The short answer: "Values
motivate, ethics and morals necessarily constrain (because we live in a society, we cannot live our values any way we
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 desirable
behavioural constraints (morals, ethics, rules, laws, etc.).
"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.
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 lie or 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 matter 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.
To summarise then, values are our measures of importance, whereas ethics represent our judgments about
right and wrong. The close relationship between importance and right and wrong is a powerful influence
on our behaviour and how we evaluate the behaviour of others.
Q. How does one go about choosing what ethics, morals, rules, laws, etc. are 'right'?
A. By basing them on appropriate principles.
The Principle Centric Approach to Behavioural Choices
Principle is defined in Nuttall's Concise Standard Dictionary of the English Language as, "Principle. 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, 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 information overload. 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 example is
necessary to illustrate the universal principles.
Before you raise your voice to 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 of extolling the virtue of progress through
unencumbered evolution--guided by the principles made evident by Charles Darwin: we push for free
trade with 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. Internalising the principles we believe explain the nature-of-things is
perhaps the single most powerful factor shaping society.
It is vital that we maintain a continual dialogue
around principles to ensure those we internalise and institutionalise are up-to-date and are our current best
shot at the truth. We must work hard to expose those who willingly spread misinformation for their own
personal gain--our future depends on it.
We are entitled to our own opinions. We are not entitled to our own facts.
Some examples of principles are:
- People become more trusting the more they perceive they are being trusted.
- The wealth of countries is directly related to the level of trust within the country.
- The greater the trust
level, the greater the wealth.
- People reject inequality, even if it means walking away empty-handed.
- Our brain is dichotomous which leads to the fact that many of people's "weaknesses" are a natural
consequence of their strengths--rather than try and "fix" these weaknesses, celebrate them.