The Ethics of Human Development

The Japanese define ethics as human logic, the logic by which we are made human. Or, to soften the definition slightly, the logic (rules of conduct) by which we educate, mature, and enlighten ourselves.

The Ethics of Human Development are my attempt to give body and detail to the notion of human logic.

Note: I first became aware of “ethics as human logic” via a quote from Edwin M. Epstein of the Walter A. Haas School of Business at the University of CaliforniaBerkeley, along the lines of: “The Japanese word for ethics, rinri, translates roughly as ‘human logic’ or the ‘way of being human.’” Later, I discovered Watsuji Tetsuro’s Rinrigaku (Ethics in Japan), translated by Yamamoto Seisaku and Robert E. Carter, published by State University of New York Press, Albany, 1996. As Tetsuro puts it, ethics are “the way human beings truly become human beings”.

Two Assumptions

Two assumptions underly the ethics of human development. The first is that we want for ourselves the realization of our full potential as human beings (for a mapping of that potential, see THE FIVE LEVELS). As noted psychologist Carl Rogers put it, “There is in every organism, at whatever level, an underlying flow of movement toward constructive fulfillment of its inherent possibilities.” That is the first assumption: we want for ourselves the “constructive fulfillment of our inherent possibilities.” The second assumption is that ethical conduct facilitates that fulfillment.

Many of us never realize the fulfillment of our inherent possibilities. Perhaps we lack the stamina for it, or the discipline. Or we may lack the support we need from others. According to ethicist John David Garcia, in order to achieve our full developmental potential, we must receive unconditional love from at least one other person in our life. Without the honoring we experience when we are loved unconditionally, we are perhaps less able to conclude that we are valuable, less able to believe we are worth it; and so, less able to persist in the pursuit of inherent possibilities when the going gets tough.

And while unconditional love from at least one other person is fundamental to our development (presuming Garcia is correct), it is also helpful to live within a culture that values human development. It is extremely helpful, for example, if the give-and-take within the family, among friends, with teachers and mentors is in support of our development—not a give-and-take that diminishes the appetite for further development but one that supports and fuels it.

So, assumption number one is that we want the full embodiment of our inherent possibilities . . . self-realization, to use another term. Critical to this realization is the love and support we receive from others. Also critical is our willingness to do what it takes in order to achieve this realization.

This brings us to assumption number two: Ethical conduct facilitates the fulfillment of inherent possibilities. In one sense, of course, ethical conduct is the fulfillment of inherent possibilities. It is one of the ends toward which we are aiming as we develop: the capacity to behave ethically across all situations and settings. But ethical conduct, while an end unto itself, is also a means, requiring us to identify and, once identified, to undo our hardened habits of thinking and doing if those habits hold us back when principle calls us in another direction.

Put another way, through our effort to behave ethically we see what we have made of ourselves (to date). Falling short of our espoused standard (when that happens) reveals the resistances, the issues, the impedances within us with which we must come to terms if we are to realize further our potential as human beings—not just our potential to behave ethically, but our potential (if this is not saying the same thing) to live and work and love creatively. In this way, the effort to behave ethically enlightens us. It gives us self-knowledge.

Considerations and Qualifications

The ethics of human development are an attempt to establish a behavioral ideal. Terms like trust, integrity, fairness, respect—terms so often found in ethical codes—are, for the most part, not found in this code because here, the attempt is to detail how one operates when behaving with these qualities. The attempt here is to leave behind the looseness of those terms and in the process, hopefully, invite a greater degree of both clarity and self-examination.

At the same time, a qualification to this ideal is required. The ethics of human development offer a prescription, a recipe (as do all ethical codes)—one that aims us in the direction of what is most likely the proper course of action. Still, there are exceptions. Some situations may call for behavior other than the behavior prescribed by the code. In those instances, our allegiance must be to the moment, the situation at hand, and not to the code. The expert chef follows the recipe to a T unless knowledge or intuition suggests that by varying the recipe, a more perfect dish can be created. The ethics of human development point us in the direction most likely to serve the cause of human (and organizational) development, but may not always do so depending on the variables at play.

It is worth adding, however, that our ability to discern and make legitimate exceptions to the code improves with advancing development. Too often, we make exceptions not because the situation calls for it but because we are afraid to proceed. As development advances, fear less often rules the day and the honoring of oneself and others, regardless of fear or momentary difficulty, wins out (this being one measure of personal development).

To reiterate, the ethics of human development are an attempt to give body and detail to the notion of human logic, to operationalize the concept. The aim and fundamental value is human development (and all that is implied by that phrase: creativity, courage, compassion, etc.). And while many variables come into play in any given situation (gender, race, class, ethnicity, etc.)—variables that may call for exceptions and/or differences in style or expression—the code remains relevant because the attempt here is to reach past those differences to the humanity we have in common.


What follows are the ethics of human development without any explanation or discussion (though I have provided quotes from various sources that support or suggest the meaning of the ethic in question). Perhaps the statement of the ethics in this form can be of value to the reader. However, each ethic and corollary bears discussion, and also needs to be brought to life through illustration and example. That, of course, is the purpose of training. The Ethics of Human Development: A Complete Guide explains the ethics and the training program in detail while also providing role-playing scripts, workbook exercises, organizational assessment and feedback reports, etc. For more on the training program, go to THE ETHICS OF HUMAN DEVELOPMENT TRAINING PROGRAM.

A more complete explanation of each ethic is also available in Human Development and the Theater of Everyday Life and Right Livelihood: The Twelve Ethics of Work.


The Ethics of Human Development

The Organizational Ethic

It is ethical to serve, refine and advance the organization you have chosen to join. It is unethical to harm it.

 (For “organization” read: business, corporation, agency, institution, team, etc., as appropriate.)

From this ethic, several corollaries follow:

 Ethic 1 Corollaries:

1) It is ethical to learn everything you can about the organization of which you are a part, including its overall purpose; the vision that guides it; its rules, practices, and procedures; its parts and how they are connected; its history and current status. It is unethical to remain organizationally ignorant.

2) It is ethical to learn about the needs of those served by your organization (i.e., who they are and what they value), and it is also ethical to learn about the needs of those within the organization served by your division or part. It is unethical to remain ignorant of the needs of those you serve, whether they are customers, consumers, clients, students, patients or fellow employees.

3) It is ethical to perform your role (i.e., your job or duty) accurately, efficiently, and pleasantly. It is unethical not to do your job to the best of your ability.

4) It is ethical to perform your role (i.e., your job or duty) in a fashion that does not add to the work, hardship, or distraction of others unnecessarily. It is unethical to make work unnecessarily harder for others.

5) It is ethical to speak fairly and honestly of organizational members; to say about them what you are willing to say to them. The same applies to the organization as a whole. It is unethical to engage in malicious gossip, ridicule, or derisive humor.

6) It is ethical to follow the rules, practices, and procedures of the organization. It is unethical to willfully and knowingly violate the rules, practices, and procedures of the organization or to remain ignorant of them.

NOTE: At the same time, it is naive to think that rules are never to be broken. Therefore, it is ethical to make exceptions to rules, practices, and procedures when such exceptions serve or do not harm the organization. Further, it is ethical to share the reasoning behind these exceptions so that this reasoning can be examined and refined and so that others in the organization can sooner recognize when and where exceptions are appropriate. It is ethical to help others in the organization acquire the discernment that allows them to make exceptions to rules, practices, and procedures when such exceptions serve or do not harm the organization.

7) It is ethical to seek the correction, modification, and/or revision of rules, practices, and procedures that are inconsistent with the overall purpose and stated values of the organization. It is unethical to accept without seeking to correct organizational practices that harm the ability of the organization to accomplish its purpose.

8) It is ethical to create organizational improvements. These improvements may be in the form of or result in increased revenue, decreased costs, improved services, an enhanced organizational culture. But whatever the form or result, it is unethical not to help the organization evolve.

9) It is ethical to protect and defend the organization against destructive influences such as outside forces or internal decision-making practices that lead to fraud, libel, or abuse. It is unethical to remain silent in the face of perceived threats to the organization’s survival.

10) It is ethical to leave an organization whose purpose and values conflict with your own. It is unethical to remain in an organization that requires you to violate your values or personal code of ethics.

The Open-Mindedness Ethic

 It is ethical to be open to the possibility that your view is incomplete, capable of expansion and improvement. It is unethical to ignore information that could allow you or your organization to grow.

“To become aware of what is happening, I must pay attention with an open mind. I must set aside my personal prejudices or bias. Prejudiced people see only what fits those prejudices.” — John Heider, The Tao of Leadership

The Deliberate Action Ethic

 It is ethical to choose consciously and execute deliberately specific actions that you believe represent the best of your discernible options. When the time to act has come, it is unethical not to do something.

 (NOTE: Ethic 3 is the companion ethic to Ethic 2; each without the other is incomplete.)

“The first thing to do in life is to do with purpose what one proposes to do.” — Pablo Casals, Cellist

“I just have to make sure I mean every note.” — Pharoah Sanders, Saxophonist

The Feedback Ethic

 It is ethical to request, encourage, and deliver feedback. It is unethical to ignore or discourage feedback.

 Ethic 4 Corollaries:

1) It is ethical to request and encourage feedback on your performance, product(s), and materials from individuals with whom you interact and/or who, in one way or another, receive your services whether they are inside or outside the organization. It is unethical to ignore or discourage feedback.

2) It is ethical to offer feedback to those from whom you or your organization receives services. It is ethical to acknowledge outstanding performance, just as it is ethical to provide feedback to those whose performance or service threatens the optimal performance of you or your organization. In both cases, it may be unethical not to do so.

3) It is ethical to deliver feedback sensitively and to accept it graciously. It is unethical to diminish the person to whom you are giving feedback or to punish the person from whom you are receiving it.

 “No system can operate humanely without feedback.” — Philip Slater, Earth Walk

 The Truth-Telling Ethic

It is ethical to tell the truth, to be honest. Truth telling promotes clarity and allows you to match resources with greater precision to the demands of the moment. It is unethical to lie. Lying creates misinformation, confusion, and distrust, threatening your ability (and the organization’s ability) to survive, adapt, and prosper.

Only if the individual cannot utilize the truth constructively for personal growth are we justified in withholding it. And making such a judgment requires a discernment of an exalted degree… This was M. Scott Peck’s point in his book, The Road Less Traveled, and having made this point he cautions, “…in assessing the capacity of another to utilize the truth for personal/spiritual growth, it should be borne in mind that our tendency is generally to underestimate rather than overestimate this capacity.”

The Pain-Directed Ethic

 It is ethical in ongoing personal (and organizational) development to work first on the issue causing the most pain, then to work on the next most painful issue, and so on, in this way creating improvements in the sequence most likely to ensure not only survival but also health and wellbeing. It is unethical to ignore painful issues. By ignoring painful issues, we allow them to compound, threatening all the more the ability of the person (or organization) to accomplish his (or its) purpose.

“Everything we shut our eyes to, everything we run away from, everything we deny, denigrate or despise, serves to defeat us in the end.” — Henry Miller
, 20th-century American writer

The Free Choice Ethic

 It is ethical to assume that you are choosing to do all that you do, that you come to your tasks by choice, that you are involved voluntarily. It is unethical to assume, unless extreme circumstances prevail, that you are being made or forced to do anything.

Which team is more likely to succeed: the team comprised of volunteers or the team comprised of individuals behaving as if they are required to participate?

Bad Faith — “pretending things are mandatory when they are in fact voluntary.” —  Jean Paul Sartre, 20th-century French philosopher

The Conscious Mistakes Ethic

It is ethical to reduce and eliminate, if possible, conscious mistakes. It is unethical to know that what you are about to do is wrong and to do it anyway.

“This is what ordinary people mean when they say that, although men may differ as to what things are right or wrong, no one ever thinks that it is right to do wrong or wrong to do right.” — Wilbur Marshall Urban, The Fundamentals of Ethics

“It is by not doing what they already know they should do that companies get into trouble over quality.” — Philip B. Crosby, Quality Without Tears

 The Sustainability Ethic

It is ethical to consider the long-range implications of your decision-making and to make sustainability a guiding tenet. It is unethical to knowingly implement practices that ensure the collapse or diminished health of self, organization, or environment.

 Personal Traps are where the individual engages in behavior that has immediate or short term advantages but long term disadvantages.

Organizational Traps are where the individual engages in behavior that has immediate or short-term advantages for the individual engaging in the behavior but immediate or long-term disadvantages for the organization/community/environment (see “The Tragedy of the Commons” by Garrett Hardin).

Personal Fences, on the other hand, are where the individual engages in behavior that has immediate or short-term disadvantages but long term advantages.

Organizational Fence is a situation in which behavior has immediate or short-term disadvantages for the individual who engages in it but immediate or long-term advantages for the organization/community/environment.

John R. Platt
, “Social Traps”

The Wind Harp Ethic

 It is ethical to treat others as you would like to be treated even though you are not always so treated. It is unethical not to find appropriate avenues for the release of your anger, resentment, and rage so as to keep from passing them on to, or taking them out on, others. It is unethical to engage in scapegoating.

 “Treat them all in a lofty manner lest they have cause to find thee weak.” — John Dee, 18th century metaphysician

The Personal Growth Ethic

 It is ethical to continue to grow as a person, to continue to increase your capacity to conduct yourself in accord with your ethics and principles. It is unethical to stop growing as a person, to not continue the lifelong process of personal/psychological/spiritual growth.

“The measure of individuals–and so of corporations–is the extent to which we struggle to complete ourselves, the energy we devote to living up to our potential.” — Max De Pree, Leadership is an Art

“No organization can be more progressive or more effective than its people.” — Henry Ford II , The Human Environment and Business

The Gift-Sharing Ethic

 It is ethical to utilize your gifts, talents, and unique experience on behalf of others. Through the expression of your unique gifts, you may help others evolve and, in the process, acquire for yourself a greater sense of purpose and meaning. It is unethical not to share your gifts, talents, and unique experience somewhere, for the benefit of someone.

“You can assume that you are fulfilling your purpose if you are in the process of turning your experience into products and events that bring advantage to others.” — Buckminster Fuller, Inventor, poet, philosopher

References & Notes

The work of innumerable writers, thinkers, philosophers and others have been consulted and drawn on in the development of the ethics of human development. I want to acknowledge ethicist John David Garcia whose work directly influenced ethics 2, 3, 4, 7 and 12. Buckminster Fuller’s work directly influenced ethics 5 and 12. For a more extensive crediting of references as well as a more complete explanation of each ethic, see Human Development and the Theater of Everyday Life, Right Livelihood: The Twelve Ethics of Work, and for an explanation of the training program as well as an explanation of the ethics, see The Complete Guide.

David Thomas, PhD