Personal Values: The Foundation of Ethical Literacy

Personal values are the bedrock of ethics as they guide what a person considers good/bad or desirable/undesirable. Values create the foundation for personal and societal judgment and action.6 It is important then before discussing ethics to have a clear understanding of the personal values that guide us.

Personal values are what a person believes to be important. They help prioritize life’s demands and often serve as a compass or guide in decision making and behavior. Yet, many people are unable to verbalize the values that guide them. This omission does not suggest an absence of values. Rather values are often so ingrained in personal beliefs and worldview that they become “invisible.” People often do not recognize the value that is guiding their decision. Yet, to establish ethical literacy, public relations professionals need to be cognizant of the values that guide their judgments and behavior.

Parsons divides personal values into two types: terminal values and instrumental values. Terminal values are life-long personal goals and include freedom and salvation or inner harmony. Instrumental values are behaviors that help people achieve their lifelong goals and include independence, ambition, and obedience. There are several online tools available to help people identify and understand the values that guide them. The Barrett Values Centre offers a free, comprehensive personal values assessment that leads individuals through self-development exercises. This tool orders values into three categories: self-interest, transformation, and common good. Self-interest focuses on the personal needs for security, for love/belonging, and for self-esteem. Transformation establishes a sense of personal independence and an authenticity of who we are and how we choose to live. The final stage, common good, seeks to identify a meaning or purpose that leads to a recognition of others. According to the Barrett Values Centre, the key is to have a balanced values approach.9 Individuals with values rooted in personal interest are most focused on their own personal needs, but those who focus exclusively on the greater good may also lack the skills to meet their basic needs.

Foundational to ethical literacy is to know the values that are guiding ethical reasoning. Values can lead us to protect personal security or encourage us to make a positive difference. In the opening scenario, the sports public relations director may have been motivated to protect the organization’s image, the self-interest value of security, or the director may have been motivated by a belief that athletes should make a positive difference, a common good value. Ethical literacy does not seek to determine which value should have guided ethical reasoning. Rather, the operationalization of a value alerts us to a public relations ethical issue and the value that is guiding the ethical reasoning. By developing values awareness, public relations professionals not only identify a personal ethical viewpoint but can better understand the ethical viewpoint of others.

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