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What are values?

Basic definitions put into context

Although the terms values, morals and ethics are often used interchangeably, society generally attaches a fine distinction among them:

Values -- an individual's accepted standards of right or wrong
Morals -- society's standards of right and wrong, very similar to ethics
Ethics -- a structured system of principles that govern appropriate conduct for a group, including activities such as professional ethics, compassion, commitment, cooperation

The traits that a society ascribes to those terms, of course, are not static. "Values, morals and ethics change with a culture," psychology professor Hal Fishbein points out, "and are tied to a culture. They seem to be enduring, but they have to do with the success of running a culture.

"In the hunter-gatherer society, for example, you had no choice but to trust. It was not a virtue. You had to trust or you wouldn't survive. Today, we don't have to be that way. We can cheat, and we can get away with it."

University of Cincinnati philosophy professor Larry Jost adds a more-recent perspective on morals -- from only 2,300 years ago: "Aristotle talked about a moral target. There are many ways to miss, he said, but only one way to get it right. He said a virtuous person knows how to be angry, when he should be angry, what he should be angry at and at whom he should be angry."

It's not easy, he says; you either hit the bull's eye or you don't. To make it tougher, "your values can pull you in different directions," he notes. "The only people who claim value questions are easy are those who don't think for themselves."

D. Rieselman

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