The ways values interact

Brad C. Anderson

The previous section demonstrated that values do not act in isolation but instead interact. This section looks at three ways values may interact through exploring:

  1. Terminal versus instrumental values,
  2. Incompatible and incommensurate values, and
  3. The effect of time on values.

Terminal Versus Instrumental Values

The previous section ended with an example of how the value productivity may contribute to the value of public interest. Through productively allocating resources, society maximizes the benefit for minimal cost. People may then use the dollars saved elsewhere.

If you think about this dynamic, you will realize that both values are not equal. The value of productivity is used to achieve public interest. Rather than pursuing productivity as an end in itself, it is a means to achieve a different end.

We pursue some values as ends in themselves. That is, we pursue them simply because we believe they are worth pursuing. These are called terminal values. We enact other values not as ends in themselves but as a way to achieve a terminal value. These are called instrumental values.[1]


For better or worse, terminal values have several names that you will find in other sources. Other common names for terminal values include prime values and intrinsic values. Instrumental values, conversely, tend to be called instrumental values regardless of the source.


Defining values as either terminal or instrumental is a tricky process. A value that is terminal in one situation may be instrumental in another. In yet another situation, it may be terminal and instrumental simultaneously.

For example, a medical scientist may perform research in an attempt to cure a disease. Here, the scientist pursues the value innovation (performing research) to achieve public interest (curing a disease). Innovation is an instrumental value, while public interest is terminal.

At the same time, the scientist may also perform research simply because they are curious about how the world works. Here, they pursue innovation as an end in itself–a terminal value. In this context, innovation is both a terminal and instrumental value.

No one ever accused humans of being easy to understand.

The following example explores the utility of distinguishing between terminal and instrumental values.


Why Care About Terminal Versus Instrumental Values?[2]

A small group of researchers in a Canadian healthcare authority wanted resources to investigate a lifestyle intervention that delayed the onset of frailty in senior citizens. The vice presidents of their organization were dealing with crisis-levels of overcrowding in hospitals and felt they had no resources to spare to help the researchers. The vice presidents, thus, declined to help the researchers.

Using the public sector values listed above, what values were at play?


  • Investigating a new treatment to delay frailty implies the value of innovation.

Vice presidents

  • Focusing resources on managing overcrowded hospitals implies values of robustness and sustainability.

The researchers were unhappy with this situation. They truly felt their investigation had the potential to improve senior citizens’ quality of life, but they needed the help of vice presidents to make it a reality. So, they asked themselves why each party was pursuing their respective values.


  • Innovation was a means to improve the quality of life of senior citizens.
  • Their terminal value was public interest (improving the lives of seniors).
  • Innovation was an instrumental value to achieve public interest.

Vice presidents

  • Robustness and sustainability were means to ensure hospitals continued to operate and meet the populace’s healthcare needs.
  • Their terminal value was public interest (meeting the healthcare needs of the people).
  • Robustness and sustainability were instrumental values to achieve public interest.

It turns out that both the researchers and vice presidents pursued the same terminal value of public interest. The cause of their conflict was each group used different instrumental values in pursuit of public interest. They were not enemies but allies, each tasked with fighting a different battle in the same war.

Armed with this understanding, the researchers modified how they approached the vice presidents. They emphasized the same shared terminal value of public interest.

They then explained how their efforts could help the vice presidents. They reasoned that by successfully investigating how to reduce frailty (innovation), the populace would become healthier and place fewer demands on hospitals, thereby reducing overcrowding (robustness and sustainability). Under this line of reasoning,

  • Innovation was instrumental to the values of robustness and sustainability, and
  • Innovation, robustness, and sustainability were instrumental to the value of public interest.

The researchers argued that by working together, they could create a healthier population of senior citizens and reduce hospital overcrowding.

With this approach, vice presidents started to become excited about supporting the researchers.

THE LESSON: If different people or groups share the same terminal value, you can often use this to find a way to work together even when instrumental values conflict.

Incompatible and Incommensurate Values

As earlier sections described, any social setting of sufficient complexity requires the pursuit of multiple values to thrive. This can lead to tricky dilemmas because there are situations where different values are either incompatible or incommensurate.[3]

  • Incompatible values occur where achieving one value leads to compromising another value.
    • For example, a teacher may decide to grade the class on a curve, leading the students to compete against each other for top grades (value = competitiveness).
    • This competitive dynamic may undermine the teacher’s attempts to run a group project where student teams must work together (value = cooperation).
    • Though the teacher may want to teach students how to work together, the competitive dynamic she established may discourage students from collaborating.
  • Incommensurate values occur where values have no basis of comparison. One does not undermine the other, nor do they positively reinforce each other. They are unrelated.
    • For example, a group of administrators at a university may be deciding how to allocate their budget for the year.
    • One administrator wants to spend their budget on staff training (value = self-development of employees).
    • Another administrator wishes to spend it on a new self-serve kiosk for students to manage their registration (value = user orientation).

There are several tactics organizations use to resolve conflicts between incompatible and incommensurate values. These tactics include:[4][5][6]

  • Firewalls: The organization tasks different departments with the pursuit of different values.
  • Cycling: One set of values dominate. Over time, resistance grows until a new set of values become dominant.
  • Casuistry: Individuals rely on experience with similar conflicts to resolve current ones.
  • Bias: One set of values falls out of favour.
  • Hybridization: Individuals attempt to reconcile competing values.
  • Incrementalism: Individuals slowly favour one value over time.
  • Compromise: Competing values each sacrifice some of their aims to accommodate the other value.

The Impact of Time Scale on Values

Values may also interact across time.[7] An action that you take today to achieve a value in the present may affect your ability to achieve that value in the future. To explore this, let’s return to the previous example of medical researchers investigating how to reduce senior citizens’ frailty.

The impact of time scales on values[8]

Recall from the earlier example of how researchers approached vice presidents to obtain their support for their investigation of how to reduce frailty. One of the values guiding vice presidents’ actions was robustness. They wanted to ensure hospitals could deal with the number of patients, which was something they were struggling to achieve.

The overcrowding problem was severe enough that it took all the resources the vice presidents had to deal with it. When the researchers came asking for help, the vice presidents initially felt that splitting their resources with the researchers would compromise their ability to strengthen the system’s robustness.

The researchers then argued that if they could delay seniors’ frailty, those seniors would be healthier and could avoid trips to the hospital. By reducing the number of people going to the hospital, the researchers’ efforts could enhance the system’s robustness.

Note that this impact, however, would occur in the future. If the researchers were successful, it would take years before their program was incorporated sufficiently into the community to have a noticeable effect. The vice presidents faced overcrowding now. The researchers’ had a solution that would take effect in the future.

Should the vice presidents take resources away from their efforts to enhance the system’s robustness today to improve future robustness? Or should they sacrifice future robustness to solve today’s problem? Was there some way they could achieve both?

The time scale over which people’s actions took effect put the value of (future) robustness in conflict with (current) robustness.

Key Takeaways

  • Values interact in multiple ways
  • Terminal values are those pursued as ends in themselves.
  • Instrumental values are those pursued as a means to an end.
  • Incompatible values are those where achieving one undermines the ability to achieve another.
  • Incommensurate values are unrelated.
  • The time scale over which different actions work can create value dilemmas

  1. Dahl, R. A., & Lindblom, C. E. (1953). Politics, Economics, and Welfare. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.
  2. Anderson, B. C. (2019). Values, Rationality, and Power: Developing Organizational Wisdom - A Case Study of a Canadian Healthcare Authority. Bingley, United Kingdom: Emerald Group Publishing Limited.
  3. De Graff, G., Huberts, L., & Smulders, R. (2014). Coping With Public Value Conflicts. Administration & Society, 1–27.
  4. Oldenhof, L., Postma, J., & Putters, K. (2014). On Justification Work: How Compromising Enables Public Managers to Deal with Conflicting Values. Public Administration Review, 74(1), 52–63.
  5. Stewart, J. (2006). Value Conflict and Policy Change. Review of Policy Research, 23, 183–195.
  6. Thacher, D., & Rein, R. (2004). Managing Value Conflict in Public Policy. Governance, 17, 457–486.
  7. Anderson, B. C. (2019). Values, Rationality, and Power: Developing Organizational Wisdom--A Case Study of a Canadian Healthcare Authority. Bingley, United Kingdom: Emerald Group Publishing Limited.
  8. Anderson, B. C. (2019). Values, Rationality, and Power: Developing Organizational Wisdom--A Case Study of a Canadian Healthcare Authority. Bingley, United Kingdom: Emerald Group Publishing Limited.


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The ways values interact Copyright © 2020 by Brad C. Anderson is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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