Principles¹ are tools for decision making that bring the moral² basis of decisions into focus. Recognizing the moral context of our decisions must precede any attempt to resolve related difficulties. The failure to recognize the moral context of a decision does not make it morally neutral, it makes it morally unknown and uncontrollable. You can’t control or avoid what you aren’t aware of.

Ethical dilemmas rarely present themselves directly. They tend to sneak up on us. They too often pass us by before we know it. Or they develop so gradually that we only see them in hindsight. Larry Colero says that it is a little like noticing the snake after you’ve been bitten. Principles provide indications that a snake might be present. Principles are like a “snake detector kit.”

But principles don’t only steer us away from what is bad, they also serve to steer us toward what is good. They proscribe and they prescribe as they work to set boundaries or borders. Because people are social beings boundaries and borders are necessary. Without them society would devolve into anarchy and chaos in very short order.

John Carver, the Policy Governance guru, says that “directing an organization can be like rearing a child. Controlling every behavior is a fatiguing and ultimately impossible charge. Inculcating the policies (principles) of life is far more effective and, even if some slippage occurs on individual behaviors, it is the only serviceable approach in the long run.” Carver teaches — and rightly so — that the best principles or policies for an organization should be stated negatively. By proscribing what cannot be done, maximum creative freedom is given to how the organization can be run.

Unfortunately, Carver fails to see that this insight is borrowed from the Bible. The Ten Commandments provide God’s principles for human life. By proscribing what is forbidden, maximum creative freedom is provided for all who abide by them.

There is no better list of universal principles than the Ten Commandments. And we commend them as business and organizational principles. How do they relate to business?

Here’s a brief overview: 1) honor truth, 2) don’t give yourself or anyone else a false image, 3) don’t take truth lightly, 4) take a break, 5) honor authority, 6) don’t kill others, 7) honor your agreements, 8) don’t steal, 9) don’t lie, 10) don’t crave3 or pine4.

¹Principle: A basic truth, law, or assumption; a rule or standard, especially of good behavior: a man of principle; moral or ethical standards or judgments.

²Moral: Of or concerned with the judgment of the goodness or badness of human action and character.

³Crave: To have an eager or intense desire.

4Pine: To feel a lingering, often nostalgic desire; to wither or waste away from longing or grief.

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