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Philosophy of Values

The Contemporary Conflict of Values

Jiang Chang, Feng Jun
Hubei University

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ABSTRACT: The conflict between values is the source of many conflicts and problems today. In contrast to the traditional conflict of values, the contemporary conflict is distinguished by these features: (1) extensiveness; (2) complicatedness; (3) profoundness; and (4) continuousness. The plurality and relativity of values is the primary cause of contemporary conflicts. The origin of pluralism lies in an interrelated trio of aspects: commodity economy, democratic politics, and individualism. The contemporary conflict of values is a historical process. Such conflict does not necessarily result in confusion; on the contrary, it can possibly lead to new and higher levels of harmony and vitality. In adjudicating value conflicts, we must (1) permit different values to coexist and respect different choices and the pursuits of values by different individuals; (2) consider the whole and the individual, the entire and the part, the long-term and the short-term, and attempt to have regard for both sides of the conflict; and (3) pursue the best and most suitable.

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The conflict of values is not the unique phenomenon of our times but the common occurrence in both ancient and modern history. But the traditional conflict of values occurred largely in the moral realm, and its essence and focus lay in the conflict between individual and whole interests. In the premodern times there were also conflicts between various requirements of the same individual self, but this conflict was also moralized because personal life, either inner ideas or outeractions,were put into the scope of moral valuation. Furthermore, traditional morality was double-valued morality of good and evil, and only the requirements benefiting the whole or others was evaluated as moral. Therefore,the traditional conflict of values was in fact moral conflict between good and evil, and significance and function of morality just lay in adjusting and solving all those conflicts.

Since the end of the 19th century,however,the conflict of values has become a universal phenomenon. In contrast with the traditional conflict of values, the contemporary conflict of values has four distinguishing charateristics:

(1) Extensiveness. Contemporary society is a legalized society, whose greatest difference from moralized traditional society is that such society merely regulates the starting point, not all of people's action, and it does not regulate people's ideology. Thus in traditional society there was almost no possibility of choice in realms other than morality, while in contemporary society,in addition t law, there are many realms possible for people to choose, so that the conflict of values possibly may take place both in the legal realm and other realms. What is more ,the contemporary society is an open, plural and increasingly rationalized socity,and the ability of human beings to control their own life has been unprecedentedly strengthened so that people may propose and have proposed various possible models of social life. Each of these possible models has its merits and defeats, so in each realm of social life there are difficult choices and conflicts of values with which people would not have been confronted in traditional society,and not all these choices and conflicts have moral implication. Therefore,the contemporary conflict of values has gone far beyond the moral realm and extended into every realm of human life.

(2) Complicatedness. The conflict of values that occurred in traditional society still occurs in contemporary society, but there appears a very complicated situation. Now there appears divergences, contradictions, opposites, orconflicts of values because different systems of value which were isolated from each other in the past now continuously get in touch with each other due to the strengthening of the international contact. In correspondence with this, the infiltration and impact with each other take place between different ideologies and codes of conduct in different systems of value, so that the conflict of values occurs between nonnative and native values in the same society which was not often to be seen in traditional society. Complication and plurality of modern life has brought about the possibility for different individuals or the same individual to have different value choices or pursuits, and morality and law can not make this choice and pursuit unified, and thus conflict of values occurs between different values of different individuals and of the same individual. The 20th century is a period of transition. There will certainly occur acute conflict between traditional and modern values. All of the above mentioned conflicts are not is isolated but interweaved with each other, presenting a complex situation. On front of this situation, all individuals and groups living in the contemporary world often feel embarrassed, puzzled and in dilemma.

(3) Profoundness. The traditional conflict of morality occurred mainly in the process of choosing and deciding how to act, people's ideas of value about what were good or evil usually were clear and definite, while the contemporary conflict of values occurs not only in the process of choice and decision, but also in the depth of ideology. It is difficult for people to form clear and definite concept about what has value and what is more valuable. The shattering of ideas and the crisis of faith, which are universally present in contemporary China and West, are the expression and result of this conflict on the deepest level.

(4) Continuiousness. The contemporary conflict of values occurs continuously because it is difficult to be solved, and people are often confronted with it because it takes place in every realm. There are often such situations that when some conflict in one realm is solved, the another in anther realm occurs, sometimes a person is even confronted with conflicts in several realms or several conflicts in one realm at the same time. The condition that one's destiny was decided by others or by only an one-time choice has thoroughly changed, individuals and groups in contemporary society always have to be confronted with choice, and can entirely be extricated from various conflicts of values. It is mot possible to thoroughly eliminate the conflict of values as it was in traditional society.


The causes of the contemporary conflict of values are complicated, but the directly relevant cause may lie in pluralization and relativization of values. Pluralization and relativization of values are the most remarkable characteristics of contemporary values that differ from traditional values. It consistently had been held that there was only one value, which was the most fundamental, supreme and ultimate value while all other values, if any, were merely regarded as derivatives and embodiments, and they could be included in and reduced to.

In the contemporary era, however, people have fundamentally changed their traditional views and ideas of value, and they are convinced that in the world there is no ultimate or absolute value which all other values may be reduced to. Values are plural. Besides moral value, there are also economic, political, cognitive, aesthetic, religious, cultural values, and so on. They have distinct natures and different sources, therefore they can not be reduced to and replaced with each other. Values are regarded as relative too. All values and value principles are always relative to different societies, groups and persons, and hence do not possess eternal and universal effectiveness.

The prerequistites of the pluralization and relativization of value are the diversification of value object (value sources), especially pluralization of value subjects. All states in history before modern times were almost closed societies, in which there was only one value subject, state, and one system of value, so value would not be plural but unitary. In contemporary society value subjects have transformed from unity to plurality: a state is a value subject, so is any person, family or enterprise. And human beings have become a value subject with the strengthening of international contacts and forming of international integration. State's interests and requirements, of course, are generally regarded as the most important, but the interests and requirements of all other kinds of value subjects can not be put into or reduced to those of their state. Under these circumstances, value principles of the whole fail to be the yardsticks by which all individuals measure all values though they can till restrict and regulate individuals to a certain extent. All individuals have their own standards, choice and pursuits of value, and they all have become value subjects.

Then whywould value subjects transform from traditional unity to contemporary plurality? The reasons lie in three interrelative aspects: commodity economy as economic basis, democratic politics as superstructure, and individualism as ideology. Commodity economy is one in which interest subjects are plural, its basic prerequisite is that different producers and managers are all interest subjects and they must produce and manage in the light of their own desires and interests. Although restricted by market relations between supply and demand and by law of value, they must enjoy freedom of will in their activities of production and management, make judgments, choice and decision by themselves, and take responsibility for their own actions and all the consequences arising therefrom. All of these are the objective demands of commodity economy. In order to maintain the regular working and development of commodity economy, democratic politics suitable to this economy must be built up. The essence of democratic politics is to guarantee rights of independence, freedom, autonomy and equality for every individual and to keep all these from being violated, so as to guarantee the legal status of every individual as an interest subject. Under the social conditions of commodity economy and democratic politics, therefore, all interest subjects are independent, autonomous and free. They have their own views and ideas of values, their own ideals, faiths, standards and pursuits of value, in a word, they have their own systems of value.

Plurality of value subjects is actually plurality of individual value subjects, for the whole is only one in a given scope, its plurality is out of the question, otherwise it would be no longer a whole. Separation of individuals from the whole also is closely related to individualistic movement. It should not be denied that individualism as an ideology, in spite of its shortcomings, adapts to commodity economy and democratic politics, and promotes their development. It is not their ideological guarantee, but the ideal prerequisite for value subjects to transform from unity to plurality. Individualism considers individuals as fundamental, and maintains that individuals should be independent and autonomous. This opinion takes a decisive role in the emancipation of people's minds.


The contemporary conflict of values seems to have resulted in a number of bad consequences: two world wars in the 20th century, economic plunder and infiltration, pollution of environment, destruction of the ecosystem, etc. Facing these grave facts, some look upon universal occurrence of value conflict in our times as abnormal and as social confusion and historical retrogression. According to this, while contemporary material civilization has acquires brilliant achievements, old lofty ideals have been entirely shattered, traditional unified faith has been thoroughly shaken, moral levels have totally fallen, social systems of value have lost their inspiring and binding forces. It is all of these that result in the contemporary conflict of values. We think that this opinion is treating the contemporary conflict of values with the traditional attitude. If one thinks that the situation of morals and values in the traditional society is perfect and take it as the criterion to measure the contemporary society, he will inevitably come to the conclusion that the contemporary society flooded with conflict of values is inferior to traditional society, for in the contemporary society there is no longer a lofty ideal and a unified faith as in the past, and , in spite of the social system of value and morality, it can not regulate all ideas and actions of every individual, and it can not be taken as the only standard to evaluate good and evil or superior and inferior and it can not solve all conflict of values, and persons who strictly observe social principles of value and morality are no longer regarded as the noblest and the most respectable. We think this attitude is not correct because it does not realize that the contemporary conflict of values has its objective necessity and identical prerequisites, and it can possibly lead to a new harmonious and vigorous society. These three drawbacks in understanding are just what must be overcome for us today to treat the conflict of values correctly.

First, we must realize that the universal occurrence of value conflict in our times has its historical necessity and is a historical progress. It was shown that universal occurrences of value conflict are the inevitable result of pluralization and relativization of contemporary values, and in the final analysis, it is the objective requirement of commodityeconomy. The basic prerequisite of existence and development of distinct value subjects and numerous conflicts of values. It is quite clear that, if we are to choose commodityeconomy as social system of economy and devote ourselves to development of it, we can not but recognize distinct interest subjects and value subjects, and probably can not eliminate the conflict of values. Therefore, if we recognize commodity economy as a historical progress in contrast with natural economy, we can not deny that universal occurrence of the contemporary conflict of values is equally a historical progress in contrast with the traditional unified system of values.

Second, the contemporary conflict of values has identical prerequisites, this is, national laws and international norms. The conflict of values is not conflict between positive value and negative or zero value but between value and value. The accepted line of demarcation between value and zero value, or the starting point of value, is universally agreed to be national laws and international norms in our times, therefore the contemporary conflict of values is one between values on the basis of laws and of norms. Owing to this, however extensive and profound the conflict of values is, generally speaking, does it not affect social stability and development and it itself can not be a confusion, except when laws are not perfect and international norms are violated, just as what happened during the period of social changes in history.

Third, the contemporary conflict of values does not necessarily bring about social confusion and upheaval, and, on the contrary, it can possibly bring about and has in fact brought about new dynamic social harmony. Traditional order was a unified and static order, in which individuals had no freedom, society lacked vigor, and social order and equilibrium was very fragile because society was excessively unified and social relations were over-tight, so society would fall into turbulence if a contradiction or conflict occurred at some link of the tight relations. This old order was bound to be replaced by one dynamically harmonious new order with both identical basis and infinite diversity, in which individuals were independent and autonomous, thus social whole is full of vigor. Not only would such a society develop rapidly, but also its order and harmony would bear immense tension so that contradictions and conflicts can not usually shake its foundation. Such dynamic harmony alone is perfect harmony, such order alone with diversity is vital order. However, such harmony and order presupposes the universalization of the conflict of values; there would never be dynamic harmony without this presupposition.


In history there were two basic ways or orientation to handle the conflict of value: (1) laying stress on whole, entire and long-term interests, and (2) laying stress on the individual, partial and short-term interests.

The first way is absolute holism encouraged and abided by in traditional society. According to this way, when the conflict of values occurs, the standard of choosing between two sides of the conflict is which side is more beneficial to the whole. This way or orientation itself was a moral demand, and morality had supreme binding force because of political guarantee in traditional society, and hence the way of solution was compulsory, and effective in the traditional societies in which individuals were not separated from the whole. It also was inevitable to maintain the unity and subjectship of the whole in the scattered natural economy. I t may be said, therefor, that this way was suited to the traditional society.

The second way is out-and-out individualism prevalent in Western society since early modern times. According to this way, when the conflict of values occurs, the standard of choosing between two sides of the conflict is which is regarded as more beneficial to individual, partial, short-term interests. This way does not simply negate whole and other people's interests, but emphasizes that individual interest should in the first place be considered and guaranteed when the conflict occurs between individual and whole or other people's interests. It itself was also regarded as a moral principle, but its binding force had been much weakened without guarantees from politics at this time. This out-and-out individualistic way early in modern times did not adapt to the commodity economy and democratic politics which were rising then, and it was only an abnormal or unripe way in the replacement of the old system by the new.

After World War II great changes take place in the world, especiallythe independence and autonomy of individuals and wholes are universally acknowledged and respected. The past ways of absolute holism and out-and-out individualism could not adapt to such new social circumstances, so we could neither set up a unified system of value by eliminating the conflict of values, our only feasible way is to establish a plural and harmonious system of value in which the difference between various values is allowed, the whole and individuals are identically regarded.

To set up this system, we should observe the following principles:

(1) To allow different values to coexist and torespect distinct choice and pursuit of individuals in value. The whole should not impose some views, ideas and standards of value on individuals by compulsory means, but can direct and influence people's views and ideas of value only by public opinions and policies. Every individuals should not impose his own system of value on the whole or on other individuals. Either the whole or individuals should allow different values to coexist and permit people to have distinct ideas and faiths, choices and pursuits within the scope of laws and common norms. This principle is the basic prerequisite to handling the contemporary conflict of values.

(2) To give consideration to the whole,entire,long-term interests and the individual, partial, short-term interests , and to benefit both sides in a conflict. All conflicts of values are nothing but the conflicts between the whole, entire, long-term interests and individual, partial, short-term interests. Either a whole or an individual, in front of the conflict of values, should never attend only to one side of it, but rather to both sides as far as possible, and can not simply affirm one side and negate the other even if both sides can not be attended to at the same time. People have invariably insisted that the whole and the individual, the entire and the part, the long-term and the short-term are fundamentally opposite, and can not be attended to at the same time. But this is not the real case. Except a few extreme cases, both sides mutually promote and bring out the better in each other in most normal cases. Historical facts have shown that simply affirming one side and negating the other will finally result in the injury of the affirmed owing to the negation of the other.

(3) To pursue the best and select the suitable. In contemporary life people should pursue major values, and actual life also requires people not to be content with things as they are, but to pursue and create more and greater values. In concrete conflicts, however, people should not simply choose the best value but the value that suits them and can be acquired by themselves. The relativity of value shows that the value unsuitable and unavailable, though the best, is not truly good for you, even it is not a value at all for you. The best value, strictly speaking, first should be the most suitable value.

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