Rationality and the Conflict of Values

We have been talking about values.  So, let’s turn our attention to the most fundamental of questions: Why are values essential to civilization?  How can shared values provide stability, sanity and safety, as society passes through major disruptions and change?

Most perplexing, why do our own personal values sometimes conflict with each other?

Human values grounded in religious teachings have remained relatively consistent for thousands of years.  The great majority are still accepted as valid today despite a society that is largely indifferent or even hostile to religion.

Since ancient times the history of ideas has been dominated by the assumption that society, and indeed all of human reality, is an integrated and coherent whole, governed by rules that are consistent and rational.

Consequently, it has been assumed that every genuine question must have a single correct answer and that the true answers to all questions must be compatible.

To put it another way, all truths were assumed to be harmonious, and when accurately understood could be expected to conform in consonance with one another.

This thinking is certainly logical, and it is reasonable that people would wish to believe in it.

However, as the human world has become more complex, we have been confronted with uncompromising evidence that reality and truth are not so simple.

We find ourselves increasingly challenged by choices that are incommensurable – that is, impossible to compare or measure against one another.  And, our most cherished values can come into direct conflict with one another, despite each being entirely good and reasonable in its’ own right.

This in no way questions the facts or the validity of the values.  Rather, it challenges us to make difficult moral judgments in complex circumstances.

Clearly, increasing complexity and morally perplexing choices will be present in our lives from now on.

Even science, the realm of endeavor most closely associated with reason and logic, is confronted with problems that present moral dilemmas – choices between evils.  And, the nature of complexity has proven mathematically impervious to predictability and rational expectations.

I do not deny an ultimate holistic conception of reality as an all-inclusive functional domain – one true Reality.

However, I suggest that its’ character requires us to mature – mentally, emotionally, spiritually – by engaging with ambiguity, paradox, and logical incongruities, all of which are intrinsic aspects of the world we are given.

I believe that to a limited extent such adversities can be addressed in similar ways by religious and non-religious people alike.  All of us face the daunting challenge of distinguishing between true reality and the myriad alternative realities imagined by the human mind.

Unsurprisingly, the earliest historical references to conflicting values and moral dilemmas appear in religious literature.

An incident I find most compelling is Jesus’ confrontation with a crowd of people who brought accusations of adultery against an unidentified woman.

Her accusers ended up walking away from Jesus (and from her) confounded by the rationality of His response to conflicting values. (John 8)

The letter of the law was not good enough.  It was a moment which I believe to be a turning point in human history.

The Apostle Paul describes an agonizing mental and spiritual ordeal in which he confronted insoluble choices.  His may be the earliest written account of the dilemmas presented by the two-fold nature of the human Will. (Romans 7)

Augustine, the philosopher and theologian of the 4th and 5th centuries, confronts the same problem in his “Confessions”, and “On Free Choice of the Will”, without resolution.

He finally reports his conclusion in “The City of God”, close to the end of his life.  And it is not what many would expect.

Augustine says we can only engage effectively with the conflicts and incongruities in life by means of love.

Yes, love, the ultimate law of unity and understanding that transcends diversity and differences, which prepares the way for problem-solving, and which aligns all aspects of our lives in a functional whole.

The way has been prepared for us in this world with severe tests of intellect and soul that will change us as we must be changed.


Dear readers:  The next post will be delayed for a week due to disruptions on the blog’s Facebook page, apparently caused by the current restructuring of Facebook code and consequent disarray.  Please watch for the next post on or about August 30.

2 thoughts on “Rationality and the Conflict of Values

  1. Re: Rationality & the conflict of Values posted today. It amazes me how many people I have met who at first seem totally rational but as time goes on their perception of reality & my perception of reality are at total opposite ends of the spectrum.

    It’s as though we are living in completely different realities. I do not propse that my reality is the only reality out there. Sometimes I feel like we all form our reality through our experiences & our perceptions may vary based on these experiences.

    I have read that if you are placed in a situation that is beyond your level of comprehension there may be things that can be seen & experienced by others among you but you will be unable to see or experience it.

    This explanation helps me to understand that my reality may differ from yours so I need to be careful to embrace the reality I have been given & not to argue that mine is right & yours is wrong.

    In some cases however an alteration in reality may occur due to hallucinations caused by mental illness. In that case it may help the person experiencing the hallucinations to have people to depend on for a reality check. Maybe we all need a reality check from time to time.

    It may be beneficial in some cases to have a healthy respectful debate regarding your perception of reality as compared to others. It may help all involved to see where the others are coming from.

    I do find this topic quite interesting. There are things we do, think or say that can have a positive or negative effect not only in our small part of the world as we know it but can have a profound effect on the Universe. By banding together with like minded individuals, I believe we can make a profound impact locally, globally & beyond into the Universe.

    It is important for us to stay positive through the rough times in order to counteract all of the negativity.


    • Thank you, Pat! I think that when western philosophy and European culture walked away from religion during the so-called “Enlightenment”, it opened a Pandora’s Box. The Church was guilty of all sorts of confusion, but the concept of one indivisible structure of reality was firmly grounded in Jesus’ teaching. With that gone we were presented with numerous intellectual efforts to fill the void — alternative bases for explaining values, ensuring justice, preserving civilization, etc.

      Some of these alternative realities took the form of comprehensive utopian visions for future society, all fabricated by the human mind. One track led to communism and fascist totalitarian movements (Nazism, etc.) Another led to the social sciences generally, and eventually divided itself into many subsets — sociology, economics, social psychology, psychoanalysis, etc. The human mind is fertile and imaginative. The sky is the limit.

      The trouble with Utopian societies is that everyone has to stick to the rules and shut up. If you accept questions, the alternative reality collapses. So, you end up with concentration camps, firing squads, and the gulag.



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