What values are embedded in this issue, problem, or dilemma?
Values play a central role in ethical decision making. Although there are variations about what constitutes a value in the literature of ethics, a value can be defined as an item of worth. People attach values to all sorts of things: careers, money, cars, love, education and so on. What people value they find worthy of their pursuit and pursue only that which they value. In short, values are one of the prime motivating factors in human behavior.
Values are definitive of our person. Once we have chosen those items that we find most worthy of our pursuit, then our way of being the kind of person we are has been delimited and charted out. The values that so define us are usually called our "core values." These are basic values that we might be willing to die for, that we would not sacrifice nor abandon.
Because core values are so subjective, they will be relative to the individual who holds them. Not all individuals have the same core values and conflicts about them will often arise. When there is a particularly divisive clash between bona fide values that people hold, then ethicists deem that conflict as one form of an ethical dilemma.
But there are other ways that values can be defined as well. The idea of "shared values" is important. Here conflict about values is replaced with agreement and harmony. Groups, families, associations, societies and nations can be said to have and hold shared values since they provide the fundamental basis upon which these collectives are formed and so shared values are often called "social values". A shared value is a kind of "cement" that holds and brings people together. Some have called this aspect of shared or social values a form of "social capital."
Organizations, such as corporations and professions, share values that help define their field of activity. In medicine, for example, helping and caring for others is highly valued. In the field of law, justice and due process are pre-eminent, while safety, competence and efficiency are valued by engineers. One can identify the shared values of the various professions and use them as one way to define what it means to be a professional in that field.
In corporations, values identify the culture that is operative in the organization. In different corporations different cultures come from the holding of different values. Work in banking will be quite different than working in the computer field thanks to the differing values that will be found in each of these two kinds of endeavors.
Just as there are conflicts among people with respect to their individually held core values, so too are there value conflicts that arise for professionals. First, there is the possibility that there will be disagreement among professionals in a given profession about what is valuable in that profession.
Should lawyers or doctors advertise their services on television and use the same sort of hype that is used to sell cars or deodorants? How much should professionals charge for services that is fair to their clients? Should professionals maintain confidentiality for their clients no matter what the client tells them? These and many other issues, problems and dilemmas are essentially value conflicts that professionals must address in the course of their careers.
But in addition to value conflicts that might occur within the professions, there may be conflicts of values that can be found external to the profession. A professional might find the set of shared values that define his or her profession to be at odds with values outside of the profession that are held by other individuals, other professions, the organization in which they happen to work or even those that are held by society. When such a value conflict occurs between those of a profession and some external value or set of values, then the professional is in the midst of an ethical dilemma.
Finally, it is often argued by ethicists that professionals need to be quite cognizant of the social values area. It is claimed that professionals are primarily responsible to society for their conduct and that the society is the beneficiary of professional work.
Thus, certain social values need to be preserved and protected by professionals. Social values like freedom, equality, justice and so on need to be the hallmarks of professional life. When they are replaced with the values of self-interest by a professional, then a lack of professionalism results.
In the first step of a VCR analysis of ethical issues, problems and dilemmas then, we need to identify the particular values that are at issue. Any discussion of ethics must include reference to values, if it is to be complete.