Unlike values, beliefs can be formed, modified, and dispelled at the cognitive level—the level of thought and reason. If values are instinctual feelings about the ideal world (how things should be), then beliefs are conclusions about how things really are. Beliefs result from the observations and conclusions we draw from personal experiences—what we see, read, and are told.
Usually, beliefs are formed tentatively. They strengthen or erode by the reception of additional relevant information. Beliefs become gatekeepers when they determine which values ascend or decline at the moment when a choice must be made.
For example, two people face off in a debate over abortion. Both value the sanctity of life. Both feel instinctually that every person has the right to freedom of choice. Yet, they differ in their opinions about legalized abortion.
One person believes that life begins at conception. The other believes that life begins at birth. Depending on which of those two facts (or interpretations of fact) the persons in the dispute believe, they may allow differing values to prevail at the moment of choice. The person who believes that life begins at birth will say, “The sanctity of life value does not apply here since the fetus is not truly living in the sense that it is an independent biological entity. Therefore, the prevailing value is freedom of choice—the right of the mother to choose what to do with her own body. She can abort the fetus (not a living thing) the same as she can choose to have a tooth pulled or a tumor removed. Like aborting a fetus, neither of those actions is killing an independent living entity.”
For the person who believes that life begins with conception, sanctity of life prevails at the moment of choice. Because the fetus is a living entity (or will become such), abortion is tantamount to murder. Sanctity of life trumps freedom of choice.
As we see in this example, the belief about when life begins allows one value to advance and prevail at the moment of choice and causes the other value to recede in relative importance. The values system remains intact. Beliefs keep the gate.
Think of a personal, social, or political issue that interests you. It might be healthy environment, gun control, border control, executive bonuses, obesity, universal health care, or any other. Try to identify two major competing values at stake in the controversy. What personal belief causes you to apply one value over the other in this particular issue?
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© Frank Richardson, 2009.