When Worlds Collide

Last month I presented a paper to the Society for Descriptive Psychology’s Annual Conference: “When Worlds Collide: Origins of Intractable Value Problems.” This is a long (38 pages) conceptual piece with many practical applications. It explicitly uses a great deal of the Descriptive Psychology canon, and breaks some new ground. I worked hard to make it as fun to read as this sort of exposition can be.

A pre-publication reading copy has can be found by clicking on this link. Any feedback you may have can be left as comments to this post.

Here’s a brief sample:

It’s a simple fact: people differ, much of the time, on matters ranging from the trivial to the profound.

Vanilla or chocolate? Coffee or tea? Issues of personal taste are not actually issues at all since one can’t be right or wrong in such choices; as the ancient maxim reminds us, “De gustibus non disputandum est.” Upping the stakes a bit, we encounter myriad everyday disputes: Shall we invest the IRA in stocks or in bonds? Is midnight too late for a 16 year-old’s curfew? Was the receiver out of bounds when he caught the touchdown pass? People of good faith, looking at the same situation, come to different conclusions, and we have a reliable stock of practices to resolve the differences, e.g. consulting advisors, negotiation, instant replay. No guarantee of success is offered for most of these practices other than the practical one: we often succeed in resolving such conflicts, and so it’s at least worth a try.

Some disputes are not so easily resolved, such as bargaining between labor and management, passing budget legislation, and carving up the assets in a hotly contested divorce. Appeals to shared standards and interests may not be enough to overcome the simple fact that resolution requires someone – perhaps everyone – to lose something they hold dear. Such negotiations can be bitter, drawn out and in the end unsatisfying to all parties – but typically negotiations do end, and everyone makes the best of the world they now find themselves in.

But not all disputes can be resolved. Some differences appear intractable, in that none of our known ways of resolving them work, no matter how long or hard we try.


  • Islamic fighters in Pakistan routinely strap on vests filled with high explosives and detonate them in crowded places, killing themselves and as many others as possible. Sometimes these are strategic targets, resulting in military, police or American casualties; other times the target seems to be random. Western journalists call them “suicide bombers” or “terrorists”; their cohort calls them “jihadists” or “martyrs”. Like the terms used to describe the events, the gulf of mutual incomprehension between the two groups could hardly be wider. They literally, essentially,  make no sense to each other. There are no apparent first moves to begin to bridge the gap.
  • “Evolutionary psychologists” like Richard Dawkins insist that science allows no place for a “creator” or “designer” of nature. Instead they offer an elegant view of evolutionary algorithms which provide for “design without a designer”. This view has become so prevalent in Western intellectual circles that questioning it invites being dismissed as naïve or ignorant, but few spiritual leaders or people of faith take it seriously. It is literally nonsense to people for whom God or “the Creator” is real, just as the idea of “creation” is nonsense to evolutionary psychologists. Unlike the jihadist/terrorist dispute, both sides here typically believe that they understand the other’s point of view. They simply, often disdainfully, reject it.
  • Teachers, principals and School Board members were terminally deadlocked over an extremely thorny curriculum issue, with three absolutely incompatible views on what to do. Each group was asked  one last question: “What makes your solution the right solution?” All three groups responded without hesitation: “It best serves our customers” (this district used a briskly business-like way of talking where all agreed that the school’s “mission” was to “serve the customers”). All three groups were right, because all three had different “customers” in mind. For the teachers, the ultimate customers were the students; the ultimate customer for the principals were the state and district administrators who set policy and guidelines; and the School Board members took as their ultimate customers the parents and local taxpayers who ultimately paid everyone’s salaries. With such diverse “customers”, the best curriculum looked very different to the three groups. As one observer remarked, they might as well have been living in three different worlds.
  • Kyle is a 15-year-old student whose parents have just discovered he is selling marijuana to his friends. His father, a policeman from a family of policemen, knows exactly what to do – the boy needs a wake-up call from the criminal justice system. He has seen too many boys escalate from dealer to career criminal. Kyle’s mother, a social worker from a family of teachers and therapists, is horrified at the thought of turning her own son in, even if he does get off with juvenile detention – she has seen too many young men who have been permanently scarred by “juvie”. She insists on taking Kyle to family counseling and working out a behavioral contract to keep him out of further trouble. Both parents are adamant in opposing the other’s plan; each sees the other as being rigid and out of touch with the real world.

One could cite myriad other examples, but let these four stand for the whole. This paper intends to offer an extended exploration of  intractable value problems. We will suggest that:

  • These value problems are at core intractable problems of significance.
  • Such problems are not the rare exception; they are inherent and pervasive.
  • Participants in such disputes literally live in significantly different worlds.
  • What ultimately keeps these worlds apart is what ultimately holds each  one together.

To read the paper, click here.


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