We think we’re arguing about the evidence. We’re actually arguing about values.

When was the last time you presented rock-solid evidence to support your point in a debate only to have the other person completely ignore it? I often find that when debate reaches such an impasse, it is because we think we’re arguing about the evidence when in reality we disagree about which values to pursue. I see two general reasons for this:

  • We venerate knowledge more than values. We, therefore, never learn about values and their role in driving action. 
  • We misunderstand the purpose of rationality.

Let’s dig into these two ideas.


Values inform the ends we feel are worth achieving and the means we find appropriate to reach them. They come in two flavours:

  • Prime (or intrinsic) values are ends we find worthy in and of themselves. 
  • Instrumental values are those things we find worthy because they help us achieve a prime value. 

For example, I believe we should strive to eliminate deaths from cancer. The value expressed here is one of public well-being. Given my desire to end cancer deaths, I think we should develop new cancer-fighting technologies. The value shown here is innovation. As I’ve presented it, public welfare is my prime value (an end in itself), and innovation is an instrumental value (a means to achieve public well-being). 

Obviously, people may differ in the prime values they pursue. Interestingly, though, even if they share prime values, different instrumental values can lead to conflict. 

For example, whereas I feel our society should invest in developing new cancer-fighting technologies (innovation), someone else might argue people need to take ownership of their own health by focusing on eating healthier and exercising (self-accountability).

Let’s say we had limited funding to finance a cancer-reduction program. Even though we both want to eliminate cancer, we might still find ourselves in a rip-roaring argument over how to spend those funds because of our different instrumental values. 

The rational argument can resolve this conflict, right? If I can get the correct data, I can make them see reason.

Well … not so much. 


Much of our education conveys the idea that rationality is objective truth. We believe that if I can make my argument rational enough, I will speak the truth. Those who seek the truth will listen to me while the irrational will ignore me.

This view of rationality is incorrect. Rationality is not an objective truth, but rather a tool we use to achieve an end. That is, we use knowledge and evidence to tell us how to get to a goal. If we have different goals, then we will rely on different forms of knowledge and evidence. The robustness of my argument means little to you if the values I’m arguing for differ from yours. 

We are not trained to recognize value conflicts. Consequently, we shout past each other, shake the latest studies in each others’ face, and then throw our hands up in the air, exasperated at the other person’s ignorance. I show data proving that innovations reduce cancer deaths; someone else shows evidence that dietary choice and exercise reduce cancer. We’re both right, but our data is unlikely to convince the other because I believe science should save us, they think we should save ourselves. 

Dealing with value conflicts

Here’s the thing. I am not sure if we can change someone else’s values. I think the world would be worse off if we tried — a society needs a plethora of values to flourish. What, then, is the role of debate? How do we agree upon what action to take? I think the answer lies in recognizing value conflicts when we’re in them and then reframing the argument away from the evidence until we’ve agreed on which values to pursue. Here’s how.

Step 1: Recognize value conflicts when you’re in them. 

How do you know you’re debating values? If you find yourself banging your head against the wall in a debate with someone who “just doesn’t see reason,” that’s a sign. If they present evidence to you, and you think to yourself, “That evidence is garbage,” that’s another sign. If you keep talking past each other, mutually ignoring each other’s points, that’s a sign. 

Step 2: Probe to figure out what values are at play.

Here’s four steps to figuring out what values are engaged in your debate. 

(1) A good first step is to figure out what values are underpinning your position. Because we’re not taught how values impact action and conflict, we are often unaware of our values. We think something is the right thing to do, but we don’t put forth enough introspection to clarify what value is driving us. We often see our values as the natural order of things and may not realize that other people prioritize values very differently. Step one, therefore, is to identify the value we are pursuing.

(2) Get a sense of what value is behind the other person’s position. Sometimes you can get a feel for this by listening carefully to what they are saying. If not, one of my favourite things to do is ask a, “What do you care if …” question. For example, “What do you care if a bunch of science nerds go off and research a new cancer-fighting drug?” Listen carefully to their answer, for their reply will contain glimmers of the values driving them. 

(3) Clarify your understanding of the other person’s values. For example, “It sounds like you feel strongly that people should take control of their own health rather than depend on a researcher to develop a magical formula that will save the day. Is that correct? Yes? Why is that important to you?”

(4) Let them know what value is driving your position. “I believe scientific research has great potential to reduce the impact of the disease, and we should encourage this kind of research.”

By following these steps, we have reframed the debate. Initially, when we were shoving studies in each others’ face, we were arguing about evidence. By going through these steps, however, we have established that we are, in fact, arguing for different values. Now when you debate, you will be debating the right thing. “Let’s hold off on presenting evidence to each other until we can agree on what direction we should head.”

Step 3: Seek to resolve your conflicting values.

First, ask yourself if you actually need to come to an agreement. Why can’t we rely on innovation AND self-accountability? You do you; I’ll do me.

Maybe you do need to come to an agreement, however. Perhaps there is limited funding, and you can only finance one option or the other. There are several tactics to resolve value conflicts. I’ll list out three here and post further readings for those interested. 

(1) Appeal to shared prime values. In my example, we both want to eliminate cancer. Rather than enemies, we are allies fighting on different fronts of the same war. Reminding each other that we are after the same thing may help facilitate agreement.   

(2) Demonstrate that the value you are pursuing also helps them achieve theirs. For example, “A side effect of scientific research is it improves our understanding of the types of nutrition and exercise that most effectively combat cancer.” 

(3) My favourite tactic is this. Stop thinking of either/or scenarios and work together to develop a creative solution that achieves both values. “Both innovation and managing our own health are important pieces of the puzzle. I don’t want to sacrifice either. How can we use our resources to achieve both?”

We need diverse values and knowledge to tackle complex problems

The problems facing our society are fiendishly complex. Our desire to simplify them to binary “my way or the highway” is understandable. We will not solve them, however, by ignoring their complexity. Our personal values allow us to see certain faces of those problems, and the knowledge we use will enable us to solve those aspects. The values and knowledge other people hold allow them to see and resolve different faces of the problem.

Tackling beastly problems requires us to see all of the problem’s dimensions. Learning from others who are driven by different values allows us to see facets of these challenges we might otherwise miss. Tapping into this powerful resource requires us to understand the role of values in our society and to develop competency identifying and resolving value conflicts.  

Have you been involved in any debates caused by differences in values? I’d enjoy reading your insights and struggles in the comments.

Further reading 

Bozeman, B. (2007). Public Values and Public Interest. Washington, D.C.: Georgetown University Press.

De Graff, G., Huberts, L., & Smulders, R. (2014). Coping With Public Value Conflicts. Administration & Society, 1–27. 

Selden, S. C., Brewer, G. A., & Brudney, J. L. (1999). Reconciling Competing Values in Public Administration: Understanding the Administrative Role Concept. Administration & Society, 31, 171–204.

Stewart, J. (2006). Value Conflict and Policy Change. Review of Policy Research, 23, 183–195.

Thacher, D., & Rein, R. (2004). Managing Value Conflict in Public Policy. Governance, 17, 457–486.

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