“If there was a set of universal ethical principles that applied to all cultures, philosophies, faiths and professions, it would provide an invaluable framework for dialogue.“
This tentative hypothesis was the first line of an online article I published on the Centre for Applied Ethics website at the University of British Columbia in 1997. Founding Director, Dr. Michael McDonald, took a chance on a new adjunct when he suggested I send him a short article based on a checklist I made to help me recognize the fundamentals of ethics in different aspects of my human relations work in a large engineering firm.
To my surprise, that original three-part ethics framework has now been used without revision by more than sixty organizations in twelve countries across five continents. Governments, corporations, churches, schools, hospitals, professional associations, law enforcement agencies and judiciaries have used it to teach ethics, develop codes of ethics, assess ethical dilemmas and conduct research.
The framework has also been included in a wide range of presentations, professional journals, textbooks and other educational materials, and reprinted by diverse faculties at nineteen universities and eight colleges. It has proven useful in small classrooms as well as virtually for thousands of multinational employees.
When I first wrote the article, I wondered if my simplified explanation of an endlessly complex topic would be refuted, controversial or just ignored. None of those things happened, and as of 2020, I am still receiving requests to use or republish the framework, and that has been very gratifying.
My sincere thanks to all of you around the world who have tested the framework, especially if you took the time to tell me about your course/seminar/conference experience. If you are about to try my Framework for any purpose, please send a quick note in Contact Us to let me know how you used it and how it may have worked (or not) for you!
Why has my attempt at a universal ethics framework been so widely accepted?
Ethical dilemmas rarely present themselves as such. They can involve us before we know it, or develop so gradually that we only recognize them in hindsight, like noticing a snake after we’ve been bitten. An ethical framework can be used like a snake detector to help us understand when danger might be present. A universally-accepted framework can provide useful direction when navigating the myriad mores of our global society.
At first glance, some of the principles may appear simplistic. They are meant to be more practical than precise, like multi-purpose gadgets in a ‘Swiss army knife’ approach to recognizing what is right or wrong (or in between) across apparently, virtually all cultures. In total, they offer a guide to recognizing when situations might have ethical implications – the crucial first step, awareness. If ethical implications are never identified, it appears to us that there is no ethical issue to prevent or resolve.
Yet while there is often merit in the idea that we should follow our intuition and rely on our conscience or ‘inner voice,’ that voice is not always clear or objective. As our society continues to go global, we face an ever-widening range of intercultural challenges, making compassionate instincts less dependable guides. We need to ask more than “does it feel right?” to meet a global standard of what is right in specific circumstances.
These principles are generic indicators, designed to stimulate and provide guidance to an active conscience. Unlike other kinds of principles which are absolute and constant, these are more like guidelines for situations where a precise answer is rarely possible. They are not descriptions of rules, societal norms or values. Instead, they represent ethical factors that commonly need to be identified, considered, and applied with good judgement by those of us who strive to live ethically.
For many people, the most significant advantage of this framework has been its separation of principles into three types of moral responsibility.
Those three categories are now called Interpersonal, Professional and Global Ethics. I chose to depict them in this update as a flame to illustrate their simultaneous interrelationship. They overlap like the typical colours of a flame, and the interplay between them is constantly changing. Any category may seem to disappear at times, yet each one remains as a potential with its prevalence entirely dependent upon the circumstances.
Most of the principles are outcomes of the mother of all principles – unconditional love and compassion, which is expressed in various ways as The Golden Rule in virtually all faiths and many philosophies. I chose to express this notion as the first principle in the framework, “concern for the well-being of others” which I believe is its essence. This guiding principle is often revealed through the heart, so it can be instinctively enacted in many situations as simply an act of unselfish love.
The person who expresses that compassion need not be able to explain their reasons (as I have attempted to do with the framework). The Golden Rule alone can sometimes provide all the clarity needed to understand how a person should treat others and put ethical principles into practice.