In today’s climate where we seem to have such polarized views, it may be hard to imagine that we humans have any shared values. Yet if Jesus, Buddha, and Aristotle sat down to tea, they might help us see that our belief systems have much more in common than we realize.
In fact, we’d need a bigger table and few more scones, because when you look across six of the world’s major belief systems, the Greek philosophers, and examples of countries with non-religious populations, we’d find that we could invite representatives from all of them, and the conversation would still include a lot of shared values about how good, decent people behave with one another.
Defining shared values
During research for the book, Rooted in Decency, I found myself asking: Who decides what being a good, decent human looks like? Where do morality and our ideas about right and wrong come from? So I researched the moral codes of six major enduring belief systems / religions: Hinduism, Judaism, Confucianism, Buddhism, Christianity, and Islam. I also dug into the Greek philosophers, Arisotle in particular, because Greek philosophy is the basis for modern moral philosophy and it's the basis of our judicial system, which is how we enforce ideas about right and wrong. Finally, I explored how people behave in societies where religion is no longer a dominant force in society. On a global scale, we can’t assume people are basing moral decisions on religious beliefs. As of 2019, more than a quarter of Americans identify as atheist, agnostic or “nothing in particular.” Around the world, the percentage of non-religious people is often higher, such as in France and Germany (40%), Britain (53%), Australia (30%), and Japan (80%).
What the research revealed, is that when you isolate moral codes about how humans should treat each other, the behaviors valued by each of the world belief systems are nearly identical. You may have personal values or values that are specific to your religious practice, but when we're talking about living with common decency, the essential ways we treat each other as humans can be grouped into four core human values: Truth, Respect, Responsibility, and Compassion.
4 Core Shared Human Values :
Truth - Respect - Responsibility - Compassion
Have a look at the diagram below to see words that appear over and over in the belief systems and how they can be grouped into these 4 core values. (If you want the specifics on each belief systems, check out Part 3 of Rooted in Decency.)
4 Core Values Shared by World Belief Systems
Let's get a little more specific about what these four core values mean, and how the world's belief systems describe the types of behaviors that make someone a good person.
Core Value 1: Truth
Each of the seven enduring belief systems emphasized the value of being truthful in words, deeds, and intent such as:
- Being honest with ourselves about our motives
- Acting with sincerity
- Speaking truthfully and accurately
- Acting honestly in trade, in relationships, and with property
Morality grew from our need for trustworthiness, fairness, and cooperation, and truth is the foundation on which all of those are built. We can’t cooperate without trust; and we can’t trust without truth.
Core Value 2: Respect
Respect as a value is about treating people and principles with care, including treating others with the dignity and fairness we’d like in return. That reciprocity—I’ll treat you the way I’d like you to treat me—is a key way we are able to cooperate and live peacefully in a society. Behaviors that foster self-respect and respect for others include:
- Self-care, self-worth, living in line with your own moral principles
- Respect for life and human dignity
- Treating others with courtesy and kindness
- Fairness and justice
This value is about much more than courtesy and admiration. Respect is an essential rule of engagement for a stable, fair, and just society.
Core Value 3: Responsibility
Responsibility is about being aware of how our actions create consequences and it’s living up to the demands of both give-and-take in our relationships. To reap the benefits of being part of society, one takes on reciprocal responsibilities—because with rights come duties. The belief systems all included guidance on responsibility to oneself and to others:
- Developing oneself; Exercising self-control, balance, and moderation
- Taking care of others; Reciprocating with good will
- Personal accountability for your actions and consequences
Even though responsibility may feel like a weight to carry, it also liberates us and empowers self-determination.
Core Value 4: Compassion
Compassion is about connecting with each other as fellow travelers who are all experiencing the wonders and the tragedies that are part of being human. Each belief system includes themes around caring for others not just out of obligation, but with a sense of empathy and benevolence:
- Friendliness, goodwill, graciousness
- Forgiveness, mercy
- Unselfishness, generosity, charity
Compassion isn’t just about relieving suffering. Compassion requires us to find balance between competing needs and it encourages us to enjoy life together.
Using the 4 Core Values
One of the reasons we’re seeing so much divisiveness today, is that to use the core values well, we need to use them in balance. You can use too little of a value, but you can also have too much of a good thing. As Aristotle explained, we need to know how to use the right amount of a virtue, in the right way, for the right motive.
For example, most of us would agree it’s not moral to degrade others. Yet today, some groups have so much respect for their own cause and ideology, that they are willing to act in a degrading, and even aggressive way toward people who don’t agree with them. That’s using too much respect to justify disrespect.
For more on how we can find a balance in applying these core human values, see Part three of Rooted in Decency. This sample chapter on What is Truth can help you see how we can put each value on a range from too little to too much and decide how to navigate the gray areas in moral dilemmas.