Frequently Asked Questions

Why a universal ethic?
Because all intercultural co-operation and dialogue are grounded in shared ethical understandings. Conflict prevention begins with common moral ground.

Because our problems don't stop at our borders. Global challenges require co-ordinated responses, based on shared principles, needs and aspirations.

Because we are all in one community now. Both within nations and across boundaries, intercultural contact and integration bring all of us into contact with diverse people and their customs every day. In order to live together, we rely on shared understandings of right and wrong.

Because we are all responsible. It is precisely the power and dynamism of the individual in the age of globalisation that brings about the need for agreement on the existence of universally held values and on the content of those values. Our daily decisions affect even distant people and places.

Because shared values already exist. It is a fact that human societies share values, a fact demonstrated each time we come to the aid of one another in times of trouble. Once-fashionable moral relativism is contradicted by the facts on the ground.

Because recognition and respect of diversity need not lead to a relativism of values and principles. What unites us is as strong as what makes us each unique.

© UNESCO Universal Ethics Project
Why are you trying to do this?
I believe that the question is vitally important because it is difficult to argue a case for ethics and citizenship, if you then argue that there is no such thing as definable core principles. Without clear fundamental principles everything is simply enculturation and moral relativism. It is necessary to define and codify Human Rights in order that people can act on them, and I believe that the same applies to ethics.

Don't be silly you can't define ethics.
The very idea that core ethical principles can be codified is 'poo-pooed' by the ethical establishment, which accepts no limitation to relativism. Yet this is the same establishment that promotes "...a common framework of ethics..." for society.

The idea that there are core ethical principles is risible, there is only moral relativism.
This is the current status quo in ethical thinking and the position adopted and taught by the majority of ethical organisations. For them the idea of ethics is merely a starting point for a group discussion on "what would be the best thing to do in this or that particular circumstance" but on no account would there be any application of, or reference to, core principles. The idea of a defined Moral Compass is rejected outright in favour of a more generalised and inconclusive discussion group.

Any conclusions reached are based on applying "the best of intentions", and discussion often degenerates into widely differing "opinions" of what is right. By rejecting the idea of core principles they are left with the relativistic impasse of different truths for different communities.

Why is approaching an ethical dilemma better using a clear Moral Compass rather than custom and discussion?
Having a clear Moral Compass based on fundamental core ethical principles makes it possible to apply clear principles to the ethical dilemma in a consistent manner. This provides for a much more measured course of action than applying the 'best of intentions' which may be inconsistent and unethical.

What is the difference between Moral Values and Moral Virtues?
This definition helps distinguish between moral values and moral virtues. Moral virtues (often quoted as moral values), are things like bravery, patience, altruism, generosity, prudence etc, which affirm who a person is, whilst morality concerns itself with defining what a person should do.

Surely it's not possible to define harm?
The arguments against the existence of a Moral Compass tend to centre on the impossibility of defining harm at all. Yet, philosophically it is impossible to define anything.

In philosophy it's not possible to define poetry, music, art, science fiction, quality or even life itself. But we can all recognise them when we see them. We know that philosophically you can't define harm, but unless the concept of harm is alone in its inability to be defined then the argument collapses.

In the "real world" : we can define things, we can create definitive arguments, we can have effective rules and we can recognise a poetry book when we see one.

How can you have a Moral Compass without god?
If you argue that the only reason to have ethical principles is concern about some final judgement from an all seeing god, it doesn't say much for you as a person.

Despite all appearances to the contrary, it is historically obvious that people intuitively understand what is meant by morality. We act as if we are moral beings showing impressive qualities of altruism, generosity and compassion; moreover, we live in an oddly co-operative way. Otherwise there would not be families or societies. We do this not by instinct but by doing what we do consciously. It is the direct result of the way that we are and having the freedom to choose. Human beings are unstoppably communitarian with clear Darwinian roots, religion came later.

It is difficult to argue the case for god's ethical principles. When I discuss this with Christians they inform me, that as god is omnipotent he cannot be limited by ethical constraints and is therefore "outside" ethics. This seems to be the standard answer to the "When is it moral for god to kill people?" question.

What about the 10 Commandments?
The 10 Commandments or the Decalogue are supposedly the religious rules handed down from god and as such are not core ethical principles.

Who are you to say what the Moral Compass is?
The intention is by the application of clear fundamental rules, to create a benchmark for the Moral Compass by which further discussion on core ethical principles can proceed.

I have a better list.
I believe that creating a better list will be difficult to achieve as the Moral Compass is based on fundamental core ethical principles. If the starting point for fundamental core ethical principles is not causing harm to people and the list is 'Consistent, Leaves no gaps and Moral', then there is little room for manoeuvre.

In a similar way, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights as a benchmark document is theoretically open to further revision and discussion, but in practice there have been few challenges to improve it. During the extensive consultation period I was not surprised that no organisation or individual could suggest another list. If you have one I would like to see it.

What about an infinite "duty of care"?
The argument is that even if moral values are clearly defined, the obligations then created by them are so huge, they become impossible to implement in any meaningful way and become ridiculous and therefore one becomes immediately overwhelmed by an infinite burden and responsibility.

But, whilst moral concepts are philosophical ideas not limited by time and space, moral actions by their practical nature, require time and resources from the individual to implement competently and cannot, therefore, be infinite. The finite time and resources of the individual have to limit them to a personal duty of care. A duty of care to people, is a primary moral value and whilst imposing moral obligations, simultaneously frees the individual from an infinite supererogatory (the performance of more than duty requires) obligation to others and so, makes it possible.

The intention is that a duty of care is not infinite in scope. It's legal definition is quite precise. Your duty of care is limited to your time and resources and is not infinite.

What about the "Golden Rule"?
'Do as you would be done by' is found in some form in every ethical tradition. Kant points out for example, that the Golden Rule can be misapplied. A criminal can throw it at a judge, asking him how he would like it if he were being sentenced - yet the sentence may be just. A person in good circumstances may gladly agree that others should not benefit him, if he could be excused from benefiting them. He apparently abides by the Golden Rule. So something with more structure is needed.

What about Animal ethics, Business ethics, Environmental ethics, Medical ethics, etc?
The intention is that the Moral Compass is about how we as people act towards each other. I would be interested in comments about core principles for other disciplines.

Back to the New Site
'Celebrating our Common Moral Compass'

Aims of the Centre
The Moral Compass
The Case for a defined Moral Compass
The Rules behind the Moral Compass
Frequently Asked Questions
Moral principles defined: a decision-making perspective
Contact us