The Ground Rules of Ethics

by Josephson Institute on December 4, 2010

Principled Reasoning Based on the “Six Pillars of Character”

An old airline pilot motto is: “In God we trust, everything else we check.” When the stakes are high and the variables are complex it is a matter of simple prudence to supplement subjective feelings with a systematic examination of the critical factors that go into a wise decision. So it is with the challenge of ethical decision making — knowing and doing the right thing. As much as we would like to believe that all we need is good intentions and intuition, living an ethical life, being a good person, requires a disciplined commitment to think and act in accordance with fundamental principles of right and wrong. The core ethical values I refer to as the “six pillars of character” — trustworthiness, respect, responsibility, fairness, caring, and citizenship — provide, I think, both objective criteria and a workable list of values that should guide all our choices. The standards of conduct, that arise out of those values constitute the ground rules of ethics.

Principled reasoning is a way of thinking about our actions that involves systematic consideration of moral principles. In effect, these principles are like a series of filters through which every decision must be processed. Being trustworthy is not enough. We must also be fair and caring. Obeying the law is not enough. We must also be responsible for the consequences of our actions. Principled reasoning based on core ethical values can help us detect situations where we focus so hard on one moral principle that we carelessly sacrifice others. Sometimes we are so focused on being fair and consistent that we ignore the separate obligation to be caring and compassionate (to temper justice with mercy). Sometimes we are so concerned with getting a job done that we ignore the moral implications of the way we do it.

Using the six pillars as a checklist can dramatically improve the ethical quality of decisions. For example, parents who decide to deceive their teenage children “for their own good” about such matters as adoption and divorce may justify their decision on the principle of caring, but they often unconsciously ignore the equally important duties relating to respect (giving people information they ought to have to make informed decisions about their own lives) and trustworthiness (being candid about information the other person would want to know). Similarly, under the guise of caring, employers may give employees insincere praise and false feedback during performance reviews. Such ostensibly ethically-motivated decisions mask self-serving motives for keeping the information secret and they also ignore the competing moral obligations of respect and trustworthiness.


Why These Particular Principles?

In selecting the six terms that comprise the pillars of character, the group at the Aspen Conference considered a wide array of words. Although the terms ultimately selected represent discrete ethical concepts that the participants thought of as universal moral truths, the specific terminology reflects some degree of arbitrariness. For example, though the word “caring” was selected to describe the category of obligations relating to concern for others, other words like “compassion,” or “kindness,” or “love” may have been just as good. The primary goal was to select a short list of easily understood words that were specific enough to provide helpful guidance as to the discrete qualities that constitute morality and good character. Though there is nothing inherently sacred about the language used to describe the six pillars of character, the CHARACTER COUNTS! Coalition has proved the benefit of using a common language to describe core moral truths.

I have added specific definitions to the terms selected by the Aspen delegates. Each term has been defined broadly enough to embrace a cluster of related values (for example, responsibility includes accountability, pursuit of excellence, and self-restraint) but not so broadly that important distinctions are blurred (respect, for example, was not defined to include the obligations of caring, honesty, and fairness). To keep the six concepts separate, each is defined without reference to any of the other five.


Trustworthiness. Trustworthiness is the broadest and most complicated of the six core ethical values. It is a broad value concerned with all the qualities and behavior that make a person worthy of trust especially integrity, honesty, promise keeping, and loyalty.


Respect. Respect focuses on the moral obligation to honor the essential worth and dignity of the individual. It is expressed in terms of positive qualities such as civility, courtesy, dignity, autonomy, tolerance, and acceptance. It also involves prohibitions against such conduct as violence, humiliation, manipulation, and exploitation.


Responsibility. Responsibility speaks to the moral obligations to be accountable, pursue excellence, and exercise self-restraint.


Fairness and Justice. For simplicity, I use the single term fairness but both concepts are involved. Fairness embodies concern with equity, equality, impartiality, proportionality, openness, and due process.


Caring. Caring is a central value relating to sincere and abiding concern for the well-being of others. Concepts of charity, kindness, compassion, empathy, and sharing are included.


Citizenship. The concept of citizenship includes civic virtues and duties that prescribe how we ought to behave as part of a community. The exercise of good citizenship requires doing one’s share to make society work and demonstrating a concern for future generations. A good citizen, for example, respects the law, reports crimes, serves on juries, votes, pays taxes, protects the environment.

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