However, what does matter, is how we live them. As any beginning student of ethics is told, "even thieves have values."
I am frequently asked, "What are the differences between values, ethics, morals and principles?" My short answer to the question is usually, "Values motivate, morals and ethics constrain." In other words values describe what is important in a person's life, while ethics and morals prescribe what is or is not considered appropriate behaviour in living one's life. Principles inform our choice of values, morals and ethics. "Generally speaking, value refers to the relative worth of a quality or object. Value is what makes something desirable or undesirable" (Shockley-Zalabak 1999, p. 425). Through applying our personal values (usually unconsciously) as benchmarks, we continually make subjective judgments about a whole manner of things:
...we are more likely to make choices that support our value systems than choices that will not. Let us say that financial security is a strong value for an individual. When faced with a choice of jobs, chances are the individual will carefully examine each organisation for potential financial and job security. The job applicant who values financial security may well take a lower salary offer with a well established company over a higher-paying offer from a new, high risk venture. Another job seeker with different values, possibly adventure and excitement, might choose the newer company simply for the potential risk and uncertain future.
Values, therefore, become part of complex attitude sets that influence our behaviour and the behaviour of all those with whom we interact. What we value guides not only our personal choices but also our perceptions of the worth of others. We are more likely, for example, to evaluate highly someone who holds the same hard-work value we do than someone who finds work distasteful, with personal gratification a more important value. We may also call the person lazy and worthless, a negative value label. (Shockley-Zalabak 1999, pp. 425-426)
What then of ethics? Ethics are the standards by which behaviours are evaluated for their morality - their rightness or wrongness. Imagine a person who has a strong value of achievement and success. Knowing only that this value is important to them gives us a general expectation of their behaviour, i.e. we would expect them to be goal oriented, gaining the skills necessary to get what they want, etc. However, we cannot know whether they will cheat to get what they want or "do an honest day's work each day". The latter dimension is a matter of ethics and morality.
Take another example, a person has a high priority value or research/knowledge/insight. They have have a career in medical research. In fact, knowing their value priority we would expect them to have a career in some form of research, however, we do not know from their value priority how they are likely to undergo their research. Will the person conduct experiments on animals, or would they abhor such approaches? Again, the latter is a mater of ethical stance and morality. Johannesen (cited Shockley-Zalabak 1999, p. 437) gives further examples which help distinguish between values and ethics:
Concepts such as material success, individualism, efficiency, thrift, freedom, courage, hard work, prudence, competition, patriotism, compromise, and punctuality all are value standards that have varying degrees of potency in contemporary American culture. But we probably would not view them primarily as ethical standards of right and wrong. Ethical judgments focus more precisely on degrees of rightness and wrongness in human behaviour. In condemning someone for being inefficient, conformist, extravagant, lazy, or late, we probably would not also claim they are unethical. However, standards such as honesty, truthfulness, fairness, and humaneness usually are used in making ethical judgments of rightness and wrongness in human behaviour.
Clearly our values influence what we will determine as ethical; "however, values are our measures of importance, where as ethics represent our judgments about right and wrong" (Shockley-Zalabak 1999, p. 438). This close relationship between importance and right and wrong is a powerful influence on our behaviour and how we evaluate the behaviour of others.
Now let's move to another level. How does one go about choosing what ethics are right? In the next section I describe the approach to answering this question I believe best suited to today’s society.
The Principle Centric Approach to Behavioural Choices
'Principle' is defined in Nuttall's Concise Standard Dictionary of the English Language as, "n. the source or origin of anything;...a general truth or law comprehending many subordinate ones;...tenet or doctrine; a settled law or rule of action;... v.t. to impress with any tenet; to establish firmly in the mind". In this Millennium, perhaps more than ever before, I firmly believe that we need to reformulate a set of principles to guide us. There are two main benefits of taking a principle centric approach to guide all human action: (1) knowing a set of principles concerning 'the nature of things' enables us to make informed choices and judgments as we would know, with a high degree of certainty, the likely outcomes of our actions, (2) knowing even a few principles helps us avoid informationoverload. On the latter point, Birch (1999, p. 44) says:
One way in which drowning in information is overcome is by the discovery of principles and theories that tie up a lot of information previously untied. Prior to Charles Darwin biology was a mass of unrelated facts about nature. Darwin tied them together in a mere three principles of evolution: random genetic variation, struggle for existence and natural selection. So we do not need to teach every detail that was taught to nineteenth century students. A mere sample is necessary to illustrate the universal principles.
Before you raise your voice in protest, "What do scientific principles have to do with informing what constitutes ethical and moral human behaviour?" Stop for a moment and ponder the what has been institutionalised into Western society all in the name extolling the virtue of progress through unencumbered evolution - i.e. guided by the principles made evident by Charles Darwin. We push for free trade; level playing fields, argue that cloning interferes with natural selection, push for de-regulation so that competition prevails and only the fit organisations should survive, etc., etc.
But what if we've got Darwin wrong? What if the principles instead were: survival of those who cooperate for the greater good, selection guided by a moral sense, etc. We would have a completely different society from that which we have today. Understanding and internalising the principles that comprise 'the nature of things' is perhaps the single most powerful determining factor in the shaping of the society in which we live. It is vital that we maintain a continual dialogue around principles so those we internalise and institutionalise are up-to-date and are our current best shot at the truth.
Below is a four minute video clip where David Suzuki explains how understanding the principles behind exponential growth should impact on our decisions as to how we live on this planet:
When you have 90 minutes to spare, I highly recommend that you watch David Suzuki's full presentation as it includes many more examples of important principles which should inform human behaviour:
Birch, C. 1999, Biology and the Riddle of Life, University of New South Wales press, Sydney.
Loye, D. 2001, 'Rethinking Darwin: A Vision for the 21st Century', Journal of Futures Studies, vol. 6, no. 1, pp. 121-136.
Shockley-Zalabak, P. 1999, Fundamentals of Organisational Communication: Knowledge, Sensitivity, Skills, Values, Longman: New York.
Suzuki, D. 2010, David Suzuki's Legacy: Highlights, ABC Big Ideas