Moral principles defined: a decision-making perspective

Adrian Bishop

This paper examines the case for a clearly expressed and defined moral code. Whilst the need for moral values and the framework for a clear moral compass to clarify decision making is strongly promoted, the reality is that the philosophical tradition continues to deny that any such code is possible. The more intensely the case for a universal moral code is made, the more intensely the philosophers argue against it. The result is the present post-modern narcissistic culture devoid of any real moral framework. A clear route is proposed through this moral impasse by side-stepping the philosophical 'dragons' of moral definition, moral distance, moral relativism, and moral absolutism by the unequivocal process of creating a list of moral values. The very process of doing this creates the rules that define them. Moral values in order to be taken seriously 'have to be consistent with each other', 'have covered all the gaps' and 'be moral'. This process, not only demonstrates the underlying weakness of the philosophical arguments against the possible existence of a moral code, but also promotes a unifying morality that assists in making complex ethical choices and encourages consistency in ethical decision making.
moral code; ethical principles; moral compass; ethical decision making; moral values; defined ethics.
Reference to this paper should be made as follows:
Bishop, A. (2005) 'Moral principles defined: a decision-making perspective', Int. J. Management and Decision Making, Vol. 6, Nos. 3/4, pp.326-333.
Biographical notes:
Adrian Bishop is Founder and Director of the Centre for Defined Ethics in the United Kingdom. The Centre exists to promote ethical clarity and to create positive solutions to ethical dilemmas through the application of core ethical principles. Bishop, as a political polymath, has always been interested in addressing the big 'ethical questions and the 'gaps' in ethical theory. He is a published satirical poet, performer and editor of Poetry Life Press, dedicated to promoting poets of exceptional clarity of thought. He also runs ethical seminars and is a regular public speaker.

Moral principles defined: a decision-making perspective

1 Introduction
"The highest principle is without words. Yet if there were no words, how could the principle be known?"Inscription on a Buddha image from China - dated 746 AD

"If there are no clear and provable moral values which we can all agree on and share, then how can we prevent future evils performed by individuals or governments on the rest of us?" Robinson and Grant (1999)

"Then we'd know. And we could think about it properly instead of just guessing and being afraid." Pullman (2000)

"Ok Santa, define good"
Christmas card

Morals are now big business; it is almost impossible to open a newspaper, turn on the television or the radio without hearing various self-appointed pundits promoting the morality, or otherwise, of their chosen point of view and the immorality of the other persons. The Archbishop of Canterbury launches a 'moral crusade'. The Church claims its absolute ethical authority over us all, and runs multi-million pound advertising campaigns, splashed over huge billboards, to preach an ethical agenda, the 'moral maze' is a regular radio programme and 'ethical mission statements' are issued by companies. It is possible to be arrested for the serious crime of 'living off immoral earnings'. People are constantly offended by 'other' people acting unethically, and laws are passed to punish people for certain activities on the basis that it 'offends public morality'.

However, we have become insensitive to the 'moral environment'. Society has 'moral panics' and there is a lack of 'moral weight', such as children deprived of 'moral imperative' and 'ethical purpose' in life and adults have no 'moral context' or 'moral gauge'. The map showing the whereabouts of the 'moral high ground' appears to have been lost.

It seems 'agreed' - possibly by the 'moral majority' - that ethical standards are declining as never before. It is only the lone but determined voices of the 'moral guardians', which stand between people and the complete collapse of civilised society. Yet, amidst all the cant and angry rhetoric, morals themselves are rarely adequately defined. The exact moral values everyone is fighting over are never mentioned and certainly never explained. At the same time, as the 'moral guardians' are complaining about moral decline, there is another quite contradictory message that is broadcast equally loudly - 'Don't even think about defining morality - there're really no such things as moral values'.
2 The philosophical arguments against the existence of moral values
For thousands of years, philosophers and theologians have been debating what exactly morality is, and immediately a 'moral' value is produced. Philosophers will tear it apart with multiple exceptions and 'proof' that it will not work. The result is the present nihilism and post-modernist philosophical mess where there is despair of ever finding moral truths. It appears that all there is are just rampant relativism, pluralism and a broken moral compass. Philosophers have totally abandoned the idea of a unifying, universal secular morality, whether derived from Kant to Sartre or from Post-modernist Scepticism to Nietzsche. Morality has foundered on the rocks of Utilitarianism, Pluralism, Universality, Prescriptivism, Existentialism, Postmodernist Scepticism, Moral Relativism, Moral Absolutism and any other philosophical 'ism' one cares to name. For the philosophers, morality, as a concept, is impossible to define and moral values are equally impossible to define; any attempt to do this will only lead to collapse of the arguments when all multifarious exceptions have been pointed out. Post-modernist critical theory seems to have destroyed any hope of moral certainty. The consequence of this argument is that we, as individuals, now believe that we inhabit a moral vacuum where there is no firm foundation for moral concepts. There is no moral compass, and no authentic moral framework for making value distinctions. We are left with nothing except a feeling of powerlessness, an absence of moral awareness, a lack of a shared experience and social solidarity. There is nothing but a post-modern culture of narcissism, devoid of any real moral framework for making value distinctions. It is apparent that we have no respect for ourselves or for others as independent free moral beings.The knowledge that we do not have defined moral values has encouraged a deep-rooted culture of suspicion in society and a scarcity of basic trust between people. Attempts to constantly extend mechanisms to make people more 'accountable' founder; because without personal moral accountability, we are reduced to doing what we are told and we do not, in turn, trust the people doing the telling. There is no duty and necessity of critique, by enquiring into one's own individual conduct and the conduct of established institutions. The consequence of people not being trusted is that they become less and less trustworthy. The downward spiral continues.

But - despite all appearances to the contrary, it is 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.

In all civilisations, there is a fundamentally constructive consensus on how interconnected and interdependent we are. This, together with a sense of our shared human experience, leads directly to a commitment to universal values that are not imposed but simply self-evident. People are increasingly aware that there is an obvious credibility gap in the message: 'Core ethical principles are a consensus on basic, ethical precepts, but it is quite impossible to define what they are'. If the argument is to be made for a unifying set of values that can be shared and understood, they require to be defined, because the consequence of failure to do so is relativism.

So ... there are two choices:
  • one can examine society and conclude it is doing rather well, considering that practically no one could tell what his/her personal moral values are
  • one can decide that the reason why there are so many problems in society is because nobody can articulate his/her moral values.
3 Slaying the 'dragons' of morality
If we are going to be successful in defining moral values, we will have to be prepared to battle. Like the knights of old, we must saddle our trusty horse, polish and put on some seriously shiny silver armour, grip our sword firmly in our hand and go out to slay some really nasty, vicious, philosophical 'dragons'.

The very philosophical 'dragons', which for ages have successfully blocked any attempt to define what morality is about, are STILL blocking any attempt to create a workable moral code. For unless we can slay these philosophical 'dragons', once and for all, as well as set about defining what our moral values are, then morality will forever remain an ill-defined vacuous concept.

Four of these nasty vicious 'dragons' to be slain are explained.
3.1 The 'dragon' of moral definition
The 'dragon' of moral definition states that 'It is quite impossible to create a list of moral values because it is impossible even to define what morality means'. A quick dip into the dictionary tends to create a vortex of circular definition, with morals being referred onwards to ethics and ethics referred round again to morals. That morals are impossible to define is exactly what was said about Human Rights; yet it seems perfectly possible to define them. Indeed it is necessary to codify Human Rights in order to act upon them. The United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the European Convention on Human Rights have been defined. Yet a Declaration of Moral Values does not seem to exist! Just as for Human Rights, there are powerful vested interests that are set against the idea that there could be a unifying secular morality; this is because it would directly challenge existing power structures.

Trying to define morality can be compared to trying to define the concept of 'speed'. A car has speed and an aeroplane has speed, yet one can examine either as closely as possible and will never find any 'speed' in them. In the case of the aeroplane, flight is a product of speed but one will never understand flight by trying to examine a bucket full of 'speed'. Even such a basic idea sounds ridiculous! 'Speed' cannot be collected in a box and examined as if it was some kind of a tangible object. Yet, 'speed' is known and exists because it can be measured. As individuals, we can tell exactly how fast a car or an aeroplane is going. The same can be applied to moral values. One does not try and define what morality is, but one defines it by what it does. Moral values are how one actually measures the difference between
  • right and wrong
  • good and bad
  • positive and negative actions.
This definition helps to distinguish between moral values and moral virtues. The latter, often quoted as moral values, are characteristics such as bravery, patience, altruism, generosity, prudence and so on, which affirm who the person is, whilst morality concerns itself with defining what the person should do.

So ... it is possible to define morality. This is not by what morality is, but by what morality does. From this standpoint, it is only a short step to being able to create a list of moral values.
3.2 The 'dragon' of moral distance
The 'dragon' of moral distance propounds that "Morality cannot be limited by mere distance, so there is an infinite moral obligation to every person on the planet, all the time. Any person who adopts a moral position cannot then claim that one's duty is limited to 'not causing harm'. Thus, any positive actions to help people are not supererogatory - the performance of more than duty requires - and one becomes immediately overwhelmed by an infinite burden and responsibility. And, therefore, morality becomes impossible to implement. 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." Hence, this generates confusion between moral concepts and moral actions. 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, whilst imposing moral obligations, simultaneously frees the individual from an infinite supererogatory obligation to others and, so, makes it possible.
3.3 The 'dragon' of moral relativism
The 'dragon' of moral relativism is perceived as the big one - the really, nasty 'dragon' that people do not want to go anywhere near. 'Moral relativism' recognises that there is a wide variety of moral beliefs and practices, which vary not only through time, but also between different individual, cultures, races and classes. It claims that 'each person's morality is a matter of his/her concern' and that 'there are as many perfectly valid moral positions as there are individuals'. It alleges also that it is impossible to prove which morals are 'right' and which are 'wrong'. There is no specific guide for individuals to help them choose between alternative actions or systems. Therefore, there is no such thing as moral 'knowledge' at all.

The British philosopher, Stace, has put this issue into perspective over half a century ago. "Certainly, if we believe that any one moral standard is as good as any other, we are likely to be more tolerant. We shall tolerate widow-burning, human sacrifice, cannibalism, slavery, infliction of physical torture, or any other of the thousand and one abominations which are, or have been from time to time, approved by one moral code or another. But this is not the kind of toleration we want or would accept; its cultivation will prove 'an advantage to morality' ".

Because the reputation of the 'dragon' of moral relativism has been so ferocious, practically nobody has ever tried to challenge it through attempting to define moral values. And, hence, it has been left breathing fire and smoke, generally terrifying people. This probably explains why so few people have actually examined it attentively. But ... If one quietly sneaks up and has a close and detailed look at this 'Dragon', one will be surprised to discover that it is not just fat and lazy but not very big at all, in any sense!
3.4 The 'dragon' of moral absolutism
The 'dragon' of moral absolutism affirms that "Individuals cannot define their own moral values because there must be a set of universal moral truths that are always true". Inevitably, if individuals define their own moral values, then their values would not be the universally accepted ones.

For once, it seems that the philosophers are on our side. It is, after all, post-modernism that insists that there are no grand moral truths. Post-modernists seem wise to stress that we should be wary of both philosophers and politicians who claim that such truths exist and that they personally have some kind of access to them.

Instead, creating a list of moral values, and abiding by the consistent rules that the list creates, is as near to defining 'universal' truths as it is ever possible to get.
3.5 The 'dragons': in conclusion
To slay the four of the mightiest and philosophical 'dragons' is no easy task. As such, it is significant and notable to create a list of moral values.>/h5>
4 Creating a list of moral values
Though creating a list of moral values can be perceived as a deceptively simple process, it actually accomplishes something very special. The list creates its own rules! It is this very process that develops the rules that defines them. If an individual writes down his/her own list of moral values, he/she expects it to be taken seriously. This is because moral values
  • have to be consistent with each other
  • have covered all the gaps
  • be moral.
Each is explained with examples:

  • Moral values have to be consistent with each other.

  • In practice if one starts with the basic moral principle of not harming people, it is difficult to diverge from a narrow range of moral values that are consistent with this. One cannot say, for example, 'I will accept men and women as equals' and subsequently declare that 'All women should obey men and be subservient to them'. The longer a list of moral values is, the more difficult it is to make it consistent. A shorter list has to stick to more basic and fundamental statements.
  • Moral values must not have any gaps.

  • Kant's idea of the 'Golden Rule'-'Do as you would be done by'-is often quoted as 'all the morality one ever needs'. Yet, it does leave a lot of gaps. If one, for example, assents to the Ten Commandments and says 'I shall not kill', leaving it at that, then people are entitled to ask: 'What about harming people? Would it be acceptable to torture them as long as you do not actually kill them?'
  • Moral values have to be moral.

  • If, for example, a dedicated vintage motorcyclist lists, as his first moral value, the care and protection of his motorcycle for future generations. Then people are entitled to question his basic moral values, as such a situation does not attempt to measure the difference between right and wrong.

    As an illustration of creating a list of moral values, a moral compass of ten principles is provided in the Table 1. It is intended to be utilised by the individual, whether on a personal or managerial basis, to aid in the decision-making process, which has become, over time, more and more complex:
    Table 1 The Moral Compass
    • Do no harm.
    • Accept responsibility for personal actions and for the consequences of these actions.
    • Accept a duty of care.
    • Affirm the individual's right to self-determination.
    • Put the truth first.
    • Never use a person as merely an unconsenting means to an end, even if the end benefits others.
    • Be honest.
    • Honour agreements.
    • Conduct relationships with integrity.
    • Leave a positive legacy to future generations.
    The Moral Compass is © CDE.

    The point about creating a list is to get everyone to 'drive down the same moral road' and to be affirmative in outlook. It is indeed important to stick' to ten specific elements for both 'political' and practical reasons when making a personal declaration of core moral values. After all, core morality is all about defining how we act towards other people as well as being aware of the impact of our actions.
    It is for all to celebrate their core morality for themselves within the constraints imposed by the process of creating their own lists and to proclaim their moral declaration freely and unequivocally to the world. What matters is that each individual recognises his/her moral values and is able to clearly define them. To argue that 'there is no such thing as defined moral principles' is to accept that there is no fundamental basis for ethical decision making and that all decisions are but a relativistic opinion. However, ethical decisions are based on clearly defined principles; they ought to be consistent over time and should not be based on ill-considered opinions but on a clear moral compass.

    In this post-modernist age, if we demand respect for our decisions, then they have to be seen, not as arbitrary, but as based on a clear process of ethical prescriptions. By abiding to a clear moral perspective, we can provide a robust defence when standards are belittled or challenged. A clear moral compass returns the emphasis and moral power back to the individual. No longer can organisations or institutions, whether religious or governmental, use them as a vehicle of social control. This is because a defined moral compass is indeed outside the control of organisations and returns the power of the decision-making process directly back to the individual.

    Ultimately, we must ask ourselves the question: 'Why are we afraid of the four 'dragons' of moral definition, moral distance, moral relativism and moral absolutism?' By slaying them and creating a list of moral values, working within its confines, it is then possible to effectively promote a unifying morality, which supports individual self-determination. A moral compass, such as the one propounded, ought to embrace, not only the fundamental human values, but also the core moral imperative of 'should' rather than just 'ought', especially in relation to the workplace and its environment.
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