There’s a Jewish joke that I heard a lot while growing up: A mother gives her son two neckties for his birthday. He thanks her for them, tells her that he loves them both, that she has terrific taste, and so on, and they have a nice birthday dinner together. The next morning, he comes down to the kitchen wearing one of the ties. The mother glances up from preparing breakfast, then frowns and asks him: “What’s the matter, you didn’t like the other tie?”
Just as we can’t wear all of our ties at once, we also can’t necessarily enact all of our values at once. We are in the often distressing position of choosing against many of the things that we value or care about, for we hold a plurality of values, and our plural values tend to conflict with one another—forcing us to choose. In choosing or prioritizing one, we reject another.
This might seem obvious—after all, what is supposed to make the joke funny is that the Jewish mother appears not to take this fact into account. But I actually very much sympathize with the Jewish mother (or, perhaps, I am that mother); maybe it’s not that she doesn’t realize her son can’t wear both ties at once, it’s that she doesn’t want to sacrifice something that matters to her (in this case, her son’s appreciative wearing of tie number two) just because it conflicts with something else (his wearing of tie number one). When we shift from talking about neckties to talking about values, we can consider how conflict complicates our lives and, in particular, our moral lives. Not only are our values in general plural and often conflicting, even our specifically moral values are plural and often conflicting. It may be that we should accept not wearing all of our ties at once, but we shouldn’t easily accept being unable to actualize all of our moral values at once.
Consider an example that Jean-Paul Sartre gives of a conflict of values, which he characterizes as an ethical conflict:
I shall cite the case of one of my students who came to see me under the following circumstances: His father was on bad terms with his mother and, moreover, was inclined to be a collaborationist; his older brother had been killed in the German offensive of 1940 and the young man, with somewhat immature but generous feelings, wanted to avenge him. His mother lived alone with him, very much upset by the half-treason of her husband and the death of her older son; the boy was her only consolation…The boy was faced with the choice of leaving for England and joining the Free French Forces—that is, leaving his mother behind—or remaining with his mother and helping her to carry on. He was fully aware that the woman lived only for him and that his going-off—and perhaps his death—would plunge her into despair…
… he was faced with two very different kinds of actions: One, concrete, immediate, but concerning only one individual; the other concerned an incomparably vaster group, a national collectivity, but for that very reason was dubious, and might be interrupted en route. And, at the same time, he was wavering between two kinds of ethics. On the one hand, an ethics of sympathy, of personal devotion; on the other, a broader ethics, but one whose efficacy was more dubious. He had to choose between the two. (1965, 42-43)
At least some of our moral values—unlike the ties that we choose to wear—may have associated requirements. I don’t just value respecting other people, I’m morally required to respect them; I don’t just care about preserving other people’s lives, I’m morally required to do so; I don’t just value helping people in need, I’m morally required to help; I don’t just care about fairness and honesty, I’m morally required to act fairly and honestly.
Sartre’s student had to choose between two actions, and he judged, separately of each of them, that it was required of him. But he could not choose them both.
When we choose against a moral value that has an associated requirement—that is, when we don’t do something that we’re morally required to do, because we choose in favor of a conflicting value, whether that other value is moral or nonmoral—there really is an accusation embedded in the question of whether we “didn’t like the other tie”—the accusation of having violated a moral requirement.
Sartre, Jean-Paul. 1965. Essays in Existentialism. Ed. Wade Baskin Secaucus, NJ: The Citadel Press.