The following is excerpted from the book To Tell The Truth… Ethics Unwrapped.  We will continue to provide excerpts from the book in future posts.  In the meantime you may wish to read the entire book (?!) 

…What it’s all about


We’ve noted that in writing its laws, society necessarily employs definitions appropriate to its aims.  Just as with equality, it has in fact done exactly that with the word rights. The law tells us that we have, for instance, “the right to remain silent.”  But we already own that right (to speak or not to speak is a matter of individual choice) and certain others as well, independent of society and before its law.  Our rights as human beings are absolute–givens.  What society’s law bestows are more properly privileges.  Privileges, like any group rules, may be changed, deleted, or added at the pleasure of the group.  But when society tampers with our rights (or definitions thereof) either deliberately or accidentally, it risks fouling the system.  And that’s what’s happened.

Privileges include the freedom to pass relatively unhampered through and about our society while enjoying our rights in the group context, and to abide by (and benefit from) group rules.  We also ostensibly have the privilege of freely speaking our mind.  Many societies (and some groups within our own) do not bestow that privilege.

The confusion of privileges with rights is a function of a widespread misunderstanding of the relationship between ethics and values.


Values, like privileges but unlike ethics, are not absolute.  They may be defined by a group or society itself, or they may be defined by an individual.  But whatever they may or may not be, values, like morals, are not universal.

Values are relative, defined ideals, customs, mores and morals.  Values may be described, delimited, designated or interpreted by an individual, community or society.  They may be either positive or negative.  Ethics, on the other hand, can only be positive.

To put the difference between ethics and values in perspective, recall the difference between morality (honesty) and morals (that in spite of being generally-accepted societal customs, need not always be strictly moral), and consider the sociological aspects of everyday living in a society dominated by groups.

If a society’s values are not universal, the ethical individual may have difficulty trying to deal with them.  But society does not persuade us to be perfect, only to “go along to get along” for the good of the many. (In fact, society and its laws persuade us to be alike, not unique, because it is easier to deal with, and regulate, similar entities.)  It is within this framework that society’s rules and laws are written:  just accept society’s values and obey its laws, and everyone will get along.  If only…

…to be continued…


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