Values vs Priorities

People have debated for centuries what is important in life. Somewhere in the discussion, the idea of “values” usually comes up. Values can be thought of as defining your character. Some think it’s the other way around. But when it comes to any thinking about what make s a good live, values matter. So, it seems to me, there’s no doubt that thinking and meditating and praying and talking about what we value as human beings; individually, in groups, as a species; is, well, valuable.

However, I think that perhaps this path is fraught with peril.

When we talk about what we value, or what others value, it seems that the discussion very quickly becomes one of a binary nature. We value this over that. You don’t value that, but I do, etc.

When I have real conversations with people (as opposed to arguments or rants), I usually find out, when we go deep enough, that we all value similar things. Similar — not the same. In general. I mean, who among us would say out loud against such values as integrity, honesty, loyalty, strength, creativity… you get the idea.

In a recent conversation with Claude AI (, we went round and round on how liberals and conservatives see the world, and Claude ended up saying this:

Certainly – while liberals and conservatives often come to very different conclusions about key ethical issues, there are certain fundamental moral principles held in common across ideological lines:

  1. Fairness – Both sides advocate fair treatment, equality under the law, and policies aligned with perceived fairness, even if visions differ.
  2. Compassion – Both demonstrate care and concern for vulnerable groups, especially children and victims of injustice, though may prioritize differently.
  3. Loyalty & Patriotism – Both value community, country and the duties of citizenship with pride in local and national identity.
  4. Respect for Individual Rights & Freedoms – Both uphold key liberties like free speech, privacy and self-determination, but argue over competing rights claims around issues like commerce or gun ownership.
  5. Rule of Law & Order – While debating justice reforms, both concur lawfulness upholding citizens’ safety and civil rights are moral goods.

While stark divides exist on major sociopolitical issues, these examples illustrate shared commitments to core humanistic values of compassion, fairness, rights, community and lawful order that cross ideological divisions. Reasonable people of conscience want ethical outcomes – debates are often over competing ethical applications. Identifying consensus principles can aid cooperation.

It isn’t my intention to compare liberals and conservatives here — God forbid. My intention is to dig into why we so often get all wrapped around the axle is when we compare values with each other — and of course “liberal values” or “conservative values” is a natural destination on that path. Don’t get me started on the idea of “family values” — I mean, who really owns those?

My intention here is to point out so often the source of our conflicts with each other is rooted in how we try to define what our values are for ourselves, and what we assume “must” be the values of our “opponents.“

Let’s take an example: “fairness.” Different people define “fairness” differently. In fact, the same people define fairness differently at different times and in different circumstances. Fairness often gets confused with justice. Whether or not fairness is even to be expected is debatable. Fairness is a rather squishy concept.

Is it “fair,“ for instance, to treat everyone the same, or is it more fair to treat everyone how they themselves wish to be treated? Or perhaps the golden rule applies, and fairness means that we should treat everyone the way we ourselves wish to be treated.

Is it fair for someone who makes $50,000 a year to pay 40% of it in taxes, while a billionaire pays less than 10%? Is it fair that the same billionaire’s 10% is considerably more than the other persons 40%? Which is fair? Who does more for society? Is that even a factor in discussing fairness?

We all have answers. Arguments to make. Opinions.

My point is that we all generally value “fairness.” But we probably mean different things.

Furthermore, even if we did agree on a general definition of individual values, I think we still get wrapped around the axel when we try to apply those values in context, because our values conflict — yes, with each other, but I’m talking about within ourselves. I might value spontaneity, but being spontaneous can be expensive and I also value frugality. I might value loyalty, but I also value integrity and that means I might have to stop supporting someone who demonstrates unethical behavior. I might value strength and the ability to persevere, but I also value flexibility and the ability to redefine myself.

Life seems less about the values than it does about how we prioritize them.

And PRIORITY is a whole ‘nother subject.

I’m a professional project manager. My work life is all about clarifying, detecting, communicating, managing, and enforcing priorities. At the highest level, my company values are written into our training as: Safety, Quality, Delivery, Cost — in that order. And yet, there are many times when we make decisions that put cost ahead of other factors on smaller levels. When we start talking about prioritization, we bring in a whole set factors that determine our priorities.

Most of us have seen a grid that looks something like this:

Notice that the word “value” appears repeatedly. Notice that, ideally, you want to spend most of your time in the upper-right quadrant, and we all feel like we spend too much time in two “urgent” quadrants.

Importance and Urgency can, themselves, be broken down into factors that ebb and flow with situation, time, personalities, etc. For instance, when you’re trying to manifest something in the real world, the concept of “opportunity” often plays a factor in the “urgency” space.

We see this quite often in politics. One need look no further than to notice that every time there’s a school shooting, the issue of gun laws becomes more urgent, because there’s an opportunity, politically, to possibly make a difference. I think most of us would agree that the federal deficit and debt, are important. They don’t ever seem to be urgent, however. Consider climate change. Even the most staunch deniers probably agree that this is an important issue. But whether it’s urgent or not depends on how much you trust science, or which studies you believe, or who’s communicating them, or how close you live to the ocean. What’s more important/urgent to a politician in a re-election campaign — climate change that hasn’t yet directly affected her constituency, or the economy, which always does?

We all value a clean, healthy planet. We all value a healthy economy. We all value fiscal health on every level. We all value safety for our children. We all value equal opportunity. We all value life.

Yet we so often act as if those we argue with do not.

The time you’re having an argument — especially a heated one — I urge you to think about values, but especially think about values in terms of their priority. Think about your priorities, and those of the person you’re connecting with, in terms of the very specific contacts you are in. Think of this single conversation; your relationship with this person; the mood you and they are in — then maybe think about the broader implications of your conversation to your community, your country, and the world.

It’s not that the other person doesn’t value what you do.

It’s that they value other things, too.

And so do you.

To see this is to see a path forward.