I started developing the ethics principles framework before I had ever taken a course in the subject. I’d read some texts and attended a few lectures and conferences. I gained some knowledge – but mostly what I gained was more questions. I realize now that in a way, that uncertainty is the primary reason to study ethics.
As an ethics layperson responsible for organization development within a large multinational engineering firm, I felt I needed a more prescriptive guide to understand how ethics and morality related to my work. Gradually, my reading notes became a list of principles that I used as a personal checklist to help me recognize when and how ethics might apply to my own vocation, never intending to teach ethics or publish the list for others to use.
As my career shifted into adult education, I began using the framework as a basic guide for conference and seminar participants, executives and then graduate students – to help them reflect on ethics before participating in case study discussions. Eventually, I tested it in sessions with hundreds of adult students from diverse backgrounds and professions, with opposing world views, and at both ends of the political spectrum.
Through many hours of guided dialogue, these groups helped me to revise and complete the list that was eventually published by the University of British Columbia’s Centre for Applied Ethics in 1997. While I am still not claiming that this is an ultimate or irrefutable set of ethical principles, I can safely state that the framework has been a surprisingly reliable and versatile tool, with proven applicability around the world for widely diverse purposes (see the examples on this site’s Home page).
Encouraged over the years by the number of organizations who reported success in using the framework, I eventually used it as the basis to teach business ethics as an adjunct educator at the graduate level of the two major universities here in Vancouver, and eventually as the conceptual foundation of an in-depth online Ethics program for an 18,000-person transnational corporation.
Up until that time, in every class or seminar, I explicitly asked participants for their concerns about any principles they thought might be inappropriate, objectionable or unclear, and I tested their understanding through discussion and case study dialogue. I fully expected to revise the principles based on student feedback.
However, in spite of the original article also containing a request for feedback and “substantive comments”, only one addition to the original set of principles has ever been suggested since it was first published.
That missing principle, suggested by Richard Sieb in 2016, is the “reverence for life,” meaning all of life, human and non-human. As a pacifist, I instinctively supported what is also called the “sanctity of life” as a universal good. However, some cultures and sub-cultures do not respect reverence for life as a principle at all, overriding it with culturally-specific virtues like patriotism, honour or reciprocity.
I also have to admit that after more than 20 years of testing the original framework with thousands of people from different cultures, faiths and professions (including U.S. Special Operations Forces), my ego was reluctant to add a new and untested principle that might undermine the otherwise full consensus I’d seen so far.
After some time to reflect, I decided to add reverence for life to the Framework in the Global principle category because of its overall wide-ranging importance to the majority of human beings. I sincerely thank Richard Sieb, and would of course still welcome any other suggestions through Contact Us at the bottom of this page.
I hope that this simple tool, discovered and published through serendipity, will help guide you personally or as a community, and will continue to be of value to future generations.