Existential Fortune Cookies: Conflicting values

Opinion by Sebastain Gould
May 25, 2012, 12:28 a.m.

Existential Fortune Cookies: Conflicting valuesWe are often presented with what appears to be conflict between individuals. People who claim to be nonpartisan and unbiased will then extol the virtues of finding some middle ground between differences. The problem, I think, is not that there are people competing to have their ideas succeed because they believe that they are right, but that each idea that contains its own motivation for competition. The value of that particular idea must be weighed against the myriad of other ideas that exist around us.

Take, for example, the Art after Dark festival that took place in White Plaza. We as a student body generally value art, so we’re willing to pay student fees to help support such events, and when they are put on we go participate in them and view the art that others have made. At the same time, we value green grass, or at least the University administration does. In this case, the value placed on green grass competed with the value for an arts exhibit in White Plaza and the art won out; now the grass is dead. Of course, eventually the grass will be replaced, but what is important to note is that a compromise was made, and the quality of the grass was sacrificed for a period of time so that we could enjoy the art exhibit.

The same thing happens when cars drive around campus. Stop signs are put up to keep cars from hitting other cars and pedestrians, but at the same time, the low speeds and frequent stops significantly decrease the fuel efficiency of our cars. This creates a tension between our desire for a healthy planet with clean air and our desire to not get hit by automobiles. What is especially interesting about this is that these two values exist entirely independently within individual minds.

Still, if you were to ask an individual if they would prefer to have an increased likelihood of being hit by a car or if they wanted cars to have decreased gas mileage, I think everyone would answer that they care less about the environment than their own personal safety. This of course is not supposed to condemn anyone who does care about the environment; I simply want to point out that there lies a great deal of tension and contradiction within individuals when it comes to the realization of goals, as they are often in competition with other unrelated goals that an individual has.

Of course, I would like to help offer a solution to this problem, but I do not think it will be as easy as one would hope. What I would like to propose is that you consider your values differently. Why is it that you want some law to be passed? Your justification for valuing one option in life more than another might be just that you feel it is a better choice, but I urge you to think hard about why you choose what you do.

Sometimes, there is some unique solution to the problem that allows you to enjoy both of your competing values through some sort of compromise. This may be as simple as being more conservative with resource use; taking shorter showers, for example, allows you to be both clean and cut down on water waste. You could also try creating new technologies that enable even greater achievements, coupling old processes with new ideas to make medical surgeries less invasive or building products that make tangible improvements in people’s lives. If you do have to choose between two different things that you highly value, just try not to do something you’ll regret!


Regret something already? Wish the solution were easy? Email Sebastain about it at sjgould “at” stanford “dot” edu.

Login or create an account