Global Values, Moral Boundaries
A Pilot Survey

In October 1996, The Institute for Global Ethics conducted a Global Values Survey at the State of the World Forum's annual meeting in San Francisco. The 272 participants were well educated, cosmopolitan, accomplished, and thoughtful. They represented 40 countries and more than 50 different faith communities, had an average age of 51 years, and were 57 percent male. More than half had some graduate education. On a scale from "not at all religious" to "strongly religious," they leaned toward the latter (2.8 on a scale of 4). By occupation, 36 percent were in education/research or in the nonprofit-volunteer sectors, while 32 percent were in business, finance, or consulting.

Survey Instructions:

"Please look at the list of 15 values carefully and check the five values that are most important to you in your daily life [and choose] the one value you consider to be most important."

Value Chosen
# (%)
Most Important
# (%)
Truth 169 (62) 33 (16)
Compassion 153 (56) 44 (21)
Responsibility 147 (54) 33 (16)
Freedom 113 (42) 19 (9)
Reverence for Life 108 (40) 25 (12)
Fairness 100 (37) 12 (6)
Self-Respect 96 (35) 16 (8)
Preservation of Nature 92 (34) 5 (2)
Tolerance 86 (32) 8 (4)
Generosity 73 (27) 4 (2)
Humility 50 (18) 4 (2)
Social Harmony 43 (16) 2 (1)
Honor 31 (11) 4 (2)
Devotion 27 (10) 4 (2)
Respect for Elders 19 (7) 0 (0)

 Moral Values
Part I of the survey asked the respondents to choose the five moral values from a list of 15 that are most important to them. The most frequent choice, Truth, was chosen 169 times. The top three values, Truth, Compassion, and Responsibility, were frequently chosen in a cluster. The respondents were also asked to select the single most important value. Compassion topped that list. Fairness, however, served as a point of distinction across groups. Chosen 100 times overall, Fairness was preferred by men, Jews and Moslems, businesspeople, and the not-very-religious and nonreligious. In general, however, the choice of values was not related to such characteristics as nationality, sex, religion, age, or social status. Our values apparently transcend these demographic characteristics.

Moral Boundaries.
The second section referred to the respondents' moral boundaries, beyond which they might feel less impulse to extend their moral concerns. It also probed the extent to which they perceived that their social environments encouraged and rewarded their values-based behavior. More than 75 percent of the participants agreed that "People can use values other than my own and still make what I consider to be ethical decisions." The same proportion felt they could provide for their families and be good citizens by living according to their values. Yet only 64 percent agreed that "My community rewards me when I live according to my values," while 77 percent agreed that "Living in my community makes it hard to live according to my values." But when asked whether they could "live at peace" with people whose values were fundamentally different from their own, nearly 87 percent said they could.

 Sources of Authority.
Respondents were then asked about their sources of authority, or the people and institutions they relied on for knowing what is morally right. The respondents ranked six possible sources of authority: modern science, religious leaders, best friends, personal experience, God's word, and government. The most striking result was the tremendous importance given to personal experience. God's word was a very distant second. Government was far and away the least important source. Again, there was little relationship between demographic variables and the ranks given here.

Resolving Moral Dilemmas.
Part II asked how the participants would resolve moral dilemmas in the face of four "right-versus-right" cases involving the use of an agricultural pesticide in their country, a private charitable organization's plan to build an orphanage near their home, a poor person's shoplifting in a store plagued by crime, and a friend at work who was sabotaging new machines in order to protect jobs. After choosing a course of action, respondents were asked to explain their choices by selecting from among three resolution principles: utilitarianism (maximizing benefits for the greatest number of people), the Kantian categorical imperative (establishing a rule that everyone should follow), or the Golden Rule (reflecting the way the respondent would like to be treated by others).

Only rarely were their earlier choices of values significantly related either to the courses of action they selected or to the principles they used to explain their selections. Nor did they feel consistently wedded to any single principle, but appeared to select the resolution principle most appropriate to the case at hand. By the end of this section, the utilitarian perspective had been chosen 49 percent of the time, followed by the Golden Rule (39 percent) and the Kantian categorical imperative (12 percent).

Values and Television.
Part III asked about values and television, focusing at one point on the frequency with which television programs struck participants as effective in teaching children values similar to their own. On a scale of one to six where one equals never and six equals very frequently, 90 percent chose a number lower than three. Responses to this question did not correlate significantly with living inside or outside the United States. Neither was sex, education, nor age related to any attitudes toward TV. People in the education sector, however, gave TV higher marks for teaching useful moral lessons, while those in the nonprofit sector gave it a lower score.

Based on the replies from these respondents' surveys, we would suggest that the following hypotheses warrant future survey work:

1) There is a small set of core moral values that is cross-cultural and universal.

While knowledge about shared values doesn't help predict particular behaviors, it is useful in other ways. Such knowledge can provide a framework for proposing values-based social change that, because it accords with shared values, stands a better chance of acceptance. It can provide a powerful rejoinder to those who challenge the teaching of ethics by asking, "Whose values will you teach?" Finally, it can combat the ethical and cultural relativism of those who insist that each individual has his or her own unique set of values.

2) One value, Fairness, does differentiate respondents from one another.

Those who chose Fairness were slightly less likely than other respondents to choose Truth, Compassion, and Responsibility, less trusting of religion and religious figures, more business oriented, and more apt to endorse strictly rational rather than emotional or empathetic attitudes. Those respondents represented a sizable minority concerned less with outcomes than with processes. They tended to guard their rights more, and they were skeptical of emotion as a grounds for decision making.

3) Individuals holding the same core values may use different moral principles to resolve their dilemmas.

The fact that the choice of resolution principles showed no correlation to the choice of values may be vitally important. Moral philosophies cannot, apparently, be ranked in an enduring system according to their fundamental goodness. Otherwise, people holding the most broadly shared values (like Compassion or Truth) would be found to gravitate toward a single "grand" principle, while others with less widely held values would gather around the two "lesser" principles. In fact, each of the three resolution principles provides a valid moral platform.

4) Single individuals may engage a variety of resolution principles as they move from dilemma to dilemma.

Individuals shift principles freely from dilemma to dilemma. Were that not the case, the choice of resolution principles in these four cases would have shown nearly identical percentages--a kind of straight-ticket voting.

5) The Golden Rule is far more widely used than the categorical imperative.

Until recently, many American ethics textbooks essentially ignored the Golden Rule, focusing on only two principles--utilitarianism and the categorical imperative--in teaching ethical decision making. Yet the Golden Rule was selected more than three times as frequently as the categorical imperative.

6) These respondents are willing to put their values into practice across a broad range of moral boundaries.

In general, respondents were unwilling to erect barriers to moral inclusiveness. They showed overwhelming support for the idea that people with values other than their own could still make ethical decisions and were worthy of inclusion within their perimeter of moral concern. Moral boundaries were found to operate, however, in distinguishing a "close-in" group of family members, educators, and clergy from more distant groups that included businesspeople, journalists, government officials, and military officers. The commonality of responses here adds weight to the argument that there is a fairly universal global ethic, within which individuals select various philosophical principles.

7) The most powerful source of authority for knowing right from wrong is personal experience.

These participants ranked ethical self-reliance far ahead of a reliance on God's word, science, or government. This finding may suggest hubris. But given that respondents from all backgrounds, educational levels, and religions chose personal experience, it may signal a conviction that ethics must be made personal, tangible, and experiential, instead of being determined by scientific logic, clerical advice, or governmental policy.

8) Television is generally unsuitable for providing moral instruction.

With broad unanimity, these respondents dismissed television -- one of the most pervasive media in the global culture -- as unable to teach anything valuable to children. That finding held true across nationalities, genders, age, education levels, and choices of core values.

The need, now, is for further global values research to test these hypotheses. Will country-specific surveys turn up sharp distinctions among cultures, or will global commonality be reinforced? Will the results from such surveys lead us to build a basis for conflict resolution and mediation? Will they give impetus to the assertions about global oneness that are embodied in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and its offshoots? If so, further work on global values is surely worth undertaking.

Rushworth M. Kidder
Camden, Maine
William E. Loges
Waco, Texas

Copyright © 1995-98 the Institute for Global Ethics, Camden, Maine 04843
Last updated on 11 May 1998