The Problem of Conflicting Goals: A Philosophical Approach

In the 2nd segment of a 3-part series on Interdisciplinary Perspectives on Happiness, Dr. Valerie Tiberius (University of Minnesota) spoke about the philosophical perspective of conflicting goals and well-being. What are our main motivations as goal-oriented human beings? How can we reduce our stress and increase our well-being through addressing our conflicting goals? Dr. Tiberius addressed these questions to a remote Athenaeum audience on Monday evening, April 26th.

For much of history, goal conflict has been talked about with two terms: morality, or wanting to do what’s right, and self-interest, or wanting to do what’s good for ourselves. But “most of our goals don’t neatly divide into these two buckets,” argues Dr. Tiberius. We have multiple goals all throughout our lives and in various sectors of our lives (work, family, school, community, etc.), and not being able to fulfill our most important goals can produce unhappiness and stress. On the other hand, being able to fulfill our most important goals over time can improve our well-being.

So how do we go about fulfilling our most important goals and overcoming our goal conflict? Essentially, we want to look at our values, which are the “relatively stable, ultimate goals that harmonize our desires, emotions, and thoughts,” according to Dr. Tiberius. We want to look at what ultimate values are at stake in our goal conflict. Dr. Tiberius outlines three strategies for reducing goal conflict in relation to our values. First, refine or reinterpret your goals. Dr. Tiberius shared that in their own goal conflict between wanting to please everyone and being successful in the more aggressive field of philosophy, Dr. Tiberius reframed it as: “How can I change how I think about success in philosophy?” Second, you could give up a conflicting goal. We can look at ones that aren’t good for us or our values (e.g., maybe being perfect or having everyone like us). Third, you can prioritize and adjust. “When we have a better sense of what our ultimate goals are, we can think about how to prioritize and pursue them . . . New paths open when we recognize what really matters,” says Dr. Tiberius.

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