When Values and Views Clash: Moral Conflict

Personal beliefs run deep. Differences in opinions are bound to happen, but when fundamental values collide in such a way that neither side will budge, the result may be moral conflict.

At its best, disagreement can bring about discussion, understanding, negotiation, and tolerance. When moral conflict turns ugly, it can produce outrage, impassioned arguments, hostility, and violence. The issues become lost as the opposing forces battle to be heard and be recognized as the only "right" ones in the struggle.

We grow our moral attitudes — our ideas about what's right and wrong — from our experiences within a common culture. What we think, what we consider important, how we talk and act, and what we hold dear as universally good reflects the world in which we live as individuals . . . which may be worlds away from the beliefs and behaviors of others.

Moral convictions creep into all sorts of local and large-scale debates, some of which become ongoing combat zones. Consider the positions of anti-abortionists and pro-choice activists. The moral conflict between the parties is long standing and intractable, or headstrong and unwavering. The issues arouse intense emotional responses, often with no middle ground for a meeting of the minds.

Rightly or wrongly, personal morality sometimes plays a role in professional decision making. Views of human life — its origins, its earthly obligations, its due course, and its rights to end — can become factors in workplace performance.

Pharmacists, for example, serve the public by dispensing drugs prescribed by licensed physicians. However, some states allow pharmacists to interject their own sense of morality to every order they handle. Imagine a female patient's surprise when the pharmacist states his or her personal or religious objections to oral contraceptives — and then refuses to fill the order. Some pharmacists have even denied return of prescription forms to patients, and a few others have sounded off belligerently on patients whose morals, they believe, are misplaced.

Stem cell and fetal tissue research also stir steadfast reactions from those who are morally offended, and from those who are unapologetically supportive. While scientists explore the potential for stem cell cultivation and the treatment of spinal cord injuries, Parkinson's disease, and other medical mysteries, opponents blast the violation of life as they define it. Irreconcilable moral conflict arises when talk about the issues turns to misunderstanding and mistrust, two sure roadblocks to finding a way to agree to disagree.

When moral conflict flares up and out of control, devastating outcomes follow. Historically, wars between and within countries, religious persecution, genocide, economic disasters, and environmental destruction can be traced to unresolved conflict. The moral of the story: Invaluable lessons live long in values that clash.