So We Have Core Values, So What?

By Institute for Global Ethics | Apr 05, 2012




In Middle Eastern politics, a steady march toward basic rights and democracy has been represented most recently by Syria’s strife and Kofi Anan’s attempts to help. But even as a ceasefire was tentatively agreed to last week, government troops continued to clash with rebels in the street.

This struggle is news, but unfortunately not new for a country historically burdened with violence from both outside and inside its borders. Concerned individuals worldwide can watch but can’t fix Syria’s current issues. We can, however, strive to make connections that deepen our understanding as human beings and help progress toward the Institute for Global Ethics’ vision of “a world where shared moral values shape relationships, determine decisions and guide actions.”

Learning from the experiences of prisoners in North Carolina, a middle-school clique, and alleged client mocking at Goldman Sachs might help.

The Institute’s hypothesis has been born out time and again: Across cultures, races, ethnicities, genders, religions and age groups, we agree about the core ethical values with which to operate. Yet along with clashing in Syrian streets, we continue to land in jail, to harass our classmates, to put down our own clients. A question hovers beyond the exciting discovery of common ethical ground across humanity: So we have shared values, so what?

The Institute’s approach is designed to increase awareness about why and how we struggle to do what’s right. The “moral perimeter” is one conceptual tool: that boundary each of us draws around the core ethical values that we apply in our daily lives. During one of the Institute’s research projects in the late 1990s, male and female inmates in North Carolina correctional facilities established common ground that matches other groups’ around the world, invoking words like “honesty,” “respect,” and “responsibility.” But for most of the inmates we interviewed, such notions only extended to the small circle of relationships critical for survival in their daily lives. The street gang with whom you’ve grown up gets your honesty and your respect; everybody outside the gang does not.

Some might assume that this limited moral perimeter is a result of poor education or intergenerational poverty, and surely a variety of factors contribute. But a limited moral perimeter is not reserved for the undereducated or the poor.

In 1995, the Institute partnered with the Gallup organization to survey participants at the State of the World Forum. The title of IGE’s resulting report, “Shared Values, Moral Boundaries,” sums up our moral perimeter discovery. A diverse group of thought leaders from 50 nations shared broad agreement about the core values to live by, but also agreed that they would not want their child to marry someone with values “fundamentally different” from theirs. They were not enthusiastic about inviting such people to dinner either, nor did they want to be friends (see this link, p.18). Essentially, a range of humanity — from criminals to famous intellectuals and statesmen — represents the same contradictory tendencies: We share common values, but we think our values are different, and we’re not prepared to extend our values widely.

Young teens are known for drawing tight perimeters within which ethical values apply, and beyond which any outsider is fair game. Sometimes classmates are excluded, sometimes teachers, and often parents. It seems like a phenomenon of nature, but mean, exclusionary behavior varies from one culture to another. The National Institutes of Health’s cross-national study (updated in February 2012) tracks reports in 40 countries and shows Sweden and the Czech Republic scoring on the low side when it comes to bullying incidents, while Greenland scores high. Do family and society teach us to widen or to shrink our moral perimeter? These varied scores imply as much, although more research is needed (and in progress).

Carl Hausman, Ethics Newsline editor, asked readers to identify “other contributors to a toxic ethical culture” in last week’s commentary about the now-famous New York Times OpEd “Why I Am Leaving Goldman Sachs(March 14, 2012). Moral Perimeter can be added to the list. Times OpEd author Greg Smith remembers a time at Goldman Sachs when respect for the client was top priority (i.e., they were within each employee’s perimeter) and he alleges that current standard practice includes name-calling and exploiting rather than serving (i.e., the client now lands outside of the perimeter). If Greg Smith is right, this “perimeter-shrink” may mean the company’s decline.

It would be a mistake to reduce the complex turmoil of Syria to one simple concept. The immediate issues represent a long and complex history that few of us can claim to fully appreciate or understand. On the other hand, it might be helpful for each of us to think about how moral perimeter applies in any context that we encounter — whether current events in other parts of the world or interactions in daily life. If we’re outside of somebody’s perimeter, let’s seek action to build trust until we’re let in. And when we notice our own perimeters shrinking, let’s strive to follow “widely held values” with that more ambitious challenge: “widely applied.”

©2012 Institute for Global Ethics

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