When cherished values come into conflict

Here’s a recent decision of the Supreme Court of Canada which I find interesting. It illustrates a point that arises occasionally in the context of public policy debates. The point is, cherished values come into conflict with each other from time to time.

People often get hold of a single truth (or value or principle) and attempt to elevate it above all others. Freedom of expression is a recurrent example, as in this case. According to the Globe and Mail:

The Supreme Court of Canada has rejected a Montreal strip club’s claim that it had a constitutional right to broadcast its music soundtracks onto the street outside to attract customers.

The Chateau du Sexe contended the city had violated the club’s freedom of expression by invoking a municipal bylaw intended to prevent public nuisances.

In a 6-1 decision, the court agreed the bylaw infringes on freedom of expression.

But it said the infringement is justified by the greater public good of fighting noise pollution.

Justice Ian Binnie, the only dissenter, contended that the bylaw is so broad it could be used to ban people from playing Mozart in their gardens.

He said the city should find a better way to control nuisance sounds and noise pollution.

In this case, two cherished values have come into conflict with each other:  (1) freedom of expression and (2) the prevention of unjustifiable noise pollution.

The same thing happens in the realm of religion sometimes. Here’s an example from the Hebrew scriptures. The Torah says, “Do no work on the seventh day of the week” (paraphrasing Exodus 20:10). The Torah also says, “a male child is to be circumcised on the eighth day” (paraphrasing Leviticus 12:2-3).

But what happens when the eighth day of a boy’s life coincides with the Sabbath (the seventh day of the week)? To uphold one of the commands is to violate the other.

In such cases, the rabbis ruled that the law of circumcision took priority:  “R. Jose says, ‘Great is circumcision since it overrides the stringent Sabbath'” (Mishnah Nedarim 3:11).

I don’t have a specific application in mind just now. But when I saw the report of the court decision, I thought I would blog on it for future reference. It is a straightforward example of an important concept.


9 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. CyberKitten
    Nov 27, 2005 @ 05:29:00

    When principles or rights clash… we just need to be pragmatic and reasonable.

    Or make an arbitary decision if needs be….

    After all, as they’re human inventions they can be modified by human action/dialogue… We do it all the time.


  2. Mrs.Aginoth
    Nov 27, 2005 @ 07:32:00

    The problem arises when we decide that one value is intrinsically higher than another & therefore needs to be upheld in every circumstance, whatever th context.

    There have been a number of high profile cases in Europe that have done that – specifically saying that a single person’s right to chose their own lifestyle is more important than the societies right to define limits on its citizens lifestyles.

    It sounds like Canada managed to avoid that this time:-)


  3. CyberKitten
    Nov 27, 2005 @ 12:00:00

    Mrs A said: a single person’s right to chose their own lifestyle is more important than the societies right to define limits on its citizens lifestyles.

    Which is true – up to a reasonable point – in a Liberal society. There should be reasonable limits on individuals for a society to maintain its cohesion. Both repression and freedom taken to their limits are equally damaging to the society that practices them and the individuals who live there.

    Of course, the battleground is what constitutes ‘reasonable’ limits…?


  4. Q
    Nov 27, 2005 @ 16:10:00

    • Cyberkitten:
    You’re not saying that the Supreme Court ever makes an arbitrary decision, are you? (Of course they do!)

    • Mrs. Aginoth:
    You raise an interesting point about the value we place on individual rights and freedoms versus what is good for society as a whole. I hadn’t thought of that particular clash of values in this context, and you’re right — we tend to subordinate the good of society to the rights of the individual almost every time.


  5. CyberKitten
    Nov 27, 2005 @ 17:32:00

    Q said: we tend to subordinate the good of society to the rights of the individual almost every time.

    It’s the Modern way… Self determination and self actualisation are seen as paramount in Modernist societies. It actually explains quite a lot of our problems….


  6. Mary P.
    Nov 27, 2005 @ 19:37:00

    The other problem that arises (obviously) is that each principle/right will have its proponants, all of whom believe with every fibre of their being that a certain principle/right/value should triumph in this particular instance.

    Each group will see the other as misinformed or deluded (at best) and dangerous and/or evil at worst. To further confound matters, both sides could well be right!


  7. Heather
    Nov 28, 2005 @ 05:56:00

    Noise Pollution in Montreal…heh heh heh…I seem to recall hearing the grinding strip music during my jaunts on Rue St. Catherine…its been part of the background flavor of the strip for ages. Why stop now? I can hardly imagine someone moves to this area for the peace and quiet. And no sooner do you leave earshot of the strip joint, but you stumble on sitar music from the Indian shoppe and the Arabic music from the Hooka smoke shoppe. That’s just part of Montreal’s flavor. I suspect there was more motivation to trying to shut down this Strip Joint’s music than disturbing the peace. Someone probably used this law for other reasons.


  8. Bill
    Nov 28, 2005 @ 12:19:00


    I agree Montreal is by no means quiet.

    I suspect that the city is making a decision based on the sexual carnival atmosphere created by the music rather than one based on the greater public good of fighting noise pollution.

    That said, the “background flavour” of the Rue St. Catherine strip is changing.(good or bad depends on your perspective)

    M and I were there Saturday and noticed that the storefronts that covered St James Church facade are being removed along with the large neon sign for the church.

    So the Gothic Face of the Church will now be visible from the street.

    It is interesting to note that the sign on the renovation did not mention it was a church project but one sponsored by city councillors.


  9. Q
    Nov 28, 2005 @ 12:32:00

    • Mary P.:
    That’s why I think the principle is so important. (That is, the principle that cherished values come into conflict with each other from time to time.)

    Whenever someone insists on promoting their pet value at the expense of all other values, we have to reject that position. We have to strive instead for balance and take the context into account — this is the Supreme Court’s approach.

    • Heather:
    That’s a good point … like convicting Al Capone of tax evasion when you can’t prove him guilty of murder. I hadn’t thought of it here, but you may be right.


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