depending on our personal circumstances. The most basic values come from these sources:

  • Our culture (especially individualism vs. collectivism)
  • Our upbringing
  • Our religion or personal philosophy
  • Our political beliefs
  • Our education
  • Our profession
  • Our life experience

Prioritizing Values

Even when we share similar ideas of what constitutes right and wrong, we may prioritize them differently. What takes precedence? Our faith? Our family? Our political affiliation? Professional ethics? This will differ from person to person.

Perhaps our individualism and materialistic culture tell us every adult should be responsible for making their own way in the world, but our upbringing and religion teach us to give money to the poor.  This internal conflict of values is called “cognitive dissonance,” and causes feelings of unease or confusion. But if one of these values ranks much higher than the other, the internal conflict will be easier to resolve.

The same situation illustrates how difficult it is to generalize values.  Suppose my sibling shares my culture, my upbringing, my religion, and my political affiliation, but prioritizes these things differently, or perhaps has less money than I do. Perhaps she recently heard a news story about panhandlers with very high bank balances. Despite our similarities, our values and resulting behaviors may differ by a wide margin.

Two Kinds of Value Conflicts

The above discussion helps illustrate the difference between actual value conflicts and perceived value conflicts.  Let’s take another example. Politics in the United States are currently extremely polarized. So if I say “I am a Democrat” or “I am a Republican,” without more, a listener Is likely to assume that he or she knows where I stand on a whole host of social and political issues on which the party has taken a public position. But though the leadership of the parties may claim that they should go elsewhere, there will always be dissenters from particular party policies or religious doctrines. Political parties, in particular, have been declining in influence since the 1950s; For example, three in ten voters, whether Republicans or Democrats, disagree with their party’s position on abortion.  Similar results are found regarding other issues.

Recent research shows that a growing number of voters make choices based on policy details rather than party.  The lack of ideological agreement means that group membership alone cannot predict his or her actual values. People reach the same policy results by different paths. Both Democrats and Libertarians support abortion rights, though they are far apart on other issues. Nor is political affiliation the only group membership that poorly predicts actual values. 56% of US Catholics support abortion rights and Only 8% of view contraception as morally wrong, despite clear Vatican teachings to the contrary. In America, at least, values appear to be individualized, discoverable only through dialogue.

This realization is critical because even a perception of value conflict where none exists will lead participants to see less opportunity for common ground and escalate the dispute more quickly.  Disputants know that basic principles do not readily change and are disinclined even to try. More exploration of possible solutions takes place if the same dispute is framed as a conflict of interests.

So far we have discussed the difficulty of predicting values merely from group membership and the need to engage in dialogue to determine whether value conflicts exist.  But what if values actually conflict? What makes value conflicts so difficult or even intractable and what steps can lead to dispute resolution?


Our examples thus far have not expressly discussed a value conflict between parties who did share worldviews or cultures. But this can easily happen and quickly lead to a dispute, as things one party thinks are normal and acceptable end up insulting or hurting the other parties. This can easily happen in business or even in the same family and can cause serious harm to relationships.

For example, did you know that a direct refusal is treated as a hostile act in some Middle Eastern cultures? Someone not familiar with the culture may consider a simple refusal morally neutral. But suddenly he or she has acted aggressively, and reciprocation or escalation might be expected. What could have been a profitable business venture becomes a value conflict.

Now let’s suppose three generations of a family from a collectivist culture are living in the same house. In this culture, elders are to be respected as authority figures and presumed to be correct, family harmony is paramount, and that the presence of conflict is a disgrace.  Also suppose that, while the older generations are traditionalists, the adult granddaughter, having been born and educated in the U.S. has thoroughly adopted its individualist, rights-based approach.

One day, Granddaughter announces that she is dating a boy who does not share their ethnicity. Grandmother immediately says she should stop dating him. Granddaughter asks for an explanation.  Grandmother says a boy from his own culture would be better. Granddaughter calls this racist and says she can date whom she wants.  She is very upset. To end the conflict, Grandmother apologizes, losing face but avoiding the disgrace of continuing conflict before the rest of the family.

The situation also illustrates that something considered morally good in one culture may be considered bad in another. Some moral codes, like the Enlightenment values of egalitarianism, individualism, and preference for a reason common in the United States, focus on rights. But many more traditional, collectivist societies are hierarchical, emphasizing duty, virtue, and obedience, built on virtues. Modern individualists emphasize freedom, and its corollaries, inclusivity, and tolerance. They view an interracial or interfaith relationship or even such a marriage as unremarkable or even good.  In their view, the freedom to date or marry anyone is a “right.”  Traditionalists, however, might see it as evil — harmfully diluting their race or religion.

A few months after the announcement that they are dating, his granddaughter and her boyfriend break up. Despite this, silent tension continues between her and grandmother.  She does not understand.  But she violated her Grandmother’s values in the following ways:

  • Not treating her grandmother as an authority figure;
  • Demanding an explanation;
  • Grandmother should have been presumed correct;
  • Putting her individual desires above family harmony;
  • Causing conflict within the family;
  • Making her grandmother lose face by apologizing to end open conflict within the family.

It’s important to remember that everything the granddaughter did was perfectly acceptable in the individualist culture of the United States, just as a direct refusal was not considered hostile behavior in the previous vignette. Her peers might even praise her for “standing up for herself. ” The concerns of the older generation would likely be rejected as “old-fashioned,” but are based on actual events and represent real value conflict between individualist and collectivist norms.

Both conflicts arose out of ignorance and misunderstanding rather than hostility. Both could nonetheless result in badly damaged relationships.

Another source of misunderstandings is patterns of communication. Shared culture means shared rules of communication and shared meanings. Respect in one culture may mean being polite when you ask questions, respect in another culture may mean not asking questions at all. Honor in one culture may mean keeping one’s word. Honor in another may mean sacrifice for the sake of the group. In America, we are taught to look at our communication partners when we speak to them. But in other cultures, it is considered rude. The potential cultural differences in meanings, body language, things that “go without saying” and so on make misunderstandings common between those with widely differing values or cultures, and require thought, preparation and self-awareness to be overcome.


Another feature of value conflicts is mistrust. This may manifest as a feeling that the opposing value system is dangerous, or even that it is a threat to the continued existence of a way of life. The result of this is that the conflict becomes an all-or-nothing affair, with compromise impossible. That theme ran through the Cold War between the United States and the USSR, including crippling defense spending and support of satellite nations. It also explains the militarization and aggression of the State of Israel in the face of several wars and claims it had no right to exist. These attitudes persisted even after peace treaties were signed and the right to exist was officially recognized.

Domestically, the polarIzation of US politics may spring partly from the belief that long-standing, cherished rights and institutions (whether they be the electoral college, rights under the Second Amendment, the right to choose abortion, or something else) will be eliminated if an opposing party or candidate wins.

We react strongly to these perceived threats even if is objectively unlikely that the feared changes will come to pass.  We do not want to live in a society in which such a thing is even remotely possible. A threat to something important makes us angry.  Anger, in turn, energizes us, makes us suspicious, overeager to act, and risk-tolerant. It even physically prepares us for violence. In such a state, we are not analytical. We do not weigh probabilities accurately. We are ready to act and react, not to think objectively.

Hostile Communication Patterns

When we deal with somebody whose values are fundamentally different from our own, we may think of them as evil, lazy, dishonest, disrespectful, foolish, or otherwise fundamentally flawed.  Or we may find their contrary position on a core issue simply incomprehensible. Because of this, and because we may feel anger at a threat to an important value, our communications with those on the other side of the conflict are often difficult and hostile. Rather than trying to reason with our opponents, we often resort to personal attacks, arguing, name-calling and indignation.

Let’s return to the abortion issue as an example. Suppose you believe that life begins at conception. Your parents and your church both taught you this, and the progress medicine is making in keeping very premature babies alive only strengthens your belief.  This means that abortion under any circumstances is murder; regardless of how early it takes place, whether the mother is at risk or whether the pregnancy is forced. You can’t understand how anyone could believe otherwise. The fetus can’t develop unless it’s alive. To you those who undergo or perform abortions are murderers.

Those who support abortion rights cannot understand your perspective.  Cell division is something very simple organisms do. It should not be the basis for preventing a woman from exercising autonomy over her own body. At the very least, they say, there should be another person involved, one whose rights weigh against those of the mother.

The personhood argument is often discussed in a medical ethics context. There is no accepted definition. Each test yields a different result. Does personhood begin with a heartbeat (6 weeks)? Pain response (8 weeks)? Self-awareness (up to 2 years)? Viability outside the mother (22 weeks)? The details of the debate are unimportant. The point is that the disputants are operating under very different assumptions— one using a bright-line test that takes no account of the woman’s desires or even threats to her health from the moment of fertilization, while the other is based on an indeterminate standard that gives maximum choice and safety to the woman. The existing legal standard is irrelevant except to the extent that it helped form one’s values or supports o favored position. Value conflicts are about the way things ought to be, not the way they are now.

The parties are operating under completely different assumptions and using different vocabulary, focused on concepts that may appear irrelevant to one another. Unable or unwilling to communicate with one another effectively, the disputants often stop talking to each other altogether. Reduced to insults, labels, slogans, and harsh words. What rhetoric there is serves to fire up one’s base or persuade new recruits to join the cause. Of course, the targets of our criticisms become defensive and respond in kind. A vicious cycle results.  None of this contributes to the resolution of the dispute.

Negative Stereotyping

Social psychology research informs us that in-group members negatively evaluate members of out-groups. Additionally, there is an out-group homogeneity effect. That is, we tend to think of those unlike us as being all the same, even though we know that members of our own group are different from one another.

As previously discussed, those with value systems unlike our own are seen as strange, foolish, or bad, and ourselves as normal, wise, and good. Not surprisingly, this leads to avoidance behavior by both groups, meaning that they have little actual data about one another. When they do look for data, they will generally find information that supports their previous negative assessments. Not only do negative events stand out more strongly in our consciousness than positive ones, but also unless we make a real effort to counter it, we suffer from confirmation bias, the tendency to interpret new evidence as confirmation of our existing beliefs or theories. We also tend to rely on the most easily recalled information, rather than making the effort to search for more difficult to find data.  Because we avoid contact with those of contrary value systems, we most easily recall stereotypes.

So rather than actual information, when we speak of those we are in moral conflict with we use sweeping generalizations and emphasize the negative. Finally, we are guilty of the fundamental attribution error. This is a cognitive bias that leads us to attribute negative outcomes to character traits and positive one to external forces. For example, if you are late,  your tardiness is likely to be attributed to laziness or irresponsibility. However, if you are early, it is because of external factors such as light traffic.

Two methods of reducing the impact of stereotypes suggest themselves. First, the psychological literature indicates that contact with members of the stereotyped group reduces their impact, presumably because the need for them disappears with actual experience. However, if that contact includes instances of stereotypical behavior, however, that stereotype will be reinforced.

A second means of reducing reliance on negative stereotyping is perspective-taking, deliberately putting oneself in the place of the out-group, imagining their motivations, the hopes and fears they experience, and the obstacles they must overcome.

The Non-Negotiability of Values

Generally, conflicts end because the parties compromise or negotiate a resolution all can tolerate. That is a straightforward task when the issue is how much value each party should claim from a fixed amount, or when different priorities allow trade-offs and integrative solutions

But value conflicts are not like that. They spring out of our most important and deeply held beliefs m, and concern policy questions about whether certain things are acceptable in society or not. Such choices are binary, not incremental, and rarely subject to compromise. If I oppose abortion because all life is sacred, I would not allow “just a few” abortions to end the conflict. The taking of a life is wrong, and I cannot condone it.  If I am morally consistent, I will also oppose capital punishment.

If exceptions are to be made, they should involve the protection of the same value, or one ranked even higher by us. For example, we might concede that abortion is permissible if the life of the mother is at stake because that choice balances the loss of a fetus —which might miscarry in any event— against a threat to the life of the mother.

Value conflicts are extremely emotional and sometimes violent.  Participants sometimes violate their own values, claiming that the act was justified by the actions of the opponent. In this way, the murder of abortion providers has been rationalized as the only way to save the lives of unborn babies that otherwise would have been lost to legal abortion.

Why Value Conflicts Might be Intractable

Because they concern our most important principles, moral or value conflicts are often very difficult to resolve, long-lasting, destructive, and consist of a number of clashes over time. (Disputes with these characteristics are sometimes called “intractable”). Value conflicts often are considered intractable for a number of reasons. For example, the difference in which concepts are deemed important and how ideas are stated means that those caught in such conflict experience great difficulty in describing the underlying issues in shared terms. This makes it hard to understand one another.

Because they are arguing from different moral positions, they disagree about the significance of apparent issues. Someone who believes life begins at conception may be completely mystified by a debate over personhood. Disagreement about what issues matter makes negotiation or compromise extremely difficult.

Resolution becomes more difficult when parties disagree not only about the issues, but also about which forms of conflict resolution are morally right or politically palatable. A good example of this is the question of whether violence is ever justified.

Over time, the original issues often become irrelevant and new grievances arise from actions taken during the ongoing dispute. In moral conflict, actions that are acceptable to one side  “prove” to the other side that they are fools or villains. Efforts to achieve resolution often cause further conflict. When the means of resolving conflict cause further conflict, the original issues are no longer important and the dispute becomes self-sustaining.

Dealing With Value Conflicts

How can practitioners of dispute resolution promote peace in seemingly intractable values disputes? While we have to admit that success will be difficult, there are some things we can try.

Get People Talking

The differing values of the other parties made them seem difficult to talk to and strange to us, and we respond by avoiding contact. This is counterproductive. Our disputes can’t be settled If we don’t talk to one another. We must have the courage to engage in dialogue.

Because not everyone who identifies with the group believes the same thing, we may discover that there are more shared values between us than we thought. If so, we are dealing with a perceived value conflict rather than an actual one, and the matter can be put to rest. Even if there is a real value conflict between us, it might be narrower than we think.  To the extent we can find commonalities, we will reduce reliance on negative stereotyping, and discover the framework for an agreement.

Using storytelling to build empathy

Storytelling is as old as society itself. It is both a way to organize our thoughts and a way to hold the listeners’ interest. In the presence of a neutral third party, the disputants can tell their stories — how and why they became involved, what suffering the conflict has caused them, what sacrifices they have made, and what they hope to achieve.

Everybody has a story, and the interesting thing about them Is that they help build understanding and empathy. We recognize ourselves in the stories of those around us. We become invested in the well-told story. We develop empathy. We sympathize. While our worldview may not change, we understand the other person better. We may not want to be in conflict with them anymore. At least, we may renounce violence in favor of the peaceful resolution


Third parties can sometimes help the disputants reframe the conflict from a values-based zero-sum game to an achievable practical problem, like this:

Let’s not argue today about whether abortion should be legal. We can’t solve that issue. But in recent protests, there has been violence, and innocent people have been hurt and suffered damage to their businesses. I know that there are strong emotions on both sides, but the violence is unacceptable and hurts the cause on both sides. Can we agree there will be no more violence?

From here we might move forward to explore whether there were any circumstances under which abortion was acceptable. To protect the life of the mother? To protect the life of a stronger twin who would otherwise not survive? To protect the health of the mother? And conversely, under what circumstances is abortion definitely not acceptable? Must we change the law every time a younger premature infant is born alive, or can we set the threshold ahead of current medical outcomes?

In this practical way, reframing can make the intractable achievable, whatever the moral disputes. The participants can find ways to coexist while they wait for the world to change, without giving up their cherished values.

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