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.
Every professional aligns its priorities different from other professions and the culture as a whole. This is one of the defining characteristics of a profession. The Big Circle would want a doctor to let a bloodthirsty dictator die on the operating table, but the surgeon’s prime directive, “Do no harm” takes precedence. As I have often discussed on Ethics Alarms, the public believes that lawyers should not defend guilty criminals, not keep their confidences when revealing them would point to their guilt. Zealous representation and the duty of confidentiality are prime directives for lawyers, however. Professional ethics in practice often seem unethical to non professionals.
When a professional abandons its prime directives and adopts the Big Circle’s priorities, it ceases to be a trustworthy profession. Thus journalists now decide how to report the news according to what they think is in society’s best interests according to their own biases and preferences. That’s how the public conducts itself, but it isn’t journalism. The prime directives of ethical journalism are objectivity, unfiltered and direct communication of facts, and independence, without consideration of what the consequences public knowledge of the truth may be. American journalism is no longer a profession.
I was reminded of John May’s diagram when I was trying to explain to a commenter why President Trump’s decision to support Roy Moore in the Alabama Senate race can be ethical even while the news media and others complain that he has a duty to try to stop such an unfit candidate from polluting the Senate. President trump prime directives and his ethical priorities are delineated in his oath of office:
“I do solemnly swear that I will faithfully execute the Office of President of the United States, and will to the best of my Ability, preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States.”
Executing his office means doing his job as defined in the Constitution. Preserving, protecting and defending the Constitution of the United States, however has taken on special meaning in the aftermath of the 2016 election, and the unprecedented efforts by “the resistance” and the Democratic Party to overturn the election by any means possible. Never before hs a party taken the position, as many elected Democratic office holders now do, that a President can be impeached and thrown out of office based only on a majority party’s determination that he is generally unfit to serve. Were the President to be impeached and convicted according to this theory, which is contrary to what the Founders intended and wrote, then democratic election of the President would be subject to the will of the legislature. The Constitution and the democracy will have been permanently scarred.
Moreover, the duty of a President to faithfully execute his office includes making a good faith effort to foil efforts to interfere with his office.
There is no question that members of the U.S. Senate have an ethical duty to preserve the integrity of that body above any partisan or legislative objectives. Thus Republican Senators are correct to oppose Moore. However, while he may be an unfit Senator, Moore’s election threatens none of the President’s ethical mandates. The President can veto any bad law he supports because of his miserable character and inadequate intellect. Moore does not support the Rule of Law, but as a Senator, there is no way he can obstruct the Rule of Law. A Democratic majority in the U.S. Senate, however, poses a clear and present danger to President Trump’s Presidency, as well as to the viability of the Constitution.
In making this case, I have no delusions that the President reached his decision to support Moore by considering the unique ethical mandates of his office, or the special prime directives of national leadership generally. President Trump doesn’t do ethical analysis. I don’t believe he knows what ethics is. The President has no Core Circle, and isn’t aware of his Compliance Circle. He just sort of bounces around inside the Big Circle. Round and round and round he goes, and where he stops, nobody knows,
Nonetheless, whether he knows it or not, the President’s decision to support Roy Moore is ethically defensible within the Compliance Circle.
ADDENDUM: I want to make sure this is clear: all three circles can house an ethical decision. Although professionals are supposed to hew to tbe Compliance Circle in their professional conduct, that doesn’t mean that a professional cannot or will not decide that he or she cannot follow the professional mandates because they will lead to an unjust or absurd result, In such cases, a professional may make a pure Green Circle decision, based on personal values and conscience. In other circumstances, professional may defer to the Big Circle, to public opinion and cultural mores, even though it is not a course he or she personally supports. That is a Big Circle ethics choice. It is likely to be popular, but professionals, especially leaders, are expected to base their decisions on more than “the wisdom of crowds.”
A complete, competent, ethical adult considers the perspectives and values of all three circles in the course of facing an ethical dilemma or conflict. Only following the Big Circle marks one as a coward and a sheep. Ignoring the other two circles to satisfy the Core Circle in all cases yields to bias and narcissism. And a professional who ignores the concerns of the culture and society and will never heed the demands of his own conscience to obey the Compliance Circle at all costs is a robot. True, three circles make ethics more complicated. They also tend to make our ethics decisions better.