Why do we have so many values?

Brad C. Anderson

As the previous sections demonstrate, many values guide human behaviour. Since differing values can be the source of conflict, one might wonder why we have so many.

One reason may be that social systems are complex and require the expression of a multiplicity of values to thrive.[1][2] To explore this idea, let’s return to the example we opened this chapter regarding whether or not publicly-funded universities should cut programs that lose money.

Using the framework for public sector values, maintaining a costly program that benefits society expresses the value of public interest. Acting in the public interest is essential. Through the expression of this value, we create institutions that improve our quality of life. Universities educate the next generation in the skills and ideas they need to prosper and maintain society.

On the other hand, cancelling programs that lose money express accountability, productivity, and sustainability. We hire administrators to oversee the use of the money we give them, and we depend on their trustworthiness. Thus, the value of accountability, where administrators feel the obligation to act in taxpayers’ best interests, is essential for the system to function.

The value of productivity ensures taxpayers receive the maximum benefit for the funding they provide. Taking action to pursue the value of sustainability ensures that not only will universities exist today, but for future generations as well.

Creating universities that benefit society today and in the future requires the realization of ALL these values. The question, however, of what to do when a university program loses money puts these values in conflict.

It is the job of stakeholders in the university to decide how to resolve that conflict to maintain the benefits universities provide. As you might imagine, balancing conflicting values can be very hard to do.

The above example creates the illusion that different values will always conflict. This is untrue. Values can also combine positively. In the above case, one might argue that the value of productivity is a way to advance the public interest. Through productivity, the university uses funds in the most productive way possible. This value allows society to receive the maximum benefit with minimal tax dollars. The tax dollars saved may then be used elsewhere to society’s interest.

Thus, though sometimes values conflict, other times they reinforce one another. The following section explores the ways values interact.

Key Takeaways

  • Social systems are complex
  • Complex social systems require the pursuit of many different values to thrive.

  1. Haidt, J. (2012). The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion. New York: Pantheon Books.
  2. Kettl, D. F. (1993). Sharing power: Public Governance and Private Markets. Washington, D.C.: Brookings Institution Press.


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Why do we have so many values? 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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