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Universal or Core Ethical Values

Trustworthiness, respect, responsibility, fairness, caring, and citizenship — are six core ethical values.

Using core ethical values as the basis for ethical thinking can help detect situations where we focus so hard on upholding one value that we sacrifice another — eg we are loyal to friends and so do not always tell the truth about their actions.



Trustworthiness concerns a variety of behavioral qualities —  honesty, integrity, reliability and loyalty.


There is no more fundamental ethical value than honesty. We associate honesty with people of honour, and we admire and trust those who are honest.

Honesty in communications is about intent to convey the truth as best we know it and to avoid communicating in a way likely to mislead or deceive.

There are three dimensions:

Truthfulness — truthfulness means not intentionally misrepresenting a fact (lying). Intent is the crucial distinction between truthfulness and truth itself. Being wrong is not the same thing as being a liar, although honest mistakes can still damage trust.

Sincerity/non-deception — a sincere person does not act, say half-truths, or stay silent with the intention of creating beliefs or leaving impressions that are untrue or misleading.

Frankness — In relationships involving trust, honesty may also require us to volunteer information that another person needs to know.

Honesty in conduct prohibits stealing, cheating, fraud, and trickery. Cheating is not only dishonest but takes advantage of those who are not cheating. It’s a violation of trust and fairness.

Not all lies are unethical, even though all lies are dishonest. Occasionally dishonesty is ethically justifiable, such as when the police lie in undercover operations or when one lies to criminals or terrorists to save lives. But occasions for ethically sanctioned lying are rare - eg saving a life.


There are no differences in the way an ethical person makes decisions from situation to situation - no difference in the way they act at work and at home, in public and alone.

The person of integrity takes time for self-reflection so that the events, crises and the necessities of the day do not determine the course of their moral life. They stay in control.

The four enemies of integrity are:

  • Self-interest — Things we want

  • Self-protection — Things we don’t want

  • Self-deception — A refusal to see a situation clearly

  • Self-righteousness — An end-justifies-the-means attitude


When we make promises or commitments to people our ethical duties go beyond legal obligations. The ethical dimension of promise-keeping imposes the responsibility of making all reasonable efforts to fulfill our commitments.

It is also important to:

Avoid bad-faith excuses — Honourable people don't rationalize noncompliance or create justifications for escaping commitments.

Avoid unwise commitments — Before making a promise consider carefully whether you are willing and likely to keep it. Think about unknown or future events that could make it difficult, undesirable or impossible to keep your commitment. Sometimes, all we can do is promise to do our best.

Avoid unclear commitments — Since others will expect you to live up to what they think you have promised to do, be sure that, when you make a promise, the other person understands what you are committing to do.


Loyalty is about promoting and protecting the interests of certain people, organizations or affiliations. Some relationships — husband-wife, employer-employee, citizen-country — create an expectation of loyalty.

Prioritizing Loyalties. Because so many individuals and groups make loyalty claims on us, it is often impossible to honor them all simultaneously. Consequently, we must rank our loyalty obligations in some rational fashion. In our personal lives, for example, it’s perfectly reasonable, and ethical, to look out for the interests of our children, parents and spouses even if we have to subordinate our obligations to other children, neighbors, or co-workers in doing so.

Safeguarding Confidential Information. Loyalty requires us to keep secrets or information learned in confidence.

Avoiding Conflicting Interests. Employees and public servants have an additional responsibility to make all professional decisions on merit not personal interests. Their goal is to maintain the trust of the public.


Respect is about honouring the essential worth and dignity of all people, including oneself. We are morally obligated to treat everyone with respect, regardless of who they are and what they have done. We have a responsibility to be the best we can be in all situations, even when dealing with unpleasant people.

Respect focuses on:

Civility, Courtesy and Decency - A respectful person is a good listener. The respectful person treats others with consideration, conforming to accepted notions of taste and propriety, and doesn’t resort to intimidation, coercion or violence except in extraordinary and limited situations to teach discipline, maintain order or achieve social justice.

Tolerance - An ethical person accepts individual differences and beliefs and judges others only on their character.


Life is full of choices. Being responsible means being in charge of our choices and therefore our lives. It means being accountable for what we do and who we are. It also means recognizing that what we do, and what we don’t do, matters.


An accountable person is not a victim and doesn’t shift blame or claim credit for the work of others.

Pursuit of Excellence

The pursuit of excellence has an ethical dimension when others rely upon our knowledge, ability or willingness to perform tasks safely and effectively.

Diligence. Responsible people are reliable, careful, prepared and informed.

Perseverance. Responsible people finish what they start, overcoming rather than surrendering to obstacles and excuses.

Continuous Improvement. Responsible people look for ways to do their work better.


Responsible people exercise self-control, restraining passions and appetites (such as lust, hatred, gluttony, greed and fear). They delay gratification if necessary and never feel it’s necessary to "win at any cost."


Fairness is a tricky concept. Disagreeing parties tend to maintain that there is only one fair position - their own. But while some situations and decisions are clearly unfair, fairness usually refers to a range of morally justifiable outcomes rather than discovery of one fair answer.


A fair person uses open and unbiased processes for gathering and evaluating information necessary to make decisions. Fair people do not wait for the truth to come to them; they seek out relevant information and conflicting perspectives before making important decisions.


Decisions should be unbiased without favouritism or prejudice.


It is important not to take advantage of the weakness, disadvantage or ignorance of others. Fairness requires that an individual, company, or society correct mistakes, promptly and voluntarily.


Caring is the heart of ethics. It is scarcely possible to be truly ethical and not genuinely concerned with the welfare others. That is because ethics is ultimately about our responsibilities toward other people.

Sometimes we must hurt those we care for and some decisions, while quite ethical, do cause pain. But one should consciously cause no more harm than is reasonably necessary.


The concept of citizenship includes how we ought to behave as part of a community. The good citizen knows the laws and obeys them - but they also volunteer and stay informed on the issues of the day.

Citizens do more than their "fair" share to make society work, now and for future generations. Citizenship can have many expressions, such as conserving resources, recycling, using public transportation and cleaning up litter.


Based on Making Ethical Decisions - Josephson Institute of Ethics


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Page last updated: 04-Aug-2002