Benchmark Ethics: The First Principle of Ethics

What if we tried to come up with a list of the most basic principles and guidelines of a sound ethics that could be widely shared by the world’s population? What would be included? What would be first on the list?

The ancient Greek “Hippocratic Oath” of physicians (probably 6th century B.C.) makes “do no harm” the first principle of ethics. But embedded in this principle is the deeper point that people have worth and value (and therefore must be protected from harm). I would argue that the foundational principle of any sound ethics is something like this: Treat all people as unique and valuable individuals.

Why do people have value? There are instrumental reasons, i.e., people have value because of what they can do for us. It is great when others contribute good, constructive things to our lives, terrible when they contribute grief and garbage to our existence. But people are not just valuable for what they can do for us but for intrinsic reasons. People have value per se, in and of themselves, not just when they are useful to us. The great religions and philosophies argue this position. The Enlightenment philosopher Immanuel Kant argued that it was a “categorical imperative” to treat people as ends and never as means only.

Why view individuals as unique? The fact of our nature is that each of us really is unique (both by nature/genetics and by nurture/socialization). We deserve to be recognized and treated as such. In fact we crave such treatment and recognition of our uniqueness and value. We respond with enthusiasm to such positive treatment. It is hard on us to be viewed as replaceable, dispensable, with no distinctive individual identity.

How do we treat people in the workplace and marketplace as valuable and unique? Here are some ideas.

  • organizational structures, policies, and operations are designed and regularly reviewed so • that they do not harm, ignore, or disempower people; rather they enable people and facilitate the exercise of their individual gifts and expertise.
  • across the board, up and down the organization, serious efforts are made so that each • employee, colleague, and leader is known, recognized, supported, and encouraged by others, especially by those to whom they report and with whom they work.
  • business discussions seriously ask “how will this new product affect the health of those who • make it and those who buy it?” Technology R & D operations allow no projects to proceed very far without serious brainstorming about what could go wrong and hurt people, what the unintended consequences and trade-offs look like.
  • personnel practices guard the dignity and value even of those who apply but are not hired • and those whose performance is inadequate and must be let go. Recognition and rewards (including financial compensation) are distributed in ways that recognize the uniqueness and value of each person on the team. Performance reviews try to help people move into positions where their unique gifts and capabilities can flourish.
  • employees regard their managers and leaders as unique, valuable individuals, rather than • stereotyped “enemies”; managers regard their employees as unique, valuable individuals, not as chattel to be used for their own purposes.

These are just ideas to stimulate our moral imagination and our conversation. There can be no standardized formulas showing how to observe the first, great ethical principle. Each company and circumstance calls for careful analysis and creative imagination of how to treat people as unique, valuable individuals. What is essential is to get this general but powerful principle on the table where it can affect our decisions.

Of course, there are counter-examples of victories won (however temporary) by company leaders and cultures that intimidated and used their people without regard for their uniqueness and value. Many of us have worked in such contexts at one time or other. But even if the first principle was violated in the past without apparent repercussions on some offending company, do we really believe this can work in today’s environment? Won’t employees, managers, and customers gravitate toward companies where they are treated with dignity and respect as valuable, unique human beings? Do we really think people will give their best to a company culture that disrespects them?

“Valuing people and treating them as unique” may seem obvious to the point of triviality but it cannot be taken for granted.

David W. Gill was co-founder of IBTE and author of Benchmark Ethics, a regular article in the first 32 issues of Ethix. After eight years of writing, speaking, teaching, and consulting in the Bay Area of California, he joined the faculty of Gordon-Conwell Theological Center (South Hampton, Mass.) in 2010, where he is also Director of the Mockler Center for Faith and Ethics in the Workplace.