In the book, I raise the question about ‘positive values’ (at the end of Chapter 3): what are these values, and how can we claim they are more positive? I have often heard coaches, counsellors and therapists give primacy to the desired outcomes of the coachee or client. However, I think that we must look deeper, if we are to work in a truly ethical way.
Sources of values
One approach is to consider the different ways that thinkers have addressed this issue over time. In the West, we can look back at least as far as Plato, philosophically, and the Jewish scriptures, religiously, where these issues have been explored. Similar debates go far back into Eastern Cultures, too, though I know less about them.
For myself, and because of my own philosophical and religious stance, I turn to the traditional Christian formulation of Faith, Hope and Charity as the foundational virtues; and Justice, Fortitude, Prudence and Temperance as the practical ones. However, I am also aware that many will not share my Christian stance on this, and so I offer some others for consideration.
In fact, it was Aristotle who formulated the list of Justice, Fortitude, Prudence and Temperance; and his view was that the human project was to learn to be wise, by living these virtues. Aristotle’s view was that we should behave as if the good we desired (in this case, our virtuous character) were already true, in order to make it come true: an early example of the power of story to bring about a desired reality.
The Enlightenment, in the eighteenth century, called the Christian and Aristotelian heritage into question. As in so many spheres of thought, received wisdom was challenged, with the idea of building a new body of knowledge based on reason alone. That led to a much more varied approach to moral philosophy. At one extreme we find utilitarianism: Bentham’s notion, taken up by John Stuart Mill, that the principle moral criterion is the greatest happiness of the greatest number. Ironically, this new idea can also be found in Greek philosophy. At the other extreme we find Nietzsche, who rejected the idea of any moral code at all. His thesis is that humanity can be divided into the people willing to assume power, the super-men, and the rest of humanity: in effect the slaves.
In the midst of all these competing intellectual ideas, C.S. Lewis has pointed out (in The Abolition of Man) that the reality, in almost all civilised societies, is much simpler. Across many cultures (in the East as well as the West), and over many centuries, there is a consistent set of values that we can discern. He called these the Tao, and described them like this:
◆ The Law of General Beneficence (negative and positive) (General Beneficence means that we should seek to do good to anyone and everyone, and refrain from harming them)
◆ The Law of Special Beneficence (Special Beneficence means that we have a particular duty to do good to (and refrain from harming) particular people, such as our relations)
◆ Duties to Parents, Elders and Ancestors
◆ Duties to Children and Posterity
◆ The Law of Justice (sexual justice, honesty, justice in court etc)
◆ The Law of Good Faith and Veracity
◆ The Law of Magnanimity
His illustrative quotations from a vast range of sources and cultures are found in the Appendix of his book.
Likewise, the contemporary legal philosopher, John Finnis suggests, in Natural Law and Natural Rights, that there are certain goods that can be seen as underpinning any civilised Legal System. These are:
practical reasonableness, and
He defines ‘religion’ as as "all those beliefs that can be called matters of ultimate concern; questions about the point of human existence." That definition includes, of course, non-religious approaches to these questions, such as Viktor Frankl’s fascinating work: Man’s Search for Meaning.
Another contemporary secular approach is taken by the corporate ethicist Roger Steare, in his book Ethicability. He advises top corporations on business ethics, and builds his work on the western intellectual tradition, arriving at nine principles:
He also suggests some key questions to consider, with the mnemonic RIGHT: What are the Rules? Are we acting with Integrity? Who is this Good for? Who could we Harm? What’s the Truth?
It is noteworthy, of course, that even professional bodies which are likely to be full of people who take a subjective approach to ethics, such as the British Psychological Society, and the Chartered Institute for Personnel and Development, have ethical codes of practice, which presume some agreed ethical standards.
I am not arguing that one should necessarily adopt one or other of these frameworks. My point is simply that it seems rash to discard the cumulative stories of centuries of civilisation about what may be deemed ‘good,’ without considering them. It seems doubly rash to replace them simply with ‘whatever the client prefers,’ as our only judgement of what is good. In fact, if I were to do that, it would seem to me to be abdicating personal moral responsibility.
The point of this blog, however, is to prompt reflection and discussion. So I will be most interested in others’ comments and perspectives: especially to correct me if I have misunderstood or mischaracterised approaches I criticise, but also more generally to take my thinking forward.