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.


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