Ethical Guidebook

A discussion of the difference between our personal values and our public ethics, how mature citizens can support both, and why our love for public ethics must trump our love for personal and group values when they conflict in the public space. Ethics offers a guidebook for evaluating public issues and finding multilateral solutions to endless cycles of values centric conflicts and unilateral violence.

Wednesday, October 02, 2013

March to the Beat of a Different Dummer

This country has celebrated family values, touted greed is good, and laughed at dumb and dumber.  All of these are fine if limited to personal decisions that do not affect others and applied in non critical contexts.  In public decisions putting some people's interpretation of family values over everyone else's civil rights is a recipe for bullying.  Putting greed with no rules over incentive while playing fairly is a formula for financial chaos.  Putting leaders in charge who practice dumb and dumber by ignoring facts and going to war and denying climate change that is already devastating us is simple idiocy. Perhaps it is time to support more ethical and fair civil and economic rules that level the playing field and intelligent leaders who will not take us down blind paths and off economic and environmental cliffs.

Saturday, October 13, 2012

Perhaps Its Time To Re-examine The Reagan Values Revolution

Ronald Reagan is justifiably famous for touting Family Values as the core of good citizenship. His powerful message conveniently ignores the fact that family values are all about taking care of 'people like us', which is at best embarassingly egotistical and at worst ripe justification for bullying anyone different. After all, even a mafioso loves his family, but that doesn't make him a model citizen. The self-serving primacy of 'my kind of people' values conveniently ignores the fact that a sustainable civil democracy and economic framework beyond tribal boundaries requires accomodation of people with many different values and goals, and pride in contributing fair dues to help sustain the whole County club, not just the personal country club. This accomodation of different values is what in turn enables safety from prosecution and freedom for individuals to enjoy their various shades and hues of lifestyles and faiths within a heterogeneous society without fear or bullying. Perhaps Reagan's Values revolution had it wrong. The right has always been distainful of 'kumbaya' liberals, but it is the religious and political right that thinks everyone must have the same values as 'people like us' in order to get along. Reagan's right also points to the rich as a model for initiative because those people 'succeeded', and therefore they should only have to share their winnings with people like themselves. This principle is laughable because winning without fair rules and a level playing field is not really winning, and keeping all the benefits of good fortune when the whole team helped do the work is greed without honor. Even a cursory review of history is sufficient to show that countries founded on homogeneity of values and the primacy of religious or economic ideology make great kingdoms, closed theocracies and powerful oligarchies, but seldom good democracies. A love of public ethics and pride in contributing to civil society - good govenment, multilateral arbitration of rules, relatively impartial justice, real science, public education, fair pay, and fair play - are the real values required to sustain and improve our shared endeavors.

Friday, January 14, 2011

No Kumbaya Necessary

Paul Krugman's "A Tale of Two Moralities" and Obama's Arizona speech focus on our differences in values and the tone of our conversation. Our focus should be on public ethics (or lack thereof) - our love of fair play and civility. Loving values is easy, it unites us with our born or chosen ‘home teams’ – people like us or who grew up closer to us. But it also winks at bullying and even self-justified violence against those who threaten our values – pretty much like the Middle Ages. Public ethics requires the maturity to be civil, to accommodate people who are less like us or grew up further from us. America is based on civil ethics. The freedom to enjoy different values comes from voting for civil government paid by reasonable taxes to implement laws, provide public services, arbitrate glut and shortage, and enforce justice. No kumbaya necessary, just ethical maturity.

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Wednesday, July 07, 2010

It must be OK

"Somebody's making money so it must be OK" is an underlying assumption behind a lot of 'necessary' political decisions that override longer term civil rights and environmental sustainability decisions. Examined in even a trivial way, on any scale from the personal to the globe, this assumption is obviously not a healthy model for overriding other considerations.

Friday, March 19, 2010

Integrity and Ethics

Love of public ethics - fairness to others - should trump my love of my personal values and beliefs, when they conflict in the public space in a civil democracy. Personal integrity is about sustaining personal beliefs in the personal space. Both personal beliefs and one's ability to sustain them individually are individual - not public - matters in a civil democracy. Similarly, public ethics are about fairness - and not imposing my set of personal beliefs on others - in the public space. Public ethical integrity - one's ability to sustain support for fairness to others who have different personal beliefs - is a public matter necessary to sustain a civil democracy.

With these clarifications in mind, one has to ask why people continue to describe someone imposing their personal beliefs on others in a public decision, as integrity. It can be described as personal integrity if the decision is only about something that affects just that person or their own family or group, but is not public integrity or public ethics if it is an attempt to force one set of personal beliefs on everyone else, when making decisions that affect fairness in the public space.

Choosing to use the clarifying adjectives - 'personal values' and 'public ethics', helps clarify the underlying questions about integrity, and makes a clear distinction between personal integrity about beliefs within personal decisions, and public integrity about public decisions for which the ethics affect others who hold different personal beliefs.

Try applying this simple clarification to major decisions of the day, like whether to vote for Health Care or not, and it can help sort out who is being a bully and who is being a mature citizen or statesperson.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Heath care is an ethical question

Health care is very much a question about ethics as well as values. Values are about who benefits, or 'which team wins'. Ethics are about who decides, or 'what are the rules and referees'. If heath decisions and choices are more multilateral and answer more to voters over time, they are more ethical and will be more fair and sustainable long-term. If heath decisions and choices are unilaterally made based on the self-interested values of shareholders, lobbyists and insurance bureaucrats, or a given age or interest group, they are less ethical and will be less fair and sustainable long-term. So the question is not so much in details such as whether costs will rise or choices will be restricted for a given group, the question is what levers of control do we want in place for fairness to all groups sharing a sustainable economy and democracy? That's the real choice in this health care debate.

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Wednesday, November 18, 2009


The dichotomy of good versus evil is both familiar and ambiguous. Perhaps that explains its lasting power to foment allegiance or mistrust without requiring much thought or effort on anyones part - and perhaps that's why it is so often the chosen dichotomy when things get dicy. I submit that the real dichotomy underlying most dicy issues is public ethics versus personal and group values. This is both harder to initially grasp and clearer in definition than good versus evil, because it requires the extra step of asking a fairly simple question. One need only ask whether the resolution acceptable to me would be unilaterally enforced and benefit primarily me and people more like me, or would it be multilaterally determined and accomodate people less like me? If you choose the former, your definition of good versus evil is values based, driven by self-justified enforcement of solutions that benefit you whether or not they fail to accomodate others with different values. If you choose the latter, your definition of good versus evil is ethics based,driven by a desire for fair play regardless of the player. The benefit of examining the ethical question, comes from understanding that civil democracy requires it. The alternative is clubhouse democracy (or worse) that benefits those on the inside and makes life miserable for anyone different.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

The Power of Civility

The Joe Wilson 'You Lie' controversy has generated a rash of responses. Shouting to interrupt a civil process is a form of values based bullying, because it is an attempt to break from an ethical framework for discourse into a free for all of values butting heads. The most common choice of words in admonishment has been 'civility', and this choice of words is a good measure of the choice of ethics over values when arbitrating differences in the public space. Manners at the dinner table and civility in a public forum are degrees of ethical behavior critical to sustainable multilateral coexistance of different values without unilateral escalation of incivility to the point of violence. Admonishing incivility is an appropriate multilateral process and ethical framework for arbitrating differences and defusing bullies.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Kennedy Ethics

Ted Kennedy's passing has been widely noted as the loss of a great compromiser. However, his greatness was not defined by so low a scale. Anyone can compromise after all, and some for the basest of reasons. Kennedy's greatness was that he so often compromised from a position of Public Ethics - fairness, a level playing field, and higher human principles. That starting point raised Kennedy to the level of a true statesman who could look beyond the Personal Values of his own self-benefit and the limited views of his personal affiliations, religion, and ethnicity when making decisions that affected the public space. His ability as a mature citizen and Senator to appeal to Public Ethics rather than arguments of Personal Values in the end transcended his personal failures in the latter arena. To appreciate Kennedy requires that we recognize values may define the man but fall far short of defining the statesman. Historians will recognize it was Kennedy's insistance that any compromise start from a highly Ethical platform of human principles and goals of fairness that helped raise the level of resulting decisions and laws and dignified all parties involved. Ted Kennedy should therefore be honored most of all for his enduring support for Public Ethics that so significantly shaped his initiatives, tempered his compromises with an insistence on fairness, and bettered all of our public lives as a result. Let it be said Ted Kennedy was an Enlightened Statesman.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Notre Dharma

President Obama's appeal to civility to moderate values based vehemence is a step forward - and back - to the Ethics of the Enlightenment. In a multi-national, multi-religion, multi-cultural world, our common love of Ethics and fairness must trump our love of Values of our born and chosen groups, if we are to create, support and sustain civil societies capable of arbitrating multilateral solutions - with or without force - to endless cycles of values based violence.

My first post to this Ethical Guidebook quoted Mr. Obama at an earlier time making a similar appeal. While couching his language in familiar religious terms, his appeal to universal rather than parochial arguments - repeated at Notre Dame - clearly makes a break from values based to ethics based approaches when facing difficult problems. The proverbial 'moral dillema' is not a dilemma if we simply recognize that as humans we inherently love ethics and fairness as much if not more than values and self-interest, and the fact that they conflict is not a dilemma at all, but rather an indication and measure of our capacity for civil maturity.

Thursday, April 02, 2009

Ethics and Passion

Watching the HBO John Adams special, his arguments in favor of justice for British soldiers who fired on a mob hinged on eloquent appeals to ethical principles of fairness over passion. An ethical analysis would suggest that his advocacy carried the day even had there been no passion, because the issue was ethical principles of fairness over values-based self-justified violence. Had there been no mob, but rather a restrained group that took the law into their own hands, even with due deliberation and dispassionate implementation, the injustice would have been the same. Passion is not the opposite of ethics, it is simply one expression of values based definition of rules and unilateral enforcement. Public ethics, law, facts, and multilateral arbitration and enforcement frameworks must trump all expressions of values based unilateral definition of rules and self-justified escalation of enforcement, to achieve and sustain civil democracies. Adams arguments carried the day, and created a solid foundation of the principles of civil democracy born out in subsequent independence, because he so eloquently spoke to our love of fairness and our support for public ethics, with or without passion in the equasion.

Monday, March 23, 2009

Ethics of Individual Motivation and Self-Restraint

Many social goods and ills are attributed to individual motivation and self-restraint, without asking to what extent our support for public ethics contributes to those personal effects, alongside our support for personal and group values.

Individual motivation is a lot easier to appeal to, and to achieve, in a secular framework of public ethics and instututions for fairness that go beyond self-interested personal and group values butting heads to get ahead.

Similarly, individual self-restraint is a lot easier to appeal to, and to achieve, in a secular framework of public ethics and institutions for fairness that provide opportunities for civil democracy to establish multilateral arbitration and relatively unbiased enforcement when conflicts occur.

This distinction of appealing to ethical frameworks is profound because without it, we are left asking people to motivate themselves and achieve in a context that often pits powerful group values or 'clubhouse democracies' against minorities, and asking people to show self-restraint in a context of everybody for themselves.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Measuring Ethics

The measure of ethics is the extent to which people believe in externally enforced fairness.

The measure of externally enforced fairness is the extent of instruments of civility in the public space, as defined by providing relatively unbiased means and admittedly less than perfect multilateral institutions for the fair arbitration of differences, the provision and allocation of shared insurance frameworks to deal with disasters and scarcity, a range of opportunities to enjoy plenty, and timely escalation of arbitration and enforcement that mitigates the impact of unavoidable infractions.

The measure of civic maturity is the extent to which people are willing to help support those civil means and institutions in the public space.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Ethical AIGnst

The values-based (incentive driven) behavior and it's collapse at AIG was the outcome of an operating environment lacking the buffers and capacitors of public ethics rules and oversight. Self-restraint is not the heart of the problem or a sustainable solution, as much as we might denigrate the participants for lacking it, and blame the problem on it. The fundamental civil problem was that those charged with oversight applied a values-based metric that is the definition of untenable ponzie schemes, basically "as long as somebody is making money and it could be me, it's ok". Higher scores by relaxing rules does not mean a fair game, or a sustainable sport, and in fact quite predictably results in the opposite.

The solution to AIG starts with reapplication of strong public ethics rules and oversight, that will buffer extreme behavior regardless of values-driven motives and self-restraint or lack thereof on the part of individual participants. That solution also provides a framework for civilly satisfying and ethically fair evaluation of infractions and application of penalties for both past practices and current behavior. We can hopefully encourage mature citizens to put their love of public ethics and fair play above their love of personal values and the home team. But we must look to good government oversight and multilaterally arbitrated laws, and better business ethics in business charters and shareholder votes, to get us out of this mess.

Saturday, March 07, 2009

The New Agrarian Era

As a farm boy from the 50's, I loved cowboys and their free-wheeling approach to life and conflict. But I also loved agriculture, and the endless cycles and changes and opportunties it presents without destroying the land or fighting with the neighbors, and withoout having to move on. These world views conflicted in endless TV cowboy shows and mafia movies, and defined fundamental differences between Republicans and Democrats on the larger social and economic mileau.

Reagonomics was the latest face of the Cowboy Era, which basically defined 'opportunity' as finding new places not yet exploited and 'initiative' as being willing to unilaterally enforce your values-based self-interested definition of the rules of the game to make sure your team won, whether or not it was sustainable or fair to others with different personal values, or the earth. After all, you could just move on and drill-baby-drill the next place to get rich off risky behavior opportunistically pursuing 'free' stuff. As long as somebody was getting rich, and it could possibly be yourself, and nobody else stood in the way, it must be the right way to do things, and the right folks in charge. A gambling economy that unchecked will feed off and destroy any sustainable infrastructure that initially enables it.

Reagonomics is over because the Cowboy Era is over. Exploitation based self-interest can only go so far before it becomes unsustainable, and the world has run out of frontiers - or more correctly, the 'indiginous' folks around the world, some with cultures far deeper and longer than ours, now have enough clout to keep cowboys from redefining the rules and running them over. The fact that 'civil' societies have even loose holds on the rules of the game and the power of the cowboys speaks to the public ethics of others, and ethics that go beyond self interest, not the basic principles and core values of the cowboys.

So we have arrived as a society and as a world, at the logical point where 'frontiersmen' are eventually replaced by 'settlers' in every arena of life - people who care about coexistance, sustainability, mutually living well and getting richer though productive maintenance and change as teams playing within some imperfect but sufficient framework of multilaterally enforced rules of the commons, at various levels from local to international, rather than one-time exploitation and unilaterally defined solutions to problems, shortages, and riches. In other words, it is the New Agrarian Era.

To a cowboy, publicly arbitrated infrastructure and multilateral processes like taxing, building railroads, and storing grain for the 7 year famine is a waste of time unless they see some short term exploitation opportunity. To a sustainable civil society it is the way things should work. To a cowboy, anything but rugged individualism smacks of 'socialism', unless it's for military force and war because they understand unilateral, values based self-justified force. To a sustainable society, there are many ways to arbitrate differences that are fairer than unilateral force and allocation of resources and justice to maintain a level playing field, that are not extreme socialism. To a cowboy, voting is limited to 'clubhouse' democracy where 51% can redefine even the basic membership and voting rules and remove fundamental rights protecting minorities and their future opportunities for their teams to win. To a 'civil' democracy, voting is a framework for sustaining public ethics and the infrastructure of the game, not just the self-interest of the voter.

While the New Agrarian Era is not based soley on agriculture like the earliest civil societies, it does define an approach to society and economics that is basically driven by mutual sustainability even if new frontiers, foreign wars, and free stuff are not in the equasion. The most sustainable version is civil democracy within a framework of public ethics - like the U.S. Constitution and Bill of Rights. In that framework, public ethics must trump personal values.

It's time to take off the cowboy hats and learn to play, vote, and invest within the frameworks of public ethics and fair rules. Folks can still win, but not exploit 'free stuff' like there's no tomorrow.

Monday, March 02, 2009

A Rush to Demagogery

Never underestimate a demagog or bully, and Rush qualifies as both. His ‘values’ based arguments speak to those who would define a ‘good’ solution to any problem entirely in their own terms and to their own benefit.

What Rush's arguments lack is ‘ethics’, the civil maturity to recognize we cannot always have 'our' way in public matters, and the patriotism to actively support imperfect public institutions for fair arbitration of differences in values, in other words, good government.

So the answer to Rush is to appeal to mature people’s deep love of ethics - essentially loving the sport as much as the home team. The ’sport’ of government is necessary to help provide a level playing field, fair rules of the game, equal opportunities for the underdog, and third party arbitration of conflicts.

It’s not enough just to be a cheerleader for a ‘home team’ to run a government, a country, and a sustainable economy and environment. Love of ‘Values’ alone is not enough, and quite predictably declaring the primacy of ‘my’ values leads to bullying at the least and demagogs at worst, and endless cycles of values based conflicts and unilaterally justified violence. Adding Ethics does not mean people cannot strongly love their personal values and born or chosen home teams, it just means they cannot redefine the rules of the game based on whatever lets their team win. A high score does not mean a fair game, as the economic collapse has demonstrated.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Ethics Resonates

Don't believe people love ethics? Witness the outburst of public support for the pilot of the airplane that landed on the Hudson, the banker who gave millions to current and former employees, soldiers who face dark violence with determination, and countless other moving tributes to folks who 'rise above' their immediate personal and group self-interest.

Some folks would argue that Values is all we have - a human nature that is based on pure self-interest constrained only by 'moral self restraint' to provide an antidote to self-justified conflicts and violence. These folks believe we delude ourselves if we think human nature is otherwise. That kind of circular thinking leads to self-justified bullying in all its forms from playground to planetary.

The alternative is to recognize that we are also beings fully capable of Ethics - a human nature that includes an innate love of fairness as a preferred means of arbitrating conflicts, and we honor and support it when we see it in others.

Folks who recognize humans love public ethics and fairness perhaps even more than personal values and self-interest, appeal to that civic maturity to collectively help put in place multilateral institutions to facilitate fair arbitration and impartial enforcement. This breaks the cycle of self-justified conflicts and is sustainable.

This link has interesting research related to our innate love of ethics. Like many articles it uses the term 'morals' which is unfortunately quite ambiguous compared to using the word 'ethics', but the jist of the article very much supports the premise that ethical behavior is humanly innate.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Public Ethics, not 'Moral Chains'

This is a reflection on how Burke (mis)uses the phrase 'moral chains', implying that improving personal values is the solution to interpersonal conflict and necessary for sustainable societies.

The word 'moral' is so dang ambiguous, it can be measured by almost anything from personal integrity to religious creed to national honor. History shows that none of these are particularly successful means for achieving sustainable peace and justice beyond the scope of closed groups.

If you replace the phrase 'moral chains' with 'public ethics', it not only makes Burke's statement much more positive and inviting, it makes it much clearer in meaning and broader in scope, and more achievable as individuals without having to become 'purer' individually. It is unfortunate that Burke as well as other powerful and good thinkers including Chomsky, have often failed to make the important semantic distinction between ambiguous context-defined terms like 'morality' and 'values', and the term, 'ethics', which clearly means 'in the public space' and is not constrained to any particular moral value or creed.

There are huge impacts to understanding civil society hinges on something more than 'moral chains'. Defining the requirement as 'public ethics' creates an opportunity for solutions that do not depend on somehow learning to love each other better, or finding ways to cooperate or compromise on an adhoc basis with our immediate neighbors and tribes.

We can in fact support public ethics on any scale from the local neighborhood to worldwide, by recognizing our innate human love of fairness (which every child has from birth), and putting that above our love for strongly held born or chosen personal and group values.

Asking us to love fairness as well as winning is not particularly difficult, every sports lover does it, and so does every person glued to watching countless 'judge' and 'crime' focused TV shows. In fact, loving public ethics as well as personal values provides an 'out', a means for finding and supporting fair solutions without having to somehow learn to love other teams as much as our own. It allows us to maintain personal integrity and religious creeds in our personal and group lives, while supporting imperfect civil institutions for multilateral arbitration of differences in public decisions and activities. Nobody argues civil institutions and public ethics have ever been perfect, but they do achive some level of fairness - certainly far more than unilateral imposition of 'our' values (or somebody elses) or unilateral escalation of enforcement and violence.

If we think in terms of public ethics as well as personal values, we can fully support fairness and sustainable solutions in the public space while actually continuing to despise and hate other teams - other people's different born or chosen values in their personal and group spheres of activity. We don't have to learn to like anybody, or change our values in our personal space, just be mature citizens who recognize we can't always have our way in the public space.

Supporting ethical frameworks also offers opportunities for defining peace as arbitration of differences and enforcement of solutions via institutions for multilateral conflict resolution. These institutions and means including town boards, legislatures, police, judges, treaties, and coalition-based wars for example, which even at their worst are far more just and accomodate differences in values better than any unilateral solution.

Finally I'd add that pubic ethics very much applies to solutions to fair allocation of both shortages and surpluses, and application of science and other instruments of imperfect but fair arbitration to achieve sustainable human interaction and sustenance on a limited environment.

This means loving public ethics and letting it trump our personal values can and does in fact help to achieve civil societies and a world that is more sustainable and more peaceful, without having to look for solutions to arrive at a state of peace that is defined as somehow magically having no more conflicts.

Public ethics has a lot to offer, and this term should be part of discussions of every public issue and a foundation for conflict resolution. Appealing to people's innate love for fairness and asking their support for institutions of public ethics is the much simpler and more easily achieved path, compared to trying to change or find common ground between individual values. In fact it is public ethics alone that permits different individual and group values to continue to sustainably thrive in the personal space, alongside multilaterally arbitrated fairness and constraints in the public space.

So maintaining a fair and sustainable society and world does not depend on imposing some unilateral definition of Burke's 'moral chains', nor does it require that individuals change or compromose their personal behavior in their personal and group spheres of activity. It only requires being mature citizens and a bit less selfish when making decisions and interacting in the public space, based on a love of fairness. My belief is that's the only realistic and achievable type of solution. This is the core message of the enlightenment and the foundation of civil democracies.

Wednesday, February 04, 2009

Ethical Measuring Sticks

Sometimes it is handy to have a 'measuring stick' to sort out complex decisions. We can look at the words that are used as an Ethical Measuring Stick.

There is usually no lack of words that promote Personal Values because self-interest in supporting the 'home team' is always part of the picture. What's confusing is trying to sort out conflicting Values if one only looks at the self-interested viewpoints that promote unilateral solutions (the classic 'butting heads' scenario). Instead, one should also look for words that promote Public Ethics and fair solutions.

So next time you see an article or viewpoint, count the number of words that appeal to Public Ethics, such as Fair, Civil, Principle, Multilateral, Due Process, Arbitrate, Regulate, Equality. To the extent these terms are used, the viewpoint is more supportive of Ethics.

Whether you personally choose to support Public Ethics as a fair way to arbitrate the outcome, regardless of your home team values, is a decision each individual has to make, but at least ask the question and know the Ethical options as well as the Values options.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Sustainable Public Ethics Requires Enforcement

Just as surely as a nation's forward-looking statements promote ethics and the rule of law in the public space, so must a nation's backward-looking history enforce them to sustain a civil democracy. Mature citizens and statesmen recognize the need for due process including judicial review and enforcement against actions at odds with constitutionally based ethical codes and laws, to avoid a legacy of special cases leading to unilaterally justified disregard for ethical codes and laws in the future.

Just as Torture is both ethically and legally wrong, even when justified by the protection of strongly held values, so is watering down the definition based on whether it 'works' or not, and lack of enforcement based on circumstantially perceived values-based short term benefits.

Torture is Terrorism - Both Lack Basic Ethics

Torture represents a withdrawl to the pre-Enlightenment model of rule by unilaterally justified brutality, just as surely as that pre-Enlightenment model applies to Terrorism. Both assert the ultimate primacy of personal and group values, above civil interests and public ethics. This is the hallmark of bullies from schoolyard to throne.

Post-Enlightenment civil democracies (as opposed to 'clubhouse democracies' that benefit those within the group while ostracizing those not in the group) uphold the primacy of Public Ethics - fairness, rule of law, and multilateral arbitration including escalation of force where necessary - above personal and group values. This is the foundation of civilizations that accomodate more than one viewpoint, race, and religion, and the definition of personal and civic maturity.

Good citizens support Public Ethics in bad times as well as good, and accept dependence on multilateral - not unilateral - institutions and enforcement that define the circumstances of personal freedom, and the personal risks that accrue when not allowed to act as judge, jury and executioner by using a personal weapon whenever self-justified, or enabling others to do so as illustrated by the blatantly values-centric and unethically premised TV series, '24'.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Work Ethics

We routinely use the phrase 'good work ethics' to describe folks who put dedication to fairly supporting good processes, open communication, and a commitment to meet the public interest as well as the business interest, above short-term personal or business gain that might shortchange or cheat on long term business or public interests. Similarly we use the phrase 'good business ethics' to describe folks who put dedication to fairly supporting all participants in a business - including workers, and a commitment to meet the public interest as well as the long term business interest, above short-term personal, management, or shareholder gains. We don't use the word 'values' to describe these kinds of ethics, because 'values' is too ambiguous and does not capture the essense of ethics - the love of fairness above selfishness, the love of good process above special cases, and the love of long term interests above short term gain. Let's apply this same love of ethics over values, to our work, our business, and our government as we support fair solutions to our environmental and economic challenges in both good and bad times.

Wednesday, December 31, 2008

A New Years Resolution

I pledge allegiance to Public Ethics - the civil insitutions, due process and multilateral solutions of democracy that allow all people to freely hold and enjoy their many different born and chosen personal and group values, and that provide a fair means to allocate public dues, balance the impact of shortages and the benefits of excesses, insure the rights of minorities alongside slowly changing majorities, and enable us to fairly arbitrate both internal differences and external conflicts without reverting to unilaterally imposed constraints on the rights of others or unilateral escalation of violence.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Time to Tax the Internet?

Recent news articles highlight a litany of state budget crises with an equally long list of proposed solutions, some spelled 'bailout' and some 'new taxes'. No one has yet stared down the real elephant in the room: the huge drain on the public and local economies, of internet sales with no state or local taxes. The economic crisis has made us acutely aware nothing is free, including our shared 'buying club' of publicly funded infrastructure and services. The lack of internet sales tax violates two principles of public ethics, the first being that taxes are fundamental to sustainable civilization in all aspects since the very dawn of non-tribal societies, and the second being that 'free' internet sales tilt the playing field sharply away from local purchases at a time when revitalizing local economies is paramount. One can only hope that the Obama economic plan includes a simple, innovative solution that will help state governments coordinate internet sales taxes, such as providing a means for the checkout step to display taxes due based on the ship-to ZIP code (the physical 'point of sale'), and to allow Paypal, VISA, and other payment coordinators to collect the tax. The alternative is the 'value' of a free lunch but no ethical framework to sustain a house to eat it in.

Chicago Ethics

A national news commentator suggested Illinois governor Blagojevich, who is accused of trying to sell Obama's Senate seat, erred primarily in his affrontry, not his action. It was suggested that trading favors is unavoidable among public officials, and his sin was lacking the good form to do it with a surreptitious wink and nod. This shocking statement reveals an inability on the part of the commentator to distinguish the ethics of the matter, from the values. Good public ethics demand (regardless of legal nuance) publicly coordinating a multilateral input process for allocation of scarce resources (in this case a Senate seat) to advance shared public goals. What the governor is accused of doing is privately imposing a unilateral process to advanced what were clearly personal goals and values, at the public expense or in disregard thereof. Neither a surreptitious wink nor a blatant solicitation of a bribe makes the latter values-based sows ear into the former ethics-based silk purse. Winking at putting personal values above public ethics, is the first form of evil because it is only a short path from publicly acceptance to major abuse.

Monday, December 01, 2008

An Opportunity for Thanksgiving

What we are giving the most Thanksgiving for this year, and the only Christmas present we need this year, is already on its way to the White House - an opportunity to refocus our energy and enthusiasm on the shared institutions, due process, multilateral oversight, and fair principles that help us live together a bit more peacefully and sustainably. These are much more valuable and important than our various beloved home teams, differences in birth or circumstance, or what we have materially.

Monday, November 24, 2008

Robot Soldiers and Ethical Issues

A New York Times "Taking Orders' article makes very good points about how a robotic soldier might arguably be more ethically dispassionate than an angry or fearful all-too-human soldier lashing out in the heat of battle, but the article then proceeds to blur the terminology by saying that making an ethical robot will raise MORAL issues.

Wait a minute, there IS a difference, that's why there are DIFFERENT WORDS. The soldier shooting anybody who approaches to save their buddies - or even their buddies dead bodies - from the 'bad guys' (as happened in Mogadishu) might be said to be very moral (even a 'hero') within their self-justified home team values based frame of reference, but they are not being ethical.

The article says this well, and it quotes a research reference that is quite dramatic. But as long as folks keep mushing the terminology by using 'ethical', 'moral', and 'values' in the same sentence as though they are synonyms, it's going to remain impossible to get past the quite predicatable conclusion that every difficult contention (with or without robots) must necessarily degrade into a 'moral dilemma' of different self-serving values butting heads.

Unfortunately that values-constrained level of problem analysis often results in concluding there is no fair answer, just different values, pick your side, and ends up not really examining the ethics of conflict resolution that follow unbiased principles and multilateral processes (with or without force). Yikes! We can do better than '24', we don't need more self-justified judge-jury-torturer-executioners.

I wonder what Noam Chomsky would say about this? Is a linguistic problem with using 'morals' and 'ethics' interchangably, contributing to a major social problem with defining means for principled conflict resolution - with or without robots?

Sunday, November 02, 2008

A Vote for Ethics

Support for Obama from folks who might traditionally have voted for someone ‘more like themselves’ may reflect a deeper change going on in this nation than just setting racial schisms aside. Our decade long love affair with self-centered values based thinking has left this nation mired in a costly unilateral conflict and unregulated values-driven excess. There’s nothing wrong with having strong values, but values alone cannot define what’s right for a country and for the world. We are recognizing the need for ethics - the need for higher principles, fair play, and multilateral solutions to complex values-driven conflicts, shortages, and excesses. We are voting to put public ethics above personal values.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

SUVS - An example of Values based cheating

The unregulated roots of the current economic crisis coincides not remarkably with the unregulated advent of the SUV. This is a case study in the unsustainability of putting personal values above public ethics. Folks may think a SUV represents family values and safety, but the true hallmark of the SUV that differentiates it from a car is cheating, plain and simple. SUVS cheat on fuel efficiency and emissions standards, often burning twice as much oil and creating twice as much global warming as a car, to go the same distance with the same number of occupants. SUVS cheat on safety standards with high-set bumpers, oversized tires, and overweight mass that cause SUV's to gain safety at the expense of cars in SUV-car collisions. SUVS look 'good' only if one is willing to put self-centered values above shared safety and shared interests in keeping oil consumption, global warming, and costs down.

So the perfect storm of economic crisis and oil crisis is no coincidence, and in fact the SUV is a major contributor to both. The most important thing an SUV owner can do is fess up to the fact that no good comes from cheating on everyone else in the name of family values, and then to do something about it. A good start would be to vote for fair public leaders and programs that implement fair shared regulations on safety, emissions, and mileage, not just self-serving (and unsustainable) values.

Monday, October 13, 2008

When Values Are Not Enough

The premise that family and group 'values' should also define what we do in the public space, has gone largely unquestioned the past two decades. Now the fruits of unchecked self-serving values lie rotting on the market floor, the pain and cost of ill-advised values-based unilateral conflicts continue their circle of violence, and the vision of the white city on the hill literally washes away in an unchecked flood of the growing effects of global warming.

So what do we turn to when Values are not enough? Looking back a bit to the dawn of the Enlightenment we see a model based on mature citizens and worthy leaders putting public ethics above personal values when making choices in the public space. A fair game takes teams that respect shared rules, and strong referees, not just strong teams.

Ethics - the law, scientific facts, multilateral solutions, due process, and oversight - must trump values in the public space, no matter how dearly held, secularly blessed, or transitionally profitable our various personal and group values appear to be. Perhaps we should try putting our public ethics above our personal values when we vote for leaders in the public space?

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Wednesday, August 13, 2008

The Degrees of Freedom

Good public ethics enable and maximize options for private personal values to the extent they do not take away other's public rights to different personal values. In general, this defines personal freedoms that coexist sustainably with pubic ethics.

Personal freedom within public space and rules, is defined to a great extent using these four simple metrics: To what extent do personal freedoms enable Anonymous behavior, Ambiguous behavior, Autonomous behavior, and Ambivalent behavior?

In other words, personal freedom is maximized within public ethics to the extent that it can be (though it certainly does not necessarily need to be):
- Anonyous - I do not have to tell people who I am
- Ambiguous - I do not have to explain what I am doing
- Autonomous - Nobody else can tell me whether or not to do it
- Ambivalent - I have a choice of behaviors not dictated by a single external creed or authority

Clearly not all behavior falls within personal freedom, we exist in shared public space. Personal values cannot dictate choices within that space or choices made in the private space by others. When our public ethics conflict with our personal values in the public space, public ethics must trump personal values to preserve both public ethics and personal freedoms. The above metrics help establish limits for and measure the success of sustainable public ethics for fair play and rules that enable and maximize personal freedom alongside public ethics based behaviors in the public space.

Thursday, May 29, 2008

Covering Ethics in the News

The news media has largely degenerated into covering 'values', which basically means find folks with different self-interests and let them make their pitches. This conveniently excuses the media from doing actual fact finding and independent reporting and analysis. What's missing these days is media coverage of the ethics of the issues.

Full and independent coverage of the public ethics of an issue, is not the same as bringing in two different values-based viewpoint proponents to butt heads. That kind of discussion rarely rises to the level of asking ethical questions about the actual issues, instead it quite predictably degrades into making the proponents and their relative character the issue. What a schoolyard excuse for news reporting!

Instead, the news media can and should be fully and independently reporting on the public ethics of major issues, regardless of whether they can round up two values-based proponents. The public ethics are the facts according to disinterested parties, the options related to fairness and non-unilateral means of resolution (with or without force), the long term sustainability of possible resolutions, and the relevant human rights of affected majorities and minorities. Shows like 60 minutes used to introduce a bit of this kind of reporting, it should be half the news segment in regular news hours on every major issue. All that is required of the news media is to ask, how does this issue relate to facts and fairness, as well as who might 'win' or 'lose'.

Monday, April 28, 2008

The Mature Citizen

Religion and spirituality are very important to our human needs and group values. They form strong sets of born or chosen value systems with internally and hierarchially administered rules within that value set that provide a framework for personal decisions.

Science provides the underpinning of the ethics behind the enlightenment through arbitration of differences in values and perceptions based on due process and documentation of facts as best can be achieved at the time.

The two address two very different and fundamentally important human needs for both values - our love for the home team, and ethics - our love of fair play beyond the scope of the home team.

Mature citizens have no problem supporting both their home team values and fair play even when they conflict, by letting their love of public ethics trump their love of personal and group values when making public decisions.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

The Power of Our Ethics

The failure of Mr. Bush's War, and the core of Mr. Obama's Hope, come down to the same thing: Do we allow our love for Public Ethics (fair play) trump our love for Personal Values (the home team) when they conflict?

Our common love for Public Ethics and fairness offers a check and balance on our love for our Personal Values. Letting our Public Ethics trump our Personal Values when making Public (versus Private) decisions is the very definition of Civic Maturity, the foundation of Democracy, the core idea of the Enlightenment, and the heart of Environmental and Social Ethics.

Real leaders understand the power of Ethics and appeal to our understanding, Bullies only comprehend Values and appeal to our fear and greed.

Our love for Public Ethics and the institutions we nurture and support for fair allocation of glut and shortage, for maintaining a level playing field and equal opportunity, and for multilateral escalation of arbitration and enforcement when Values conflict, will sustain us through crisis.

The sad alternative if one only focuses on love for Personal Values, is endless cycles of Values based fear and greed, and unilateral escalations of self-serving violence when Values conflict.

Therefore as Citizens of a Democracy and of the World, we recognize and nurture our common love for Public Ethics when making Public Decisions and let it mitigate our equally strong love of our Personal Values in our Private Lives. This is the message Mr. Obama understands clearly, and seeks to lead this nation to honor.

This is the message that Mr. Bush's failure to comprehend dooms his efforts to unending cycles of Values based unilateral war.

Thursday, February 28, 2008

A Sense of Place

My dad passed away recently, my mom a few years earlier. They gave me a sense of place in both a world of values - home, farm, family, religion, culture, country - and a world of ethics - accomodation and tolerance of others who are different, the joy and power of music and harmony, love of education and acceptance of facts, appreciation for decent government and institutions of fairness. One of my mom's favorite sayings was, "I just can't stand intolerance!". Hopefully some of that rubbed off.

The Ethics of Consumption

VALUES based thinking sees the world in terms of whether things have values to humans or not. If it cannot be consumed by someone, and preferrably your own team, it is a problem. That's why values based world views without ethical maturity are so challenged by any attempt to put any restrictions on opportunities to consume. Consumption is equated with 'growth' and the assumption is that the only alternative is stagnation.

ETHICAL based thinking sees the world in terms of sustainable coexistance. Humans are part of that world and understand sustaining a healthy world is valuable whether or not every part of it is consumable by humans. To the extent people support ethics as well as personal values, they will mitigate their consumption and accept restrictions on consumption to accomodate sustainability. Sustainability is equated with 'healthy change' that continues to provide opportunities and the assumption is that destructive or unnecessary consumption are not growth, but rather loss.

Because the global environment is the largest 'playing field' on which all humans participate, environmental ethics are the most important type of civic maturity necessary for humans with different values and different levels of access to both shortages and plenty, to mitigate their own values and coexist within collaboratively arbitrated restrictions on consumption necessary for the overall sustainability of the playing field and human fairness to preserve future opportunities for those on the short end of the stick as well as those currently in the gravy bowl.

Thursday, January 31, 2008

Beyond Good Behavior

Values are fine, but personal values must be trumped with personal love for public ethics whenever the two conflict...and it goes much deeper than just 'good behavior'.

Simply defining the solution to conflicts as 'good behavior' opens the door to ambiguities that can be easily twisted into calls for enforcement of values based moral creeds, rather than public ethics based civil rules of fair play - and these are very, very different animals indeed.

Public ethics, rules of fair play, and unbiased arbitration of differences and escallation of force are the very definition of 'civil' in all its variations from personal acts of 'mere' civility to accepting and understanding mature civilian roles as voter, dues payer, and juror - the hallmarks of civilization itself.

Values based behavior cannot sustain a civil society, no matter what the 'moral creed', or how good the intentions, or how broad common ground. These are nice sounding appeals, but dead end solutions. We don't need a creed, we don't have to like each other, and we don't have to have common values. All that is required for a civil society, is acceptance that we love both our personal values and public ethics, and that public ethics trumps.

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

A Wish for Peace in 2008

Let us all support a World of Peace by listening to our cherished inborn sense of ethics that finds voice in universal principles of fairness and action in imperfect but powerful institutions of voting, democracy and multilateral collaboration, in order to help us accomodate our inevitable and never-fully-resolved differences both locally and globally, and to help us share both abundant and dwindling resources and sustain a healthy natural world, even when these ethical principles and fair means of resolution are at odds with or frustrating to our equally cherished born and chosen common sense values and the strongly held religions and beliefs that define our souls and the fabric of our personal and group lives, so that we can live and let live without unilaterally defined rules and externally enforced and violent solutions in the public space, and so that we can enjoy our differences and live happily with others by neither prosteletizing nor shunning those who did not grow up near us or necessarily share any of our values, yet somehow share the same inborn sense of ethics and desire for fairness. Anything beyond that is another level of Peace, and welcome to it.

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

Ask Candidates About Their Public Ethics

Asking Romney - and other candidates - about their personal values and faith is essentially a private matter. In a Democracy, a person's personal faith and values – or even a lack thereof - should arguably not be a public issue or even a criteria for public leadership. Democracy is inherently designed to maximize private choices in values and faith by leaving it out of public decisions. After all, even the Pilgrims chose to have a secular leader to make sure evolving interpretations of faith did not dictate justice.

The question we should ask candidates is this - “Do you believe that public ethics and Democratic principles should always trump personal beliefs and values, when different values conflict?” Voters and journalists need to ask this ethical question as well as 'values' questions whenever we examine candidates, discuss issues, go to the voting booth, or make any kind of public decision that affects others, because Democracy depends on it. Public ethics means loving the Democratic principles, processes, institutions, and laws that assure far play, due process, and rule of law, regardless of differences in values and faiths. Without ethics, we will not sustain the Democratic freedom to have different personal values and faiths.

To put this in simpler terms, if values are like our love for the Packers (pick your team), then ethics are like our love of the game of football. It takes strong ethical leadership and support at all levels - coach, player, referee, fan, and even cheerleader - to uphold the rules of the game, fair play, and the institutions and frameworks that sustain a level playing field with opportunity for other teams as well as our own. In the public space, ethical leadership and support means upholding the ethics and principles that define Democracy and finding ways to achieve solutions through coalitions and unbiased arbitration of differences, even when others cheat or our home team takes a hit.

We all have strong values within our born or chosen families,groups, religions, nations, and teams. But these values must never trump our love of public ethics in the public space and when we vote and make public decisions, because values based decisions are inherently self-serving and the result is monarchy, theocracy,oligarchy, and other populist systems with deep shared values but non-democratic outcomes.

Mature citizens and great elected officials love both ethics and values and say Yes when asked to put public ethics above home team values when they conflict. This question, and this question alone, uniquely assures that the team in power will not put winning at all costs, demonization of the enemy, and stretching the rules to favor the current team, above the core patriotic principles and ethics necessary to sustain participatory Democracy.

We need to know our leaders are up to it.

Tuesday, October 02, 2007

The Ethics of Escalation of Force

The Blackwater hearings focus new attention on an old issue - what ethics - what principles, rules, and oversight- apply to escalations of violence? In a Democracy, ethics trumps values. Police and soldiers cannot justify shooting into a crowd to catch a 'bad guy', nor can they justify escalation of force based soley on a perception of a threat to their right of self-preservation. The role of police and soldiers requires acceptance of a high level of risk that oneself or one's buddies might be shot in an ambiguous situation. No civilized (read that ethical) society since the Enlightenment justifies proactive shooting unless actually attacked. We rightly honor the bravery and chivalry of police and soldiers who take the burden of assuming innocence rather than guilt, and who put innocent lives above their own. In Blackwater's case, it appears self-justified values based on an extreme definition of the rights of self-preservation, trump ethics. A Democracy cannot be sustained internally nor accepted abroad unless ethics trumps values. The escalation of force by police and soldiers charged with the public trust must operate within the ethical framework of principles,rules, and oversight that define civilized democracies.

Thursday, August 02, 2007

Values Based Decisions Create a Bridge to Nowhere

After a major bridge collapse in Minneapolis, there has been an outpouring of heartfelt public concern about our shared lack of support for 'infrastructure’. This gets to the heart of the problem - what does it mean to support shared infrastructure?

Infrastructure fails because of a lack of support for all kinds of shared resources - roads and bridges, air quality, all free living things, health care, education, the list goes on. These do not 'benefit' from privatization and dollar-based valuation to the exclusion of other considerations.

The bottom line is that our shared infrastructure fails because this country has forgotten what it means to support Public Ethics. Instead, 400 years since the Enlightenment of growing Public Ethics, has instead disintegrated in recent years into rabid discussions of Values, as though Values are the answer to all our problems. Nothing could be further from the truth.

To sustain a healthy democracy - and it’s shared infrastructure and resources - all journalists, politicians, and mature citizens need to spend more time talking about and supporting Public Ethics - the rules of fair play, the processes and institutions that support them, and willingness to pay membership fees - taxes- that support solutions that help all of us, including those who choose to live differently than we do. A discussion of Values - even opposing Values - can never rise above a level of measuring everything in terms of personal benefits, and the result is clubhouse democracy that directs support and resources to those who are currently in a majority in terms of votes or power, and often 'to heck with everyone else'. Values alone are not inherently a problem, we all have them and they define our personal and group identifications. The problem is that we must each also support Public Ethics, and temper our Personal Values with Public Ethics when making choices, voting, discussing issues, and paying membership fees that support fair civil rights and shared public resources.

So it's not that hard. A sustainable, healthy country - and world - just needs to spend a bit less talk, money and resources on Personal Values, because Values based decisions will always tend to skew resources toward more extreme consumers (those who 'value' the resource the most) and skew rights toward more extreme and intolerant dogmatists (those who insist on their way or the highway).

The bridge to nowhere starts with a loss of Enlightened Ethics. Rebuilding starts with renewed attention to, and support for, mature Public Ethics when we make choices, vote, and discuss public issues about shared needs and resources.

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

An Occasional Bug Is Ok

Another Earth Day has passed and another Endangered Species Day went largely unnoticed because we think they are about nature 'somewhere else'. In the meantime we continue to wreak destruction on the earth at home and on our fellow humans if we don't like their tribe. There is a connection. To bring home the ethics of the environment, nothing could be more profound to say than these simple words: "An Occasional Bug is Ok".

We now teach our children from their earliest years by action and by attitude that if they see a bug it should be killed because it might do something bad, or even if it just makes us or those we love uncomfortable. How can the real world environment and all it's complex interrelated creatures hope to survive such an onslaught of thoughtless, destructive, fear based behavior?

These same children grow to become decision making adults who feel that it is somehow justified to preemptively kill those humans who are not like us, or willingly accept the daily carnage of 'collateral damage' of innocent lives lost, because we think some of those strangers might do something bad to us or those we love. How can real world politics and international coexistence survive such an abysmally self-centered attitude?

It's time to teach our children a new song, both for the earth and for our ethics, and it starts with the words, "An Occasional Bug is Ok".

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

End of Falwell Era a Dawn of Ethics?

Jerry Falwell popularized the phrase 'moral majority'. A more direct appeal to the primacy of personal and group values would be hard to come by. Unfortunately it also conflicted with just about every tenant of public ethics - fair play, unbiased arbitration of differences, upholding the rights of minorities - those pesky ethical considerations so necessary to uphold a civil society without becoming a theocracy.

After all, a democracy based soley on the values of the majority, with no overriding ethical principles and processes, is nothing more than clubhouse democracy - great for those on the inside and a tyranny for those who fail to see eye to eye with the majority.

Here's to a bright and shining future that revisits the ethics of the enlightenment, not just the values of our various born or chosen groups, nations, and religions.

And here's to journalists, politicians, and citizens who begin again to recognize that it is important for a free and fair democracy to consider, uphold and support public ethics when we evaluate issues and when we vote, as well as the various personal and group values we each hold

Wednesday, May 09, 2007

The stream of disagreements about the current IRAQ conflict flow around a large rock called 'supporting the troops'. The implication is that our soldier warriors are assumed to be doing a great job and that autmatically somehow means the job is worth doing, independent of why they were sent, what effect it is actually having, whether they apply ethics beyond saving their buddy, and in the end, what ethical framework defines and constrains their role.

So while I support and empathize fully with the difficult value decisions that face individuals thrust into combat situations, I find ethics is actually getting pretty short shrift. We're seeing way too much in the way of values based decisions and judge-jury-executioner action, and way too little ethics based due process that says soldiers cannot just shoot into a crowd after they are fired upon, and cannot kill just to protect their buddy from a 'possible' attack.

For unbiased, ethical use of force, we look to police and to coalition managed soldiers (eg UN hosted actions) because they are much better at setting an ethical framework and constraints that give what many folks call 'moral' foundation to a war (what they really mean is ethical due process beyond pure self-interest of the parties). This is necessary to give soldiers a framework for war beyond kill or be killed. For example, the same soldier participating in a UN-coordinated police action is a lot different ethically, than a soldier in a unilateral war based on promoting the self-interested values of the participant soldiers, for that reason. Interesting thought, no?

Monday, March 05, 2007

Public Ethics must trump Personal Values if you support nonviolent solutions to growing resource challenges

Public ethics - including green choices individually and as a society - must trump personal values - minor differences in purely selfish terms - if you believe in reasonable, non-violent solutions to resource challenges and intergroup conflicts. The alternative - growing resource challenges and intergroup conflicts - is not cheap and it is often violent - just witness the impact of recent increases in extreme weather, and the war in Iraq. So supporting higher fuel economy standards (no cheating like SUVS) or forking over a little more for a hybrid if you can swing it, can make a pretty important difference to your life and everyone else's in this world, even if it means a little less for something else in your life.

Thursday, March 01, 2007

Values and Ethics of Charity

Charitable contributions by some of the world's richest individuals has thrust an interesting question into the headlines - why do they do it? If we accept that most humans are motivated to support public ethics to some extent as well as personal values, we might assume charity to be the 'public ethics' part. However, ethics requires independent management by disinterested parties not necessarily sharing the value system of the individual making the charitable contribution. This is the ethical distinction between personal charity and public taxes.

Thursday, January 11, 2007

Moral Values do not Public Ethics Make

Personal morality and group values are the cherished foundation of personal integrity, family cohesion, religious guidance, and national patriotism. There's nothing wrong with morals and values. They are after all the glue that binds similar people together and maintains cohesive order within groups.

But personal morality and group values do not public ethics make. The two have become badly confused in the minds of voters, politicians, and journalists. We confuse different values butting heads with ethical choices about how we will coexist as a public. Ethics and principles must sometimes trump personal morality and group values in a democracy.

Social orders founded only on values are necessarily based on closed sets of shared views and allegiances of particular groups. This is by definition inadequate to bind a secular democracy of dissimilar people, alternative families and customs, multiple religions, and individual rights that will always to some extent conflict.

Our country's obsession with self-serving values, left untempered by ethical democratic principles and external diplomacy, is at the root of problems from New Orleans to Baghdad. Ethics is more than just the opposite of individual criminal conduct.

Ethics and principles and due process are the glue that binds unlike groups of people together and maintains a level playing field arbitrated using non-violent solutions to injustice between groups in a civil society and a multicultural world.

Perhaps it is time to start the 21st century over on the right foot by giving ethics and principles predominance when values conflict. Let's quit moving back in history to a time before the Magna Carta and the Enlightenment, and move forward in history to an even better ethical democracy.

Thursday, December 28, 2006

The Ethics of Cloned and Genetically Modified Food Sources

Some cloned 'natural supergene' based food sources as well as genetically modified food sources are being declared scientifically 'safe' by some scientists and government agencies. Typically enough editors and consumers are being asked to focus on a value-oriented question limited to personal self-interest and only the end product: Would you buy and eat them?

Honest science requires looking at ecological impacts not just end products. For example, with cloned animals the end product may be 'identical' but we the public risk added disease outbreaks from industries promoting ever more extreme monocultures. Honest business requires looking at market impacts not just end products. For example with cloning based factory farms and genetic modification related patents we the public risk increased monopolies on production and reduced access to natural genetics, not just the end product. Honest ethics requires informed consent and opportunity for oversight by all the public, and application of law where necessary in the public interest, not just opportunities for some to get increased income value from end products. So honest science, honest business, and honest ethics demand that cloned as well as genetically modified plant and animal products must be separately regulated and labelled, not concealed, so consumers can choose to pay for the ecosystem and business market they want, and support the ethical oversight and laws and regulations they want, not just the end product.

Given the many natural, robust genetic alternatives that already exist, and the disease risks, economic stratification, and environmental pollution that already occur with increased factory model plant and animal production and associated monocultures, the cheapest or best end product is perhaps the least important factor in consumer purchase and government regulation decisions.

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Clubhouse Democracy is not Democracy

Looking at conflicts from the middle East to Ireland to South Africa, a pattern emerges.

The common denominator of successful solutions like Ireland and South Africa are Democratic Institutions that assure Equal Participation based on Ethical Principles that go beyond the exclusionary values of closed groups.

The common denominator of failures and conflicts is Clubhouse Democracy that excludes some groups from equal voting rights and denies them civic and legal assurances of the level playing field required to assure opportunities for a free social life, pursuit of individual and group values, and economic opportunity.

Areas in conflict will remain so until they are willing to make a serious effort to implement True Democracies rather than just Clubhouse Democracies limited to those who share exclusionary values, ethnicity, religion, or heritage. The historically successful solutions share a history of input by charismatic leaders who emphasize Ethics above personal and group values, and multilateral arbitration that emphasizes diplomacy over force, not unilaterally imposed military solutions.

Monday, November 20, 2006

Science and Religion Do Mix

Science provides the underpinning of the ethics behind the enlightenment - unbiased arbitration of differences based on due process and documentation of facts as best can be achieved at the time. Religion remains very important as sets of closed value systems with internally and hierarchially administered rules within that value set. The two address two very different and equally important human needs - for both values - love of the home team - and ethics - love of fair play beyond the scope of the home team. We need both, rather than try to make either into the other.

Sunday, October 22, 2006

Everyone thinks 'peace' is an end, a theoretical state in which there are no conflicts over differences. When there are major differences, some think unilateral application of self-justified force - war - is the only solution to 'achieve peace' and protect 'our values'.

There will never be a state in which there are no major conflicts over differences because there will never be a time when everyone 'has the same values'.

Peace is not the end, it is a means to an end. Or more explicitly, peace is having the social commitment and civil capability for fair arbitration of differences to enable coexistance of different values. Peace is the application of ethical means to non-violently arbitrate major differences as well as day-to-day differences through rule of laws designed to protect 'the common good' through consortia and unbiased application of justice. This can include consortia approved police actions which operate under rule of law to protect coexistence of different values, which is fundamentally different than unilaterally justified war to protect one set of values. Democracy is a historically successful means to enable this kind of ethical arbitration, but only if established through due process, practiced on a civil scope, and committed to consortia frameworks that scale from local to international, not just clubhouse democracy within membership of a closed value system or a single geographic entity.

Friday, October 20, 2006

Definition of Ethics:
Ethics is support for equitable rules, rights, procedures, and principles that serve to help establish and maintain a level playing field for unbiased, evidence based, nonviolent arbitration of differences while enabling maximum freedom to pursue both commonly held and less commonly held individual and group values.

Monday, October 02, 2006

Isn't it interesting that "the Mayflower Compact was signed to establish a civil government based upon a majoritarian mode" rather than simply adopt the autocratic rule of their existing majority religion infrastructure and decision making hierarchy? (above quote credited to WikiPedia). The latter solution would have much more directly implemented the 'shared values' of the majority, and more definitely assured preservation of control thereof, but even this highly religious group of founders for some reason preferred a 'civil' secular government that could be trusted to provide an ethical, fair long-term framework based on principles of law, and not to become another Church of England.

The Driving Roots of Ethics

In terms of genetic evolution and historical record, all people to some extent carry two distinct drives that often conflict. Both are important to individual and collective survival, and either one by itself lacks a full and reasonable definition of our common humanity.

The first drive is toward values and morals, defined largely in terms of 'belonging' or close identity with those similar to themselves or those who grew up nearer to them (fill in family, team, religion, race, nation or whatever group serves the same values and interests as yourself). This kind of belonging can be and often is justified based largely on faith and beliefs that are internally self-interested and consistent, but not necessarily shared outside that group.

The evolutionary roots of self-interest are pretty self-evident to most people, especially when considered in terms of limited scope and anecdotal example. Solutions to problems of self-interest are seen as 'just' when resolved in terms of internal group rules defined and justified through internally accepted dogma, and when enforced internally by those who provide leadership to the group that benefits directly from the enforcement (in the classic sense, high enough a 'moral authority' within the accepted framework to act as judge, jury and executioner). Problem resolution beyond internal disputes is typically implemented through escalation scales of devaluation and demonization of those different, and the application of unilateral and even pre-emptive force (eg armies who are meeting the group mission to go after the bad guys can do so without major regard for anyone else outside the group who is in the way). While the internal value system may include sympathy for those different, this does not necessarily include empathy for their continued right to be different without considering something 'wrong' with them. This keeps 'the family' strong and preserves 'tradition' very effectively, but only if considered from a unilateral and exclusively self-interested point of view.

The second drive is toward looking outside the individual and group centered experience toward common human principles and ethics of problem resolution with minimal violence. This drive is again generated in each of us natively to some extent, and based on the capacity to imagine the other and value our common right to each pursue our own interests. This is the basis of 'empathy' or broader identity with those who are not necessarily similar or those who grew up further away, without assuming they would be 'better off' if they were 'more like us'. This would include how we deal with strangers, sports leagues, foreigners, other races, other sexual orientations, other religions, other nations, and other group have needs or aspire to longer term common interests that may differ from or even conflict with our own group's near or long term term self-interest. This kind of empathy can be and often is justified based on larger principles like fair play and selflessness, and 'the general wellbeing including ourselves' when considered beyond the scope of short-term self-interest whether or not inherently compatible with internal dogmatic consistency.

While the evolutionary roots of empathy are not as self-evident to most people, they are born out in the often observed inherent childhood ability to sense 'unfairness', and in both history and science as testable and recognized drivers of self interest whenever considering the larger scope and longer term definitions of self-interest.

Solutions to problems of ethics are seen as 'just' when resolved in terms of generalized rules of fair play defined through consortia over time and when enforced externally by disinterested parties that do not benefit directly from the enforcement (eg dispassionate judicial infrastructure, juries of peers, legal enforcement). Problem resolution is typically implemented through escalation scales of administrative jurisdictions and diplomacy, with disinterested party or multilateral enforcement as last restorts (eg police, who even then cannot shoot into a crowd just because there's a bad guy there, or multilateral rather than unilateral international arbitration (with or without force). Even those demonized by one inward facing values group or another at a given historical moment (with or without justification), are granted due process.

Therefore two conclusions arise. We carry both an innate human drive toward self-serving values, and an innate societal drive toward frameworks for fair play on larger playing fields. This means we cannot really equate moral values with ethical principles or define ethics as just a bigger version of morals because by definition they often can and must inherently conflict in both scope and goals. They form the polar extants of many-a-supposed-dilemma.

Seen clearly as two separate and equally important human drives, it is not appropriate to call it a dilemma at all when one's personal values and one's public ethics conflict. It is instead a human condition requirement to recognize there is a difference, recognize we need both, and recognize the need to find mature means to balance both, rather than try to remake or extend one into the other. Frankly the reason both philosophers and your average pundit have historically struggled with supposed 'moral dilemmas', is often that we fail to make this simple syntactic and real world functional distinction. The solution to the supposed dillema is to recognize the importance and appropriateness for survival with minimal violence, requires supporting both internal personal and group values AND arbitration through external public ethics - fair play, principles and justice.

The latter supports a mix of different internal values, the former never can. So it can never be called ethical, if one set of moral values is defined as the only and exclusive external justice, if it reduces the ability of others to pursue their own internal personal and group moral values. Even if one set of values is 'in the majority', or the tenents overlap ethical principles, this cannot define an ethical solution because the rights of minorities are inherently part of ethics but not
necessarily part of a moral creed, and most evidently when the supposed overlap (our values define all aspects of how to relate to others) shows rough edges. The only fair balance is to make it possible for each to pursue their own values specifically to the extent they do not infringe on others, but never to dictate the values of others or how differences are arbitrated.

So to apply this reasoning to those that would somehow equate the definition of a good civic society with the tenents of a specific moral creed, the 'worship' of a Constitution is not at all like worshiping a moral creed for a larger team, or just a superset where values happen to overlap. It's basically saying 'here are the rules of football, go worship whatever team you want'.

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Friday, September 22, 2006

The philosopher Voltaire is often quoted for his seemingly contradictory statement, "I detest what you write, but I would give my life to make it possible for you to continue to write.". This is not a contradiction, it is a statement that values - what each wrote - is different than ethics - how each accomodates the fact that their values are different. Voltair strongly believed in his own values, AND he believed equally strongly in the importance of ethical principles that enable coexistence of different values. Many will lay down their life for inward-facing values like home and family, and - if they think about it at all - many will also lay down their life for outward-facing ethics like upholding liberty for people who have different values as well as their own values, as Voltaire so eloquently stated.

Thursday, September 21, 2006

The pope recently created a furor over comments about other religions and attempted to clarify them by saying religion is more closely aligned with reason than with aggression as a solution to differences. An Ethical analysis might suggest otherwise, given that religion is essentially based on belief systems that have historically had major conflicts with reason and the evolution of science, with differences arbitrated within hierarchially defined closed group values that do not necessitate accomodation of others. This inherent difference between religion and reason has in fact historically often lead to the kind of other group demonization that winks at aggressive solutions towards those less like ourselves. To the extent the pope is saying this is not true, it suggests that Ethics - some acceptance of fair play and rights beyond the closed group - has crept into the equasion, which is good. In this case the pope should be applauded for supporting that broader enlightened vision of humanity as having both shared ethics based on reason and science with differences arbitrated by an innate human sense of individual rights and fair play, as well as strong personal values such as those based on religous faith and our born or chosen group memberships.

There's a fundamental difference between Ethics and Values that has been blurred to the advantage of fundamentalists on all sides. Ethics is about fair play, rule of law, conditional police actions, and consideration and accomodation of those less like me as well as those more like me. Values is about getting ahead for our team, rule of hierarchies, unlimited war, and demonizing the other guy. Let's make sure we include some analysis of support (or not) for Ethics in the discussion of issues, not just different Values butting heads...

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Thoughts on the importance of small crimes committed many times: how each of us deals with small ethical issues -

I find it easy to focus on ethical issues when there is a spike in behavior that is so egregious as to draw broad public attention.

But compared to the occasional major event, I am simply not very good at understanding the equally massive scope of small crimes committed many times, or at addressing them, even though they may occur in smaller, much more personally addressable instances.

This means there is some significance to how I choose to deal with the public ethics of small things as well as large. For example, winking at ethically questionable behavior is easy to do if the issue doesn't directly conflict with my personal values or disadvantage those more like me or who grew up closer to me, even when they add up to large burdens on those disadvantaged.

A common example is bullying behavior. If I perpetrate or recognize it, do I choose to consider it ok, or wink and ignore it if it is directed at those less like me or those who do not share my personal or group values? Or do I choose to not perpetrate or wink, but instead speak up for the importance of good public manners or befriend those being bullied? How we deal with bullying - whether in the context of schoolyard gangs, office politics, or racial issues - is an important ethical choice that greatly shapes the world we share, as much as how we participate in or respond to catastrophic, broadly discussed examples of unethical behavior.

Another simple example is the ethics of personally enjoyable or contextually 'necessary' personal or family self interest that affects resource consumption or pollution. Those personal value choices usually seem publicly common, innocuous, and even mundane, but scientifically have demonstrably large collective public environmental impacts that may greatly disadvantage others less like us or born into less fortunate starting circumstances, or affect all of us in the longer run.

So while I find it hard to stop and consider ethics when making personal value decisions - especially when they are in my near-term self-interest - clearly there is an ethical choice to be made when my small choices have cumulative major impacts on others.

Monday, September 11, 2006

Ethics is the secular loom that binds the warp and woof of different values.

I accept and honor strongly held personal beliefs and the supporting threads of like minded groups. This is what makes up the fabric of society, regardless of where each of us are coming from. Society tends to refer to these threads of like-minded character, faith, ethnicity, nationiality or shared culture of this or that group membership, 'values'.

However those threads of personal and group membership values alone do not necessarily knit with other threads beyond those who grew up close to you or are more like you. The ties that bind beyond the scope of localized and personal, are the warp and woof of secular society.

Some pretty eloquent folks in history, from a rainbow of different value groups, have pointed out that we are apparently all born with some innate human cognitive sense for registering and recognizing fair play, we all seem to embrace a universal desire for freedom to practice our born or chosen set of personal, localized, and shared group values, and we all respect and desire some sort of mitigation of equitable justice when values conflict beyond that scope. Society tends to refer to these shared underlying, global human desires for a level playing field, 'ethics'.

Rather than a 'moral dilemma' of values butting heads, or 'hypocracy' for not standing up for your values, what we usually have is a choice as to how to mitigate
differing personal values in the context of public ethics. Therefore I see no sense of contradiction, hypocracy, or conflict when our values conflict with our ethics, but rather a healthy maturity and enlightenment if we recognize and apply each within the appropriate scope. These mitigating ethics include simple rules about respecting and honoring differences, neither bullying nor shunning those who have different values, and - here's the real test - putting our personal commitment to ethics above our personal commitment to our closed set of values when we have opportunity for input to secular rules and decisions like electing politicians, passing laws, saving gas, and sitting on juries.

Each of us has a slider on which we adjust decisions based on how our sense of values and allegiance to family or clan balances against our sense of ethics, regardless of religion or creed. We each decide whether to ask what kind of decisions we're making that affect others, and whether those decisions are values based (benefit folks who grew up closer to me or more like me) or ethics based (honor some human sense of fairness and a framework for decisions that accomodates differences). To the extent we support a level playing field and honor differences without prosteletizing or expecting everyone else to change, I'd say we are being more ethical and less values bound.

The message of the enlightenment to me was that folks within and without religious affiliations recognized it is impossible to define acceptable society as just a larger group of shared values. It requires a will and a means to implement secular mitigation of differences to weave a fabric of life that includes folks who are different and still enjoy it. In that context it's not important to nitpick the differences because frankly they don't matter if we all accept the need for a level secular playing field. Is that good? If you think so, I think that's great.

Monday, July 24, 2006

How can I tell the difference between Ethics and Values?

Values define the culture and tradition of closed groups ranging in size from families to teams, religions, and nations. Ethics define the higher moral principles and belief in fair play of groups that accomodate co-existance with other kinds of families, teams, religions, and nations.

In terms of who benefits, Values benefit primarily those who are more like me or grew up closer to me. Values tempered with Ethics accomodate or benefit those who are less like me or grew up further from me.

In terms of how they are enforced, Values are enforced through authoritarian rules with hierarchial administration. Values tempered with Ethics are enforced through interpreted laws by disinterested parties.

In stark situations like choosing between war and a police action, war to preserve our way of life is Values based. It's ok to accidentally shoot or bomb innocent civilians who have the misfortune of being close to those presumed to be 'bad guys'. The poor soldiers thrown by leaders into no-win war situations quite predictably end up killing those less like them when deemed necessary to save those who grew up closer to them, acting as poorly qualified and often emotion-driven judge, jury, and executioner in one battle-confused step.

By way of contrast, police actions are Ethics based. There is a regulated division of power that helps insure disinterested parties make the major decisions, not the heat of emotion. It's not ok to shoot or bomb people standing around a 'bad guy', and no single party has the right to act as judge, jury, and executioner.

Those who believe in the principles of Democracy, not just their home nation, favor Values tempered with Ethics. They look very hard for solutions other than war, such as cooperative police actions. This is necessary in order to achieve both justice and long term survivable and equitable solutions, not just another round of values based violence.

In the simplest terms, Values are our love of the home team. Ethics are our love of a level playing field and fair play. We can have both Values and Ethics. A civil society requires disinterested Referees, not just team bullies and cheerleaders. it requires a rule book that doesn't favor one team over another, not just a playbook that favors the stronger team.

So Ethics and Values are on different levels, with different scopes. They can and should sometimes conflict. When they do conflict, it is not a 'moral dilemma' of conflicting Values butting heads over who represents 51%. It is an Ethical decision that affects 100%, and Ethics must trump Values to maintain fair play. Just cheating like the other team or changing the rules to favor the currently stronger team are not long term, self-sustaining solutions in a multi-team world.

The truth is, when you think of Values and Ethics in simple terms of home teams and the rules of a game, most people in fact have very little problem having both strong Values and a love of Ethics. We are very supportive of letting Ethics trump Values when they conflict. Let's ask no less of leaders in a Democracy.

Let's Start Using Our Ethical Calculators

There is growing recognition that fundamentalist values alone cannot solve many real-world challenges. It's time to get past our love affair with values based solutions. Complex problems require ethical, principled answers for the long-term good, not just imposition of the values of a current majority.

  • Ethics is different than values in insisting on scientific considerations rather than belief systems.
  • Ethics is stronger than values in upholding the rights of minorities while accommodating slowly changing majorities.
  • Ethics is wiser than values in upholding principles of fair play even if they do not always benefit our home team.

This is not a trivial choice. Ethical thinking and action must trump values and self interest if citizens of a democracy wish to avoid falling into theocracy, monarchy, oligarchy or creeping fascism.

Fortunately there is an Ethical Calculator in each of us, as well as our individual values. All we have to do is apply science as well as beliefs, and principles of fair play as well as personal values, to the questions of the day.

Good citizens, statesman-like politicians, and honest journalists will make sure their analyses include consideration of both ethics and values, not just different values butting heads.

Friday, July 14, 2006

Fundamentalism (religious, cultural, national) is the distinguishing limitation on values compatible with ethics. Ethical solutions based on fair play and upholding the rights of minorities can coexist without conflict with a wide range of values, as long as those value holders are willing to acknowledge and accomodate differences. The hallmark of a fundamentalist approach to issues is unwillingness to accomodate differences. This is fundamentally (pun intended) different than simply having different people hold different values. Fundamentalists insist that their values cannot coexist with others, and the only solution is to infringe on the rights of others or change their values. A democracy is strengthened by a variety of values contributing to a fair and just society in general, but cannot be strong if it is limited to fundamentalist values that are by definition inherently opposed to the equal rights of all people.

Thursday, July 13, 2006

When Barak Obama says "Democracy demands that the religiously motivated translate their concerns into universal, rather than religion-specific, values. It requires that their proposals be subject to argument, and amenable to reason.", he asks us to make the leap from values to ethics when we make public - not private or group - decisions. The key words are 'universal' and 'argument' and 'reason', which are hallmarks of ethics (but often not of specific values). There is no dilemma here, if you first understand that ethics and values not only may conflict, they must often conflict in a democracy, and when they conflict, public ethics must trump private values.

Ethics is not the opposite of corruption, that's just a side issue. Ethics is the opposite of values. If one puts their personal values above public ethics, the result may be corruption, but more often it has an even more important effect - it replaces public interest with self-serving interests. This is an important reason to look at whether politicians are upholding ethics - fair play and principle - all the time, not just when corruption is the result.