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The Search for a Common Set of Moral Values

May 31, 2017. Published by Steven Mintz, aka Ethics Sage

Do all Religions and Cultures Believe in the Same Set of Values?

The existence of a common set of values across religions would go far to explain why different cultures and societies believe that The Golden Rule is the basic standard of behavior. Rushworth Kidder Kidder, the founder of the Institute for Global Ethics, wrote a book titled Shared Values for a Troubled World in which he traveled the world and interviewed twenty-four thinkers to uncover a “common ground of values that could bring the world’s peoples together instead of driving them apart.” Kidder identified a global code of ethics that includes the following shared values: love, truthfulness, fairness, freedom, unity, tolerance, responsibility, and respect for life. 

All You Need is Love?

In his discussions with interviewees about love, Kidder noted that love seemed to embrace the ideas
 of compassion, charity, helping one another, and honor. Having compassion for others means to notice their suffering and feeling moved by it. It also entails offering understanding and kindness to others when they fail or make mistakes, rather than judging them harshly.

John Lennon’s song, “All You Need is Love,” was performed by the Beatles in 1967. Some fifty-years later, the words still ring true today. But, love cannot stand on its own as a moral value because we may love another for the wrong reason or commit unspeakable acts out of love. To truly love another means to be compassionate and empathetic to their needs; actions that build kindness in relationships with others.

Sissela Bok explores the question of which moral values are shared across national, ethnic, religious,  BOK
 and cultural boundaries in her book Common Values. Her approach is to combine moral theory with practical ethics to demonstrate how these moral values are applied across all facets of life – personal, professional, domestic and international. Bok defines many areas where different cultures share the same basic ethical framework. She believes there are common values that have been established in human societies throughout the ages, and commonly held beliefs of virtually all human beings.

Minimalist Standards

Bok’s common values do not constitute entire systems of ethics. They represent “bare bones of more abstract and complex values and ideals such as ‘love,’ ‘truth,’ ‘respect for life,’ ‘fidelity,’ ‘equality,’ ‘integrity,’ and ‘justice.’ These values are minimalist standards that are broad enough to encompass all cultures and societies. She believes such a minimal set of common values can be a starting point for the development of more values and leaves enough room for cultural diversity. She finds the following values should be incorporated:

  • Basic forms of the positive duties of care and reciprocity.
  • Constraints on harmful actions of violence and deceit and betrayal.
  • Norms for procedures and standards of justice to resolve conflicts.

Consistent with normative ethics, the common values concern primarily what people should do in human behavior, not what they might plan to do or are tempted to do. Bok states they “may be reflected in views about virtues and traits of character, and contrasted to vices or failures of character.”

Positive Psychology

Greek virtue deals with traits of character that enable us to achieve moral excellence and a state of happiness. One notable contribution to the study of virtue is Positive Psychology. Positive psychologists identified six particular virtues in a study of a wide variety of religious and philosophical texts from all over the world. The following virtues were valued in almost every culture, valued in their own right (not just as a means to another end), and are attainable: (1) wisdom and knowledge; (2) courage; (3) love and humanity; (4) justice; (5) temperance; and (6) spirituality and transcendence.

A more recent contribution to “values talk” is The Six Pillars of Character described by the Josephson Institute of Ethics. The Josephson Institute characterizes the Pillars as a “multi-level filter through which to process decisions.” The idea of having pillars is instructive because it illustrates the foundational aspect of moral behavior and ethical decision making.

The Six Pillars include trustworthiness, respect, responsibility, fairness, caring and citizenship. The Six Pillars can be thought as virtues because developing such traits of character can lead to a state of moral excellence through practice and repetition over time. I have reworked the pillars into virtuous traits of character.

Values                                     Core Characteristics                        

Trustworthiness                       Be honest, truthful, and sincere in dealing with others

Integrity                                       Demonstrate the courage of your convictions; act on ethical principles

Reliability                                      Keep promises; act consistently

Loyalty                                          Be faithful to your duties and to others

Respect                                         Treat each person as an end in him or herself

Responsibility                         Be accountable for your actions; pursue excellence in life

Fairness                                      Treat others equally unless a sound basis exists to do otherwise

Caring                                         Be kind and compassionate with others        

Is Civility a Common Value?

One cultural value omitted from my discussion is civility. I omit it because it means different things in different societies. For example, back in 1994, Michael Peter Fay, a U.S. citizen, was canned four times for vandalizing property in Singapore. Many Americans believed the punishment did not fit the crime. It was “cruel and unusual” punishment for a “minor” offense. However, in Singapore vandalism is considered a crime and the punishment for doing so is quite strict. Why? Is Singapore an uncaring country? No, it is a cultural belief that strict punishment even for minor offenses is necessary to protect individuals and property on a broader scale. Thus, Singaporeans place greatest emphasis on one’s responsibility to society and promoting the common good rather than kindness and empathy towards others. In the U.S., we certainly agree with those values but place greater emphasis on fairness and justice, and canning someone for “simple” vandalism seems to be an ethical overreach.

From offensive videos to intolerance for alternative points of view to rude behavior to senseless violence, society no longer believes in a core set of principles to guide behavior. Instead, we live in a world where “anything goes.”

morals #values #virtue #ethics