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.

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.