Friendship and Values

Human values should not be viewed as all being kept under the same roof. There is a tendency to think that values are kept in a single container called the “values box”. A much better mental model of human values is something like a venn diagram. 

Rather than values all being stored in the same area, each value has its own circle; and sometimes, these circles can overlap. For example, sometimes we value safety and sometimes we value risk, and at other times we value a safe bet: some risk. We can at home we value safety, at work we value risk, and with our finances value minimal risk: safe bets. There can be overlap, and then there can be little to no overlap, in different areas of our lives, when it comes to risk. 

Throwing our values in a single container is like throwing our clothes into a big pile. We won’t be able to identify anything, and we won’t be able to make sense of things, reliably so.

So, what happens then, when we view values as venn diagrams rather than being piled into a single container? Well, we can better understand each sphere of value, and we can better understand tensions between spheres of values. 

Put otherwise, although venn diagrams lead us to see a common middle ground where the two circles overlap, that common middle ground sometimes translates better to tension rather than compatibility. For instance, when we want to spend time with friends and family, but we also want to spend time reading, we find ourselves with two incompatibilities. The overlap between family and friends with reading only reveals incompatibility rather than a reasonable middle ground. 

For when we want to spend time with friends and family, we need to give them our attention. We should listen to what they have to say, we should engage with them in a genuine conversation, and we should do different activities with them. As such, we cannot read as well. 

Reading requires of us a great deal of attention, for when we want to read, we must focus on the ideas being communicated. We have to parse with great precision the sentences before us, we have to relate each newly abstracted idea just read to the previous and yet to come ideas within the text, and we must think critically and skeptically about what it is we are reading. Doing any of those requires that we neglect other activities, such as socializing. One cannot read and talk, read and listen to a conversation, or read and play board games. 

So these two spheres of value, namely, valuing friendship and family and valuing learning and reading, lead to tensions. For us to engage in reading requires us to feel a sense of neglect or abandonment for our friends and family, yet to engage with our friends and family brings to the forefront of our awareness that same sense of neglect and abandonment. 

What we can then see from the venn diagram mental model of values is that spheres of value, when they overlap, do not necessarily create a middle ground but instead lead to tension. And that tension can make itself known in our friendships.

Values, as demonstrated above, have incompatibilities between one another. Work and family life are, for instance, two spheres of life where values clash in our fields of consciousness. To work more is to spend less time with family, and to spend more time with family is to work less. And these incompatibilities can lead to tensions, in precisely the same way that political opinions can bring tension between friends, evidently.

So knowing now that tensions can arise between friends, and those tensions are a direct consequence of a difference in values, what do we do? How are we to handle the difference in values? Can we be friends with someone who has different values? What are supposed to do when our friends have different values?

We are left with many questions once we recognize these tensions and differences in values, and it is unclear what many of the answers to these questions are. But that should not stop us from attempting to answer them. Let’s first answer a simple question.

Are all Values Equal?

Why do we need to know the answer to this question, you might wonder. Well, if all values are indeed unequal to each other, then that will have an impact on how we approach tensions within our friendships.

I shall presume most of us do not believe that all values are equal. Our value for safety surely outranks our value for risk when we are raising children, or when we are taking care of our sick family and friends. Yet I am likewise sure our value for risk might outrank safety in other aspects of our lives, such as business or sports. The point being, not all values are equal, some are more suitable than others when given a specific context.

Another way of phrasing this, what values we opt for shall be determined by our goals within some specific context. For example, in a business context, we know high-risk comes with high-reward, and low-risk comes with low-reward; so when we want a larger reward, we introduce risk. In that case, our yearning for a larger reward makes us give great importance to risk. Our goals are reached by only placing risk above safety in our value-hierarchy. The same can be said for safety; namely, that safety outranks risk in a family setting, because we want stability within our families. 

So that gives us both a way to determine the relative positions of values and an answer to the question about whether all values are equal or not. The goals we adopt shall make us adopt values appropriate to the context, and as a result not all values will be equal. 

But that is of course not the only way in which to determine the importance and relative ranking of values, there are other means available. I, however, believe we can begin to develop more answers to our previous questions with this method alone. And in doing so, we can set a sort of road map for other methods to determine the ranking of values.

Can I be Friends With Someone who has Different Values?

There are some questions we can ask further in hopes that we can derive an answer to our initial question, so let us look a them.

  1. How big are the differences in values?
  2. How important are the differences in values?
  3. In what domain do these values differ?

These questions can provide us an answer. We, however, must not try to answer them in any traditional sense; we must take to them with our new understanding abovely developed. 

To answer these questions in the way we have in mind, we need to consider values as things which aid in our reaching a desired outcome for a specific context; that is, when we want to gain more revenue for our company, we value risk, for risk shall lead us to a reward. When we recall that approach to values, how we answer those previously mentioned questions shall differ.

For question one, our traditional sense of values might have us ask of the values themselves: “how big is the difference?”. And we might then compare between value A and value B, the differences and similarities. But with our new sense of values, the question becomes: “how much do the values lead to counterproductive actions or outcomes”.

To explain, since our values help us reach desired outcomes, our values are then methods to act in the world. We rely on values to guide our actions to the desired outcomes. But if we have, let us say, two values which have different sets of actions which they bias towards, then we have values that impede upon one another. As example, consider yet again risk and safety. Though not entirely mutually exclusive, in many cases risk and safety are indeed mutually exclusive. When we are in war, a risk is to launch an offensive; whereas a safe move is to defend greatly defensible positions. Therein, safey and risk lead to different sets of action, and those sets of action pull in opposite directions. 

So, for us, the question becomes about the directions we are pulled from our values, and how other values pull us into another direction. It is as though the values are playing tug-of-war. Except, rather than one team being entirely composed of one value, we are more interested in how much of that team is composed of a specific value.

Put more thoroughly, just because a value pulls our actions into another direction does not necessarily mean it pulls us in some unreasonable or intolerable manner. A difference in values can be tolerated at times. For instance, if we grant 10 members to both our team and the other team in the game of tug-of-war, and each member represents a particular value, then so long as only 2 members of the opposite team are the value of safety we are fine. We can tolerate the value of safety in a friend, when we are valuing risk, so long as it is minimal. Because a minimal amount shall not seriously impede our actions in the world. 

To give example, recall our wanting to increase revenue by taking risk. Here, minimal safety may by bringing about minimal counterproductivity by ensuring we minimize some risk via picking a good business model or investment partner. Such an impediment to our carrying out risk is not only fine, but might even be preferable. Which brings us to our first answer.

When we ask the first question, we must consider how hindered our actions and pursuits become by a friend of differing values. Do they stop us from doing something we really want to do? Or do they add a healthy level of diversity? If they truly impede our actions, then that is a point against them; if, however, they add diversity to our actions, to a tolerable degree, then that is a point for them. 

But that is not the only question to answer, for us. Our next question to be answered is: “how important are the differences in values?”.

That question is different from the first question because some values may differ, though not impede upon one another. For example, risk and discipline are different values yet can coincide peacefully with each other; neither routinely become a problem for each other in the way that risk and reward routinely become a problem for each other.

Which means, although two values can coincide peacefully, we might not find peace between them because the differences are important, in all the wrong ways, nonetheless. As example, though risk and punishment do not directly impede upon one another, someone who prefers risk might not prefer punishment. Instead, the person who prefers risk might instead prefer forgiveness over punishment. And so, even though their goals and actions are unrestricted by punishment, the value of punishment ranks low and is deemed unpreferable. 

Put otherwise, impediments alone are not the only metric by which we determine whether we can be friends with someone who has different values than us, so too do preferences for specific values matter. If we find the differences in values are important differences, and we think the difference is unpreferable, then we would put a point against the person with the different value. But if we find the difference in values is unimportant, then that is a point for the person with different values. 

The last question we need to answer is: “in what domain do these values differ?”. This question is an important one to get answered only because domains of life matter when we have exclusionary values. Recall that safety and risk often exclude one another, but that safety at home and risk at work do not necessarily exclude one another. Some values are exclusionary sometimes, but when they are in different aspects of life, then they could have no influence upon one another.

However, that is not always the case, either. Sometimes values can impede upon one another by pulling us into one domain of life over another. In example, when we are at work, the values for our family life can pull us to go home early, which goes against our values for achievement; only because the employee who stays longer and works harder shall achieve more. So the domain in which the value manifests matter, because values can be exclusionary when they are in the same domain while not exclusionary while in other domains. Likewise, we need to able to asses when values in different domains begin to impede upon other domains; like when family life impedes upon work life, or vice versa.

If, for example, a friend and ourselves value loyalty to our inner circle, but the friend also values commitment to their work, more so than loyalty to their inner circle, then despite their being no obvious exclusions between the values, a clear uneven distribution of effort will occur. The friend shall favor commitment to work more than loyalty, and so be pulled into work rather than helping their friends. How values differ, and in what domains they differ, entirely matters for our question.

If values to work differ, but values for friendship are akin, then the friendship could work; if, however, the value for work differs too greatly, then the friendship might not work.

So, to summarize, we need to understand, with our notion of values, how big the differences in values are, how important the differences in values are, and in what domain to the differences in values appear. Only then can we identify tensions and assess them reasonably. And only then can we know if we can be friends with someone who has different values than ourselves.

What Should I do When my Friend has Different Values Than me?

The only thing we can offer for this question, due to the fact that each person asking the question has an entirely different context and situation, is a general framework for action. All too often people listen to different viewpoints on a topic, but never do they commit to a plan of action wherein which they must decide to do something. As a result, they become stuck in a limbo of dissatisfaction. 

In order to avoid a limbo, we must set a definite point or threshold, which upon reaching requires some sort of action on our behalf. For instance, if we find our friend takes too much risk at work, so much so that our family life is becoming less safe, then that is a definite point at which we must no longer be a friend. Likewise, if we find someone’s values for family life are slowing, too greatly, our progress at work, then that is yet again a point at which we must decide to either drop the value for work or the friend.

When we notice our own values and goals becoming impeded by a friend with different values, or when we notice we are impeding the values and goals of others, to an intolerable degree, we must make a choice. Otherwise, we shall be stuck in the game of tug-of-war, and make no progress toward one side or the other. Without a plan of action, we are stuck in limbo. 

Thus, what you should do when your friend has different values than yourself is to make a plan of action, and set reasonable triggers for that plan of action. Action and reflection are the only way forward in this situation.

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Ideasinhat is a business development analyst and longtime reader of academic literature. He writes books and essays on science and philosophy, and posts them to this website. The essays, as with the books, cover topics from psychology, philosophy, and cognitive science to economics, politics, and law.

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