For centuries, there has been a debate over ethics—not just what is and what is not ethical, but where ethics come from, what justifies an ethical position and whether or not there is a universal ethical standard or if its all just relative to your culture or religion or time and place in history.

But let’s be honest, that’s all philosophy. It’s muddy water and has little to do with what happens out there in the real world. I’ll tell you right now that I have a penchant for philosophy and I’ve certainly got my opinions regarding the answers to those questions, but they are just that—opinions.

Sure, when it comes to the fates of plaintiffs and defendants in the courtroom, these debates over ethics become very real and do affect people’s lives in a tangible manner. But for the most part, people are just trying to get by in their given societies.

However here in the U.S., every four years or so, we’re bombarded with ethical debates from all sides. Politicians and their PR/propaganda campaigns try to convince us what is the best sort of society and how they are going to provide it for us. And people get fired up! Suddenly, ethicists and political philosophers start coming out of the woodwork—myself included.

What is ethics really? 

What we’re seeing, in THEE terms, is the relation and interaction of the four highest levels of the hierarchy of values. (This isn’t on the website yet, I’m privy to it through WK’s book: Working with Values: Software of the Mind. There is a simple illustration of it in the Communication framework under A Simple Check for Hierarchy if you click “See the example of Purpose.”) It’s fascinating stuff—and quite important. I’ll break it down:

  • Ultimate Values: These are what we experience or feel/sense within ourselves to be intrinsically good—things like freedom, justice, equality, truth, virtue, beauty, etc. 
  • Value Systems: These flow from ultimate values and are often called ideologies. You might hear an ideologue say something like: “freedom can only be attained through libertarianism where personal choice and responsibility are paramount” or “equality can only be attained through socialism where everyone has enough and no one has too much,” etc. 
  • Social Values: These flow from ultimate values and value systems and describe what needs any community/society should meet. You might hear a politician say something like: “We’re going to ensure security by providing free health care for all” or “We’re ensuring justice by revising the tax code,” etc. 
  • Principal Objects: These are projects, institutions or organizations that flow from the previous three levels of values. For example: “We will ensure security by providing free health care for all by allocating $25 billion to our social welfare programs” or “We will ensure justice by revising the tax code through a flat tax and the closing of business tax loopholes,” etc. 
Smart politicians shy away from principal objects. Too many specifics opens them up for criticism. The most effective orators really work ultimate values. In 2008, America elected their top dog on the platform of “Hope” and “Change,” for example. And Martin Luther King’s famous “I have a dream” speech is littered with references to freedom and justice.

Of course, there’s always a large discrepancy between what is said and what happens after a politician is elected to office. It might get folks wondering if democracy really works or not.

Well, it does work—just not the way you think it should. One societal axiom we should acknowledge is this: A society’s ethical choices (the ultimate values it champions, the value systems that control the way people think about things (or understand) issues, the social values it actually upholds and affirms, and the principal objects it chooses and pursues) are a direct result of the values held by its participants. It’s up to us! (Not you necessarily—us. It’s too big and you personally don’t really have much control over it.)

Think of it this way. Do you wonder why America always seems to be at war? Look around, we’re a society of violence—from the fifth-highest murder rate in the world to our top-selling films and video games glorifying violence.

Do you wonder why our government is up to its eyeballs in debt? We are a society of debt—from student loans to mortgages to massive credit card balances.

Essentially, you can understand your society’s values by the choices it makes as a society and the way it interacts with other societies. Or, put another way—how does society walk the walk, rather than talk the talk?

Next Steps 

We so desperately want all of this to change. That’s why we elect the next guy who says what we want to hear. It’s “hope” for “change.” Problem is, it’s not going to change until our values change. And no new law or regulation can accomplish that.

It takes more than some protests in the street or ranting on the internet (guilty!) or lip-service to the direction society wants to go. It’s about a change in social consciousness. The good news is, it seems to be happening.

THEE has a lot to say about this. I’ve written quite a few blogs an various aspects of social change, but I’ll give you a little “further reading” section if you’re interested. Just click the links:

Enjoy! And if you have any questions/comments or would like direction in finding further information, just let us know.

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