What to do when values conflict

What to do when values conflict

I was always told that it is a good thing to understand values. My Aunty Eva always said identify them, get to know them, and then live by them. Not in as many words for she was was a spinster brought up in the 1930’s but she had the look that got the message across loud and clear. She wasn’t my relative, just a wonderful woman who looked after me a lot when I was growing up. I loved her to bits.

The question recently came up as to how far a values approach to life should go.

As everybody now knows the COVID-19 pandemic has impacted across the entire planet. Millions of people are infected and hundreds of thousands of people have died. The search for vaccines and treatments is fast-tracked with over 150 different laboratories trying their hardest to be the first.

Given that we could develop technologies that could prevent deaths and reduce the suffering of people who contract the virus, vaccines and treatments seem like a no brainer. No matter there is a commercial imperative, this search for some herd immunity and treatment feels like a moral obligation.

Recently. I was astonished to learn that various religious leaders in Australia had written to the prime minister saying that, according to their values, development of vaccines using stem cells from aborted fetuses was immoral and should not be allowed. The government should step in and put a stop to this type of search for a vaccine.

This sets up an extraordinary situation where a particular moral value goes counter to another moral value held by exactly the same person.

Let’s test this one a bit.

Presumably, the forthright religious individual would attempt to stop a man with a gun shooting another man or if there was a brawl attempt to separate the pugilists. And yet they would also stand in front of a woman who had been raped and prevent her from entering an abortion clinic.

The same moral dilemma faced them with vaccines that use stem cells and they went with the death of many over the past death of one unborn child.

It seemed not to matter that the stem cells in use for vaccine development comes from a stable cell line harvested from a single foetus in 1973.

My first instinct was outrage at the hypocrisy. And as one of the scientists working on vaccines said, “the Archbishop is entitled to his opinion and we are entitled to ignore it”. And so I guess that was an option too, everyone has the right to express their values and I have the right to accept them or ignore them.

But then I thought what is my value on this?

Does the death of one person, even though that person was never born. Does the death of that person justify the saving of other people’s lives? This is a classic philosophical conundrum debated many times over in first-year philosophy class. And the reason it’s debated is that there is no single answer only one that works for each person presented with the dilemma.

In this instance, for me at least, the needs of the many outweigh the needs of a foetus that did not make it to term and so was never born.

These days I am often forced into reflections over the many such hypocrisies and conundrums that exist in modern society. In most of them, the values are obscured or obfuscated by the context or the hysteria of the message.

The first task is to find what the core values are before any decision is reached on what I think about them.

What was the value that the religious leaders were asking the PM to promote? The right to life?

Presumably, the relatives of the 6,037 people who died from the COVID-19 virus on 18th September 2020 would want them to promote that value with all their fervour. My Christian friends certainly did, they were incensed by the hypocrisy.

Making value judgements

The only defence the church has is that we are constantly being asked to make value judgments. When there is never a clear value proposition that would suit everybody we are asked to side; to choose a value that we support.

Somehow we have to get over this problem and allow other people’s values to be held as strongly as our own. And reach a compromise in all areas.

Recently the gunman responsible for the massacre of Muslims in New Zealand in 2019 was sentenced to the harshest punishment under New Zealand law.

The responses of the people who had lost loved ones in that massacre were remarkable. They expressed a full range of emotions from anger and indignation, to empathy and forgiveness. The important thing was that responses were not delivered by one person but by many different people each expressing their feelings with the unfiltered truth. It was powerful.

There were many values abused by that heinous act.

In the courtroom, all the responses were heard because there was at least one common value breached, the right to life. Nobody questioned the responses because everyone knew that this was a value held close by all.

There was no need to question, there was only room for empathy.

From the point of view of healthy thinking, it helps to know how hard we hold our values to our principles and how often we are hypocrisy personified ourselves. There’s no value in holding on to a principle if you disengage with it yourself at the earliest opportunity.

So let’s take a lesson from those grieving families and have a little bit of balance in these things. Let’s try and see the bigger picture and the broader benefit even as we give in to our own emotional response.

That’s very hard to do but it’s essential in a world of eight billion souls.


If you like these ideas for healthy thinking please share, you never know what it might do.

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