Principles Defined

Values, Ethics, and Principles

The simplest way to define the concept of principles is to also explore the concepts of values, ethics and morals.

Values are lifestyle priorities. Since values lie behind all the choices we make, it follows they lie at the very core of the life we’ve created for ourselves through the choices we’ve made. Thus, through values we express what is important in our life and when we are true to our values, the lifestyle we live is our expression of these values.

The diagram in Figure 1 shows the links between, values, morals, ethics and principles.
Figure 1 - The relationship between values, behaviours, ethics, morals and principles
If you know what values a person holds, you will have a general idea of what they want to do in their life. For example, if a person’s highest priority value is Achievement you would expect them to be striving towards one or more goals and doing whatever they can to achieve them. Likewise, if a person’s highest priority value is Research/Original Knowledge, you would expect them to be in an occupation such as medical research, social research, etc.

So, there is a link between values and the general category of activities the person would be expected to be involved in because of the priority values they have. This is represented in the diagram of Figure 2.
Figure 2 - Knowing a person’s values gives you a general idea as to what activities are important to them
From knowing the values alone, we cannot know how, specifically, the person is going to behave. Some people, driven by their high priority value Achievement/Success, will do anything it takes to achieve their goal – some athletes, We live in a society, so we cannot live our values any way we want. for example, will take illegal drugs to boost their chances of success. On the other hand, we all know people driven by the same value, who do not cheat to win.

Let’s now take the value, Research/Knowledge. If the person is a medical researcher, we cannot know from the value alone if they undertake their research by experimenting, or not experimenting on animals. Both examples on the previous page illustrate there’s more to the picture than values. Because we live in a society, we cannot live our values any way we want. The impact of how we live our values on other people and the environment must be considered. This is where codes of behaviour (i.e. ethics, morals, norms of behaviour, laws, and the like) come in. As the diagram in Figure 3 depicts, codes of behaviour spell out how we are expected to live our values.
Figure 3 - Codes of behaviour tell us how or how not to live our values
Thus, knowing a person’s values gives us a general idea of what they want to do in their life, knowing their ethical or moral stance, informs us as to how they will live their values. The difference between values and ethics may be summarised as:

Values motivate – ethics & morals constrain.


Where do codes of behaviour come from? In a dictatorship, we are told how to live. In a democracy, it’s more complex: 
  • If a person is very religious, their religion should have a strong influence on what values they have and how they live them. 
  • For both the religious and non-religious, wisdom is strong source of influence on people’s behaviour. When people we regard as wise, advise us how to live, we hang on their every word. 
  • Science has a strong influence. 
Taking science as a source of influence on how we behave. Latest brain research indicates that, when a person believes they are trusted, a chemical is released in their brain which makes them more trustworthy. Research has also shown that countries where people are more trusting of each other, are wealthier than countries where the trust level is low – there’s an obvious reason for this, in high trust countries financial transaction costs are low (a hand shake will do), whereas, in low trust countries, financial transaction costs are high (expensive legal contracts are necessary for every significant transaction). Knowledge of this type, about the nature of ‘how things work’, are called principles.

Let’s now add the relationship principles   codes of behaviour, to the diagram...

Figure 4 - Understanding principles which underpin “how things work” gives us reasons why we should behave in certain ways and not in others
This, knowing the principles in which people believe, will give you a means to understand why they behave the way they do.

The next dimension on this model of values, ethics and principles has to do with people’s values acting as a filter of what they “see”. People do not see what is “actually out there”—the “truth may be out there” but people’s values will stop them seeing it. For example, it’s raining outside the house in Figure 5 —rain is what’s actually out there.

Figure 5 - We filter what we see through our values 
  • The man. who has values such as work and duty, experiences the rain as a “pain”. The rain is going to make his trip to work unpleasant. Despite this, he must go —it’s his duty as a hardworking man. 
  • The woman, who values art and beauty, looks out the window and sees her flowers thriving and blooming. 
  • The boy, who values fun, play and fantasy, sees himself playing a toy boat in the puddles.
Now we have another dimension to add to the model. This is depicted in Figure 6.

Figure 6 - We filter what we “see” through our values
When people engage in a behaviour motivated by their values, they don’t see the actual consequences of their actions, rather, the consequences of their actions are filtered through their values – they see what matches their values, and don’t see what does not match. This explains why people’s worldviews and beliefs are so difficult to change. In De Bono’s words:

How many times do you have to hold your finger in a flame in order to learn not to do it? Just once. How can the learning be so very quick? The finger in the flame may be the simplest example of a ‘belief’ system. A belief system is a way of perceiving the world that prevents us from testing the validity of the belief. Belief systems create perceptions that reinforce the belief system. They can be so powerful that people are prepared to give up life itself for their beliefs.
De Bono, 1990, p. 212

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