This framework is designed to be used as a toolbox of checkpoints for culturally diverse groups to find consensus on ethics, or to guide widely differing individuals on a shared path to better understanding and a broader ethical awareness.
A Framework for Universal Principles of Ethics
Interpersonal Ethics might also be called morality, since this category of principles reflects general expectations of any person in any society, acting in any capacity. These are the principles we typically try to instill in our children, and expect of one another without needing to state the expectation or formalize it in any way. These principles are at the heart of the flame
Principles of Interpersonal Ethics
- Concern for the well-being of others
- Respect for the autonomy of others
- Trustworthiness and honesty
- Benevolence (doing good)
- Preventing harm
- Basic justice (being fair)
- Willing compliance with the law (with the exception of civil disobedience)
Individuals acting in a professional capacity take on an additional, formalized level of ethical responsibility. Professional associations’ codes of ethics prescribe required behavior within the context of a professional practice such as medicine, law, accounting or engineering. These written codes and related bodies of knowledge provide ethical standards and rules of conduct commonly based on the principles below.
Even when not written into a code, the principles of Professional Ethics imply duties and responsibilities commonly expected of employees, volunteers, elected representatives and many others in the workplace.
Principles of Professional Ethics
- Impartiality (objectivity)
- Openness (full disclosure if needed)
- Due diligence (duty of care)
- Fidelity to professional responsibilities
- Avoiding potential or apparent conflict of interest
Global Ethics was placed at the top of the flame illustration to suggest it as an evolutionary ideal to which humanity can ultimately aspire. It is the most controversial of the three categories, and the least understood. Open to wide interpretation as to how, when or whether they should be applied, issues related to these principles can generate emotional response and heated debate.
Principles of Global Ethics
- Reverence for life (in all its forms)
- Interdependence & responsibility for the ‘whole’
- Society before self / social responsibility
- Global justice (as reflected by international laws)
- Environmental stewardship
- Reverence for place
Each of us influences the planet simply by living on it. As we learn more about our human impact on each other and the world, it is increasingly important for each of us to ‘think globally’ by applying the ‘precautionary principle’ (recognizing and respecting the unknown) to minimize our harmful impacts on Earth’s countless ecologies and cultures.
Influential or fiduciary enterprises such as governments, large corporations, or NGOs (Non-Governmental Organizations) take on an added measure of accountability. Responsibility comes with power whether we accept it or not, and one of the moral burdens of leadership is to influence society and the state of the world in a positive way. Global Ethics can inspire us to accept shared responsibility.
How to Apply the Framework
Co-existence of Principles
Many situations will never lend themselves to an easy formula, and these principles can only be used to trigger our conscience or guide our judgement. Principles often conflict with each other in practice, and some can trump others under certain circumstances. Here is an example of how principles can collide or override each other.
Let’s say you are a scientist working on a government project to study the effects of a certain chemical on human health. Over time, it becomes clear to you that your government’s intention is to use the chemical as a biological weapon. Since the project is top secret, you have a patriotic duty as a citizen and a professional duty as an employee to maintain confidentiality. (Trustworthiness is fundamental to professionalism.) However, if there was an opportunity to inform United Nations observers, then Global as well as Interpersonal Principles would likely justify divulging confidential information to save lives and protect the overall good of humanity.
Similarly, when judging if a corporation has been ‘socially responsible,’ we need to include principles of Interpersonal as well as Professional Ethics as prerequisites for corporate integrity. In other words, the company cannot be internally corrupt and deemed socially responsible at the same time. Contributions to charities and the like (benevolence) may be in the interests of society, but these actions lose significance if the corporation has not also taken responsibility to minimize any damage their business activities may cause to customers, employees and other stakeholders. (In this case, the Interpersonal principle of “preventing harm” would prevail.)
Universality versus Selective Application of the Principles
When these principles are applied selectively or only within set boundaries such as next-of-kin, countrymen, race, gender, and so on, that ‘cronyism’ effectively negates their value. For example, my mother was born in Sicily, which is also the birthplace of the Sicilian Mafia, a crime syndicate that has committed many despicable acts. Yet they have a rigid code of honour within their own ‘family’, so trustworthiness is highly valued, and they have a strong (albeit perverse) sense of justice.
My aunt ran away from home at a young age and married into what she and her family described as “the Gypsy life”. Some of my cousins were trained to pick pockets, but they would never steal from me because I was part of the family. Limiting application of ethical principles in this way converts them from a universally virtuous path into an exclusionary code of conduct.
Apart from cronyism, there are contextual interpretations of the principles that many societies consider acceptable. For example, murder may be illegal but forgiven if the killer is taking another life in self-defense or to save others. Lying is considered wrong unless we tell an untruth to protect someone from harm. These interpretive variations sometimes cause people to conclude that ethical responsibility is entirely relative to personal beliefs or local standards and cultural practices.
This ‘moral relativism’ (the concept that no one can be wrong) is a dangerous conclusion that relieves us of any responsibility other than what we choose to interpret in our own interests, what is specified by faiths or governments, by our personal self-serving values or the local status quo.
Complicating things further, values can be embodied in different ways. Virtually all cultures value honesty, yet they can have different views about truth telling – as illustrated by Eastern vs. Western values for harmony versus being forthright. A person from Japan being polite to maintain good relations may be perceived by an American as deceitful, although that may not be the case at all.
Both cultures agree in principle that deceit is unethical and trustworthiness is ethical, but misunderstandings can arise when that underlying principle is enacted in differing ways, reflecting traditional cultural practices that are based on conflicting values or virtues.
Morality can’t be distilled into a universally acceptable list of specific rules. Principles listed in the framework above can only describe commonly recurring patterns of ethical responsibility our conscience can use as landmarks in a wide range of situations.