Archive for Monday, November 8, 2004

Ethicist Michael Josephson chats online

November 8, 2004


Welcome to our online chat with ethicist Michael Josephson.

The chat took place at 3 p.m. Monday, Nov. 8 and is now closed, but you can read the full transcript on this page.

Moderator: Welcome to our chat today with ethicist Michael Josephson. We'll get started now. You can submit your questions any time during the chat. Thanks for joining us this afternoon.

Chuck, Lawrence: Who decides what is ethical? Courts or religionists?

Michael Josephson, noted ethicist, answers questions from readers
as part of an online chat Monday.

Michael Josephson, noted ethicist, answers questions from readers as part of an online chat Monday.

Michael Josephson: Neither. Ethical values are beliefs that individuals associate with moral right or wrong and in one sense everyone decides for themselves what they think an ethical value is. I think, however, that ethics is governed by core timeless principles that can be found in religion, philosophy and even psychology. I think six key terms specify the essence of universal ethics: trustworthiness, respect, responsibility, fairness, caring and citizenship. Again the individual decides what they think is ethical under these terms.

Lynn, Lawrence: It seems we are more in need than ever of ethics in our society. Please comment on the ethical nature of the War in Iraq.

Michael Josephson: We have always been in need of ethics but there is evidence that the ethical quality of society is deteriorating especially in terms of commitment to honesty, respect, and responsibility. That includes responsibly dealing with difficult questions like the War in Iraq. My expertise is on character not politics so I don't think my opinion on the war has any special value other than to say we ought to adhere to the six pillars in deciding what we do and how we do it: trustworthiness, respect, responsibility, fairness, caring and citizenship.

Shelley, Fort Riley: Please tell me how the program was developed. How do you envision this program will be incorporated into after-school programs?

Michael Josephson: The program was developed through a summit of character education experts in search for secular core ethical values that could be acceptable to people from different ideologies and religious perspectives, More than 5 million kids are involved in Character Counts! throughout the country. Please see to find out how to get started and what's being done.

Mike, Lawrence: I noticed on your Web page that you have many interesting quotations from various sages, philosophers, etc. But I was surprised by the number of quotations from Elvis Presley about character, values, etc. Where did you find all those interesting Elvis Presley quotations?

Michael Josephson: I wish I knew. We have clever editors. We do try to find quotes from a wide diversity of people. I bet there's a book or Web site on Elvis quotes.

Jacob, Lawrence: You spoke about the relative nature of morals (i.e. the fact that different people make different moral judgments). Why do you think that the Christian Right has been so successful in claiming terms like "morals" and "values" to mean "their" morals and "their" values?

Michael Josephson: I don't know whether any group has successfully claimed the term "moral values" though I think there has been a willingness in the media and an abdication of people with different moral sources to allow the claim. In fact, the term values is a neutral one referring to all core beliefs that drive attitudes and conduct. Moral values are beliefs associated by the believer with moral right from a spiritual or philosophical sense. The challenge today is to form, hold and advocate deep personal convictions without undue self-righteousness and with proper respect for alternative views.

Rowan, Lawrence: What do you see as the primary reason people are so often unable to differentiate between what is morally right, what is ethically right, and what is legally right?

Michael Josephson: In general, people are not very rigorous in the use of language and the terms you refer to do not have universally accepted definitions. We try to distinguish between political/social values (e.g., abortion, gay rights, etc.) upon which there is bound to be sincere disagreement and character values where we find a common understanding is possible. Our goal is to be sure that the debates concerning the political/social issues are conducted ethically, with character. Thus we must be truthful, fair responsible, respectful, etc.

Kay, Lawrence: What would be your most important statement to teenagers?

Michael Josephson: Who you are is much more important than what you get. Don't make choices today for the benefit of short-term pleasures or advantages that can impede your future. Finally, don't confuse fun with happiness. Happiness is more durable and requires a rooted sense of meaning and purpose and self-esteem based on a sense of moral worth.

Kane, Kansas: I'm a police officer and I'm about to go into the FTO program and I'm kind of nervous about it. I'm worried that my FTO may tell me to do something that I know is wrong or that goes against my principles. In my line of work, you can't really complain or tell somebody about it or you'll be labeled a snitch. What do you suggest that I do if something like that happens?

Michael Josephson: Funny, I teach a new FTO program for LA Sheriff's and I know where you are coming from. First of all if the FTO asks you to do something that you think is illegal or morally wrong ask for clarification to be sure you understood. Explain respectfully your reason of doubt and then decide how bad it is. Ask yourself would the chief approve of what you are asked to do -- is this FTO a renegade or an accurate conveyor of the culture. If he is a renegade you have the difficult task of calling to the attention of superiors. If what is being asked is common but clearly wrong you have to decide whether this is a principled organization. If not, you must find a way out.

Dan: Please comment on the level of political discourse in the recent campaign. I am interested specifically in the lying that seems to be considered as acceptable in advertising and speeches, as well as the general negative tone. I watched President Bush over and over talking about his opponent as a flip flopper, etc., and it seems the level of discourse should be higher. Thank you.

Michael Josephson: Few people will defend either the tone or content of this election and the general trend in politics. But it works because citizens accept it. As soon as it is too costly to engage in deception or disrespect; it will stop. Until then we have simply whining and lamenting.

Mike, Kansas City: Hi Mr. Josephson. I am currently reporting and writing a book about the students of legendary coach John Wooden. I see on your Web site that Coach Wooden is a big supporter of Character Counts. Can you explain the level of his involvement and future plans surrounding his involvement. Thanks!

Michael Josephson: Coach Wooden is very involved and we have just established a John and Nell Wooden Legacy Center with many of his former players. Contact me at to let me know more about your project.

Moderator: This will be our last question for this chat.

Ben: What is the difference between ethics and morals?

Michael Josephson: Depends on who you are asking. In formal philosophical literature there really is no difference but in modern usage we tend to use the term morals to describe beliefs (values) people have on social political issues especially those covered by religious doctrines whereas ethics is used to speak about right and wrong from a more philosophical perspective.

Moderator: Well, that wraps up our chat with Michael Josephson. We'd like to thank our readers and Michael Josephson for participating.

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