The moral underpinnings of good policy.

Over the last couple of weeks I’ve needed to look at the relationship between morals, ethics, values, principles and policies to help define several of these terms for use in ISO 21503, Guide to the governance of projects, programs and portfolios.  All of these terms are important aspects of governance but the interrelationships are far from clear.

The best construct seems to be something along these lines, but any thoughts or suggestions to the contrary will be appreciated.

Morals and ethics are the starting point, both deal with distinguishing between ‘right and wrong’ behaviours, but morals are internal to a person, ethics are rules developed by others:

  • Morals are the internal code of behaviour that define what is considered right or acceptable by the person, usually derived from a religious or philosophical base. The choice of which morality to follow is made by the individual, and therefore ‘morals’ tend to refer to that person’s ideals regarding right and wrong; within the framework of the society they live in – there can be different moralities.
  • Ethics involves systematising and recommending concepts of right and wrong conduct, and refers to the series of rules provided to an individual by an external source, typically in a ‘professional code of ethics’; eg, the PMI Code of Ethics and Professional Conduct.

Values are an expression of a person’s fundamental beliefs, founded on their ethical and moral framework. Values are used to define and differentiate right from wrong, good from bad, and just from unjust based on what is important to the individual – things the person ‘values’. Where are group of people operate within an organisational culture, the ‘values of the organisation’ are derived from the values of the members of the organisation. An organisation’s values are the standards used to provide guidance to the members of the organisation as they determine what is the best decision or course of action to take.

Principles are similar to ethics; they codify a fundamental truth or proposition to define an aspect of an organisation’s overall values in an objective way. They are positive statements of what will be done or achieved. An organisation’s enunciated principles serve as the foundation for its policies, behaviours and reasoning.

The final link in the chain is the organisation’s policies. These are a set of rules used by an organization to define how its members will implement aspects of its principles or objectives. Policies provide the guidance and constraints needed by management to operate he organisation effectively.

Ideally, in a well governed organisation, the connections between morals and ethics, values, principles and policies are direct and free of contradictions and ambiguities; with each policy clearly supporting the underlying ethical and moral foundations of the organisation’s culture. In reality there are frequently conflicting pressures and imperatives within the policies that make choosing the best option difficult – in these circumstances the decision maker’s personal morals and ethics come to the fore.  For more on ethics see: http://www.mosaicprojects.com.au/WhitePapers/WP1001_Ethics.pdf

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