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Incommensurability of Values and Conflict

In order to make comparisons intelligible requires that we apply some form of measure or utilize a unit of measurement. We need a uniform scale so that we know how to determine a higher or lower score. Due to human nature, we often assert our competitive spirit by comparing ourselves with others. We compete in business. We compete in sports. We compete when it comes to academic achievement. We entertain ourselves with beauty contests, singing contests, pumpkin competitions and spelling bee competitions. So, it comes as no surprise that measurability and comparability are closely interrelated.

But what if there are values which are difficult to compare or even impossible to compare? What if this inability to compare our values is a permanent feature, which are inherent in limiting our faculties and capacities? This is a serious question – because if people cannot find some common ground or common measure, than there is a good chance that they will not prevent or ever solve those conflicts, which are value related.

These days incommensurability of values is gaining an increased prominence among theoreticians and practitioners. This topic is on the minds of cultural anthropologists, mental-health professionals, theorists of justice, value theorists, negotiators and experts on conflict resolution. There has been an ongoing disagreement between relativistic and universalistic camps when it comes to the issue of truth and values. We can condense this disagreement into one singular question. That is, can we agree on the universal set of values across cultures, nations, classes, genders, life-styles, ethnic groups, interest groups, professional associations, political affiliations, religious, and secular groups? Or, do the memberships in these unique groups, force us to accept a distinctive set of values in which we cannot hope to make our values intelligible to people who claim membership in distinctive groups other than our own?  Thus distinctive values might be considered incommensurable and incomparable.

If this was just an academic dispute, we would not have to worry beyond the classroom.  The problem, however, is that the incommensurability of values is becoming a very critical matter with very serious practical ramifications and consequences for all of us who live on this fragile and argumentative planet.
 The less we agree on matters, the more likelihood we will have to become embroiled in conflictual behavior and adversarial contretemps. If we cannot find any mutual ground and common measures, if we cannot consent to certain things and cannot find solutions to our problems, we are heading towards a very insecure future when it comes to our coexistence.  That is why the conflict and dispute resolution specialists, practitioners, and theoreticians have begun to take notice. This article will attempt to make the topic of incommensurability understandable and of lasting significance to all who are interested in conflict resolution.

There is a lot of writing dealing with subtle distinctions and relations between (in)commensurability and (in)comparability. Some writers distinguish between these two categories, others equate the two. Some authors describe incomparability as ‘indeterminacy’ or simply vagueness. Others introduce terms such as ‘roughly equal’ or ‘on a par to’ when making comparisons.1  The topic of incommensurability of values belongs to the field of Axiology (the Theory of Values). We have all heard the expression ‘Don’t compare apples and oranges.’  This is why I want to focus on the concept of "value-pluralism" and it’s potential contribution to conflict.

As I have already indicated, it is plausible to assume that people possess different sets of values and they use these values for an array of daily comparisons.
It is also plausible to assume that differences in values often lead to disagreements, potentially to confrontations, and eventually to conflicts. We all value different things, we care about some – and we are indifferent to others. We attach a negative value to certain things and we attach a positive value to other items. Certain things matter to us more than others, therefore we have a tendency to order things or issues according to their importance. However, things, which matter to us, might not matter to others and vice versa. And, then it all becomes more complicated when we consider people.  Some of them are very close to us, and call them ‘significant others’ and then there are many who are complete strangers. They could be the citizens of the same country as we are – or they could be members of our local community. We might be concerned about people living in remote areas of our planet even if we never visited that part of the world. Our concerns can be superficial or profound. We may believe that every human being deserves certain inalienable rights and therefore, no one should be subjected to torture. These issues of the dignity of man matter to many of us. The fact that we are concerned about others does not necessarily mean that we care about them to a great extent. There is a difference between caring for our children and caring about someone we have never met. For some individuals, we could care less – even if we know them well and with other people, we have an adverse relationship and we either resist ever being in their presence – or we clash with them on a regular basis.

So, the words we like to associate with values are: care, significance, concern, interest, indifference and commitment. We like to distinguish positive and negative values and we like to order them in relation to their importance.  The problem arises when there are difficulties to order values in a systematic way because they are incommensurable or incomparable. Thomas Nagel calls this condition "the fragmentation of value."  It is worthy to have a closer look at this condition because it brings us closer to the understanding of how the incommensurability of values contributes to conflicts. Nagel starts his essay by stating:  "I want to discuss some problems created by a disparity between the fragmentation of value and the singleness of decision. These problems emerge in the form of conflicts, and they usually have moral components."2
 He then continues: "The strongest cases of conflict are genuine dilemmas, where there is decisive support for two or more incompatible courses of actions or inactions.”3

In this regard, there are a few things that need to be emphasized here. First, the ‘fragmentation of value’ is directly tied to our decisions. Second, the problems we face are of a practical nature and are associated with our daily lives. Third, decisions lead to actions, which we have to, need to, or want to take, and/or avoid. Fourth, these conflicts arise between values and they can be considered as internal conflicts in relation to a unique individual or the external conflict between many individuals or groups.

Nagel claims that there are five types (categories) of value that give rise to a potential conflict.4 I will rely on Nagel’s text and I will try to illustrate what he means by way of the following.  The first type he introduces is ‘the specific obligations to other people or institutions’.  For example, those obligations can relate to patients, to a person’s family members, to institutions such as hospital or any other workplace.  To introduce the second type, Nagel adds: The next category is that of constraints on action deriving from general rights that everyone has, either to do certain things or not to be treated in certain way.  The right to free speech or of being free from torture serve as ready examples.  The third type of value is utility. The author explains: This is the consideration that takes into account the effects of what one does on everyone’s welfare – whether or not the components of that welfare are connected to special obligations or general rights. Utility includes all aspects of benefit and harm to all people, not just those to whom the agent has a special relation or has undertaken a special commitment.  The fourth type are perfectionist values. Here, Nagel considers those values, which are the results of scientific discovery, artistic creation, or space exploration. There is an intrinsic value in all these endeavors, regardless if some people endorse these endeavors or if they find these endeavors baseless or beyond their comprehension. Building the Super Collider is not a priority for many, in spite of the fact that it can someday answer some difficult questions addressed by theoretical physics.  Finally, commitment to one’s own projects or undertakings is the last type of value. Learning how to play piano, or climbing Everest are commitments, which represent dedication, perseverance, effort and willingness to finish what we begin. These commitments are quite personal, yet in Nagel’s mind, they should not be equated with selfishness. They represent virtues of patience and perseverance in general and selfish motives might be considered only when these types of projects conflict with obligations and care for others.  Obligation to oneself and care for one self – in contrast to obligation to others and the welfare of others – is one of the most frequent conflicts we face. Difficulties are obvious and the discussions about selfish versus altruistic motives with regard to self-sacrifice are ongoing.

Let me now illustrate how these fundamental types of values or categories of values can clash and create a fertile ground for conflict.

Let’s assume that I am a doctor working for a hospital.   Therefore, I have certain professional and ethical obligations to the institution that is my workplace. I have obligations to the management, to my colleagues, and to my patients.  Occasionally, my obligations to management clash with obligations to patients. If I also believe and value the rights of the patients (the patient’s bill of rights), then those rights can conflict with my obligations to the hospital. Specifically, if I believe that every person has the right to be treated by medical personnel and at the same time I know that some procedures are very expensive and not very efficient, I might have a dilemma over what course of action or inaction I should take.  I might have an issue with the management if they direct me not to apply certain procedures. And I might have a conflict with the patient who believes that he or she is entitled to that procedure based on the right to medical treatment. When it comes to utility, it should be clear that regardless of rights or obligations, our assessments when it comes to harmful effects and benefits to others, is a completely different evaluative process. There is no measure that allows us to translate the utility value into rights or obligations. These types of values are incommensurable. Utility is based upon outcomes, consequences, and results. Obligations are represented by our attachments and our justifiable beliefs. Rights are considered universal, and are supposed to be applied indiscriminately. The protection and exercise of rights is granted in abstract and should be independent of any outcomes and consequences. So, if I know for a fact that a certain procedure yields only 25% of the success rate, then either I or the management of the hospital might decide that this procedure will not be available to patients. And, I may make that decision even if the patient is a family member whom I care deeply about or if I believe in the patient’s bill of rights.

Now, imagine that I happened to be the researcher, working on the improvement of this procedure and I believe that if I just put enough effort and I fully dedicate myself to this undertaking, I may create something of greater value. So, everyday after my shift, I go to the lab and try to refine the medical instruments while experimenting with a variety of animals. Not only might I have an implicit conflict with those who believe in the comprehensive bill of rights for animals, I might get so tired working night after night in the lab, that my work suffers during the day. At the same time, the management is receiving many complaints about my performance. My obligations to the hospital and to my family are compromised and the clash between intrinsic values related to my project and my obligations is in full jeopardy. Regardless, I still believe that once I improve this procedure that humanity will benefit immensely. Besides, the work in the lab brings me an extraordinary amount of fulfillment and satisfaction. Combining that with my ongoing effort, it is apparent to me that I have to continue otherwise I am just giving up. Here, again, my commitment to this project can also clash with my family life.

The clash or the conflict of these five types or categories of values are directly tied to their incommensurability. It is quite difficult to figure out what kind of measure can unify rights, obligations, utility, perfectionist values, and commitments to one’s project. While it is possible to ponder solutions to these problems, it must be obvious that the potential for conflicts based on incommensurability is great.

Going through the list of five categories of values, it is possible to discern another important distinction. Some of these values are very personal, such as commitments to our projects or obligation to our family. Some of them relate to other people whom we may or may not know.  Nagel offers a very important distinction between the personal standpoint and the impersonal standpoint. Not only does he make this distinction, he also claims that there is a tension or a conflict between these two standpoints that makes them irreconcilable.  In his subsequent book Equality and Partiality, he makes a strong argument about the need for both of these standpoints. Yet, he also wants to illustrate how often these standpoints contribute to difficulties when it comes to justice as fairness based on the ideal of equality.

It is not difficult to show that the personal and impersonal standpoints frequently collide.  The following demonstration paragraphs will show how these standpoints work against each other.

When we deal with disputes or conflicts under the legal umbrella or we work with parties in a community setting, often the problem of punishment arises. Parties want to punish the other side because of the harm and suffering the other side imposed on them. "Someone better pay a price for their misery, loss, or pain." It could be an insurance company, an employer, a former husband, a career criminal, or a local government.  The punishment can come about in the form of monetary compensation, or in the form of jail time, or even a death sentence. It can be understood as revenge or as justice served.  It can give the injured party a sense of vindication.  It can also provide satisfaction that the perpetrator or the evil-doer gets what she/he deserves. If the injured party has been suffering as a consequence of the perpetrator’s conduct, often that injured party wants the perpetrator to suffer, too. ‘Burn in hell’ is a common expression of this thirst for vengeance. The category of punishment belongs to the domain of retributive justice. It can be viewed as a deeply personal matter or an impersonal one.

When a person states that she/he wants the perpetrator to suffer because she/he suffered in perpetrator’s hands, the matter is personal. On the other hand, if we want the perpetrator to learn a lesson to make him/her understand how his their behavior inflicts pain and suffering on others, or we want the perpetrator to be prevented from causing harm to other people in the future, our motivation is considered impersonal.

To summarize, revenge is a personal matter, prevention an impersonal one. Occasionally, people mix personal and impersonal judgements. Some of them like the ‘system’ to do the work, some of them like to impose punishment by themselves. Using the court system, they can combine both. Often people use the legal system to get back at the perpetrator of wrongdoing and harm. And, while the legal system might look like a humongous, anonymous, bureaucratic machine to some, for many who have been harmed, it becomes the tool for revenge.

But, what if the injured party decides that for the sake of their own healing process she/he is willing to forgive the perpetrator. This person does not find anything redeeming about punishing others, therefore she/he might decide either not to pursue the matter in the court or to drop charges against the liable party. That creates a dilemma. If the perpetrator is a repeat offender, there is a certain risk to society that she/he will commit some form of harm or damage, again.

Here the personal and impersonal standpoints collide. Once a deeply personal healing process through forgiveness becomes a request for the cancellation of punishment, we face the risk from the impersonal standpoint. The perpetrator can impose harm on others in the future. The value of personal healing clashes with the value of negative utility to minimize harm or to protect potential victims.

Mediators are quite familiar with these types of dilemmas. We struggle with them all the time. Some parties care about their principles and are not willing to compromise. Some parties are only preoccupied with their personal gain and are not willing to take anything less than what they believe they deserve. Some parties represent their own interests, other parties represent other people’s interests. Being injured and evaluating injury claims for the insurance company take two very different perspectives related to the same event. Taking the case to trial and giving a young attorney an opportunity to gain trial experience requires very different reasons and priorities than simply settling the case between two acrimonious parties.  Questioning someone’s evil intentions predisposes parties to approach their enemies very differently in comparison to those who are willing to forgive them.  

Summarizing my previous thoughts, we can see that the incommensurability and fragmentation of values – combined together with the irreconcilability of personal and impersonal standpoints can create conditions that are conducive to confrontational behavior, (often leading to further conflicts and disputes).  Should we then despair and accept that we have to live with these conditions without having any chance to mitigate our differences? Should we worry that we will again and again repeat the negative or even tragic events of our personal and collective histories? The answer should be ‘no.’ We who practice dispute and conflict resolution and negotiations should always try again and again to find solutions, to reach agreements, and to enhance mutual understanding among those who don’t know how to accomplish these outcomes on their own. We should apply our unique skills whenever we are asked to do so.  Yet, we also need to recognize that occasionally our skills, efforts, and knowledge will be challenged, due to the conditions imposed on us by the incommensurability of values and by the irreconcilability of personal and impersonal standpoints. 


Milan Slama

Milan Slama is a practicing mediator and arbitrator in the Los Angeles area. He is a co-founder and the Board member of VBMC (Valley Bar Mediation Center). Currently he is a contractor for Los Angeles County and he also mediates for Chilren's Court.He has been associated with the LA Superior… MORE >

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