Choosing Between Good, but Competing, Values

The toughest choices any individual or any group has to make are the ones where two good, but competing values are at stake.

Choosing between a good value and a bad value is simple. Respecting the property of others is good, theft and vandalism are bad.

Even when it gets a bit more complicated, such as a situation where the greater good is achieved by opting for an otherwise bad value, I think we can all still agree on the proper call.  For example, consider the situation where a person is standing at roof’s edge on a 20-story building saying they are going to jump because their spouse is leaving them.  I think that we can all agree that it would be OK to lie and tell that person that you spoke with their spouse, that they had misunderstood, or that their spouse had changed their mind, and wouldn’t be leaving them, if we thought this would result in the person to not take their own life. In such a situation, I think most people would agree that the good of saving a life offset the bad of telling a lie.

The gap between the good of saving a life and the bad of telling a lie is a pretty big one, and that makes the decision easier.  As that gap narrows, the decision gets tougher.  When it gets really close, people’s moods can take dominance over their values, and a lot of rationalization can come into play.  Subordinating your moods to your values requires a lot of spiritual exercise. (BTW, I don’t equate “spiritual” with religious.  For me, being spiritual means having and practicing good values.  Where you get your values doesn’t matter to me as long as they are based on good principles.  If you get them from your religion’s scriptures, fine; the world’s great religions all share the same basic principles.  In fact, it is better to judge a person on the the values they put into practice rather the religion they choose to believe.  Also, recognize that other people legitimately get their values from other places, such as nature, or inspiring prose or poetry, and so on.  One source is no better than another; it all works as long as they are based on good principles. More about this in my Good Citizenship post.)

However, the toughest choices we have to make and when two good values are at odds.  Consider this totally hypothetical family situation.

You, your spouse and your 4-year old daughter will be leaving to attend a family event.  Your mother in-law is going to join you; she will be coming over so you all can drive to the event together.  You get your 4-year old daughter ready first, then you get ready.  Your daughter is playing and your mother in-law arrives while you are still getting ready.  Your mother in-law is wearing the ugliest dress ever seen; it has colors mixed together that cannot otherwise be found together anywhere else in nature.  When she comes in, and see’s your daughter playing, she greets her granddaughter and asks her, “How does Grandma look, what do you think of Grandma’s dress?”

Now, you have taught your daughter the value of honesty and the value of compassion.  How do you hope she answers?

This is not so easy.

The first response I usually get when I pose this question–the lazy response–is that they hope their daughter will respond with an answer that politely threads the diplomatic needle; a non-response response, something like, “You look like Grandma.”

A 4-year old can get away with an answer like that, but for a responsible adult, that would be a bullshit answer.  So, let’s imagine that your mother in-law asked you, “How do you like my dress?”  You value both honesty and compassion, and you pride yourself on not being a bullshitter.  How do you answer?

Now imagine the question isn’t as trivial as your opinion of your mother in-law’s dress.  Let’s imagine that it is the choice between individual privacy and national security, or between job creation and  environmental protection, or between the right to bear arms and the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, or, or, or…

Harry Truman used to call these the 51/49’s.  He would jokingly complain that his staff would only bring him those questions where both sides had meritorious arguments, where 51% of the data favored “A,”  49% of the data favored “B,” and the margin of error was 5%.  He would go on to point out, however, that if they brought him a 60/40, for example, then they weren’t doing their jobs.

This is not so easy, and you should run fast and far from anyone who says that it is.

Think about it; give it some quality mental time.  There is no right or wrong answer, only ones that you prefer or dismiss.

In a future post I will share one company’s approach for choosing between  good, but competing values.  It might offer a useful model.


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