When I consider my personal values and their relation to ethics in a wide sense, the first item I recognize is probably very common to many people. An individual’s values do not exist in a vacuum; they develop, and evolve as the person moves through life. Experiences alone add increased meaning to certain values, just as external forces influence our ethical ideas. This reality aside, however, I am confident in stating that my values consistently reflect an authentically ethical approach to life.
While I think of my own values as abstract to a degree, I also find that they exist for me in a foundational way. For example, what may be my most basic guiding value is the ethical core of the medical profession: above any other concern, first do no harm. I believe this applies to all of us because it is the essential responsibility of being human. We must understand that caring for ourselves has limits, and it is never acceptable to serve self-interests at the expense of others. In ethical terms, the value translates to beneficence as non-maleficence.
Another value I maintain, or try to maintain, is a quality of being open to anyone or anything different from my established ideas. This does not exactly mean that I am willing to change my views. Instead, it is more what I think of as a reflex of respect. It is very easy to ignore the unknown or whatever contradicts a personal belief, and I think it is important to understand that openness reflects confidence in what one believes. This is by no means always easy to do, I admit.
I am far from perfect and, like so many of us, I find myself in situations where I have to judge the imports of different ethics. Then, there is often an inner conflict because we “value” the ideas we have decided that are right, and are then driven to defend them when opposing ideas are presented. However, that a value requires effort does not reduce its meaning. Along those lines, adhering to ethics often demands effort. Lastly, spirituality is a value with which I have a changing relationship. Part of me feels a deep desire to believe in forces beyond nature and humanity. As the same time, I sometimes feel that holding onto spirituality is often used to excuse questionable thinking and actions.
In the past, I have had conflicts between my basic values and employers. Specifically, one such conflict comes to mind. I was earlier employed as a manager of apartment complexes. This situation was very much a case of “serving two masters.” On one level, I was obligated to deal with tenant concerns. On another, the job required me to make sure that the ownership was paid its rent and that the company standards were upheld. These contrasts and circumstances took the form, on one occasion, of my needing to address a tenant who was behind in rent. The building owner was inflexible; policy demanded eviction after a certain point. At the same time, however, I had had contact with this tenant and knew that she was going through an extreme situation. Her work hours had been cut, the elderly mother she cared for required expensive medical treatment, and she asked only for some extra time to make the late rent payments. I should add that this was no sad story created to fool me or make me sympathetic. I knew that these circumstances were real.
Ethically bound to perform my job as I had agreed to, I still chose to be complicit in assisting this woman, and I manufactured a paperwork issue to provide her with the time she needed. I realize I engaged in a falsehood but, as I believed then and now, minor transgressions of ethics are sometimes necessary to serve more important considerations. Twenty-six years old now, I would add that my youth at the time may have contributed to this decision, if only because youth tends to be more daring. At the same time, I stand by this ethical choice today.
My current career is focused on the technology industry, and the impacts of marketing and social media. I am in fact working in this as an intern, for a start-up company that designs mobile applications for small businesses and similar entrepreneurs. While I do not actively anticipate conflict or challenges to my values, I am still aware of the possibility. In plain terms, social media alone is an increasingly controversial – and immense – reality. It seems that, the more people turn to social media, the greater are their concerns regarding privacy. This being the case, I am aware that my values and basic ethics must be “on guard.”
It may happen, for example, that a client states a desire for an application which exploits personal information in order to create a marketing demographic. In any such case, I may not be able to avoid conflict, but I can nonetheless reduce its likelihood by making my values known to all concerned. Also, I may be able to adapt to the situation, by offering input both satisfying the client while not violating my principles. No matter the potential circumstance, however, I know that I cannot permit any external pressure to change my core values. Doing that, the damage to myself would outweigh any temporary advantage.
In terms of actually living values on a daily basis, I return to the noted foundational quality of them. As a rule, these are not things actively and consciously in our minds. Instead, they exist as concepts and beliefs turned to when they are challenged. At the same time, they always guide our behavior. In my own case, for example, I believe that my value of openness influences my interactions with those I only barely know. The value has a directional quality to it.
Then, my belief in the obligation to never deliberately create harm acts as a safeguard to my behavior. The saying that values and ethics are moral compasses is very much based in reality. If they are only overt forces at times, they are also consistently in place as we move through life. Lastly, I firmly believe that, the greater my awareness of the values most important to me, the greater I am able to develop in the ways I wish to develop. Exploring one’s values is a helpful exercise in understanding one’s own identity. These are properties that are tools with which we may evolve as people, even if that process sometimes demands rethinking accepted ideas. In fact, I may add another value to my list:
I believe the person who insists on values with no questioning of them is someone who misses the point of values themselves. If we are to be responsible, humane beings, we must have the courage to investigate even our most deeply-held ethics and values. We must have the strength to accept that certain viewpoints and priorities may be mistaken, or need to be revised. Ultimately, values exist as defining elements of us, but this does not eliminate the need to evaluate them ourselves. In a very real sense, a universal value is the human obligation to understand the human role in living. This being the case, it is essential that we have the courage to confront all that we believe, and validate it further or consider change.