I can’t believe I have never written about this diagram before, but apparently I haven’t. That’s my fault, and a major one.
The diagram, the creation of my friend, attorney John May, shows the inter-relationship of the three ethical systems professionals must employ when they face ethics problems. For although we tend to think about making decisions in one context, there are several, and which sphere—these are circles after all—we choose will often determine what balance of values, principles and outcomes dictates the ultimate course.
Here are what the circles represent:
The Big Circle, in yellow, includes the ethics culture that we all live in. It includes our nation, society, community, family, and friends, and is a messy, inconsistent, multi-faceted, often contradictory melange of traditions, religion, customs, literature, history, heroes, fables, family influences, teachers, peers, laws, and more. This the largest system of all, the sun to the planet-sized influence of the other two systems. within it are not only the often competing ethics theories of Reciprocity, Absolutism, and Utilitarianism, but also all the variations in between and beyond–Ayn Rand, Nietzsche, Marx, and many others. In his invaluable book “The Science of Good and Evil,” Michael Shermer posits that despite all the internal inconsistencies, the Big Circle is remarkably functional, agreeing on what is right and wrong perhaps 97% of the time. The disagreements are in the realm Shermer calls provisional ethics, akin to what Ethics Alarms is referring to when it cites The Ethics Incompleteness Principle. These are the troublesome problems where the usual principles don’t always work.
The Core Circle, in green, represents the values, principles, beliefs and the priority of these for an individual–you. It comprises all of those, plus such core qualities as conscience, self-esteem and courage. It’s location in the Big Circle varies with the individual. A section of it even may protrude outside Big Circle, representing the degree to which a person does not embrace the values of his or her community or culture.
Finally, there is the Compliance Circle, in red. That circle defines the special ethics of a profession, and includes ethics codes, traditions, aspirational values and professional obligations and duties.
Notice that part of the Red Circle is outside the Yellow one. These are the values about which a profession is bound to adhere to at all costs, even though the society at large often and even usually does not have the same ethical priorities. Quoting Star Trek, this is Prime Directive territory. In Gene Roddenberry’s fictional Star Fleet, it was forbidden to use the immense power a starship could muster to interfere with a planet’s inhabitants and their conduct, even to prevent what appeared to be a horrible wrong. This principle would be repugnant to the the public at large. For example, if a starship had an opportunity to stop a genocidal race from wiping out another race on its planet, the Prime Directive would make it a crime to do so. The Big Circle would certainly view this as monstrous, but the Prime Directive wisely holds that interference must be avoided. Continue reading →