Value Systems : Values and Ethnic Discrimination

Bill Bennot has been living and travelling in Africa for 24 years and works as a leadership coach and consultant for a non-profit faith-based organization. He has a Masters in Organizational Leadership and is currently working on a doctorate in Global Leadership and Entrepreneurship at Regent University. He has bases in both Johannesburg, South Africa and Franklin, Tennessee. He is involved in multiple community projects from education to heath care to youth work and does leadership training in schools, churches and conferences.



For leaders, there are few challenges more critical than the application of values and ethics in organizations. This challenge is compounded further when a contradiction exists between certain espoused values and the ethical behaviors those values are expected to produce. For example, when a priest devoted to God and sworn to celibacy (values) molests a child, or when a doctor sworn to the Hippocratic Oath (values) performs abortions. According to Geisler and Feinberg in Ethics, Options and Issues, “ethics is the study of what is right and what is wrong.” No organization in history has been associated with expectations of right and wrong like the Christian church. Equally true, no group of people has been identified by specific values more than Christians. The confusion comes in when the ethical behavior of Christian leadership does not align with the expectations created. This article looks at the relationship between values and ethics and examines the causation between values and ethics within the South African context of ethnic discrimination. It argues that the ethical treatment of all people is first and foremost a values-based issue.     


First, a bit of definition is needed to dispel some misunderstanding surrounding values and ethics. Values are frequently confused with attitudes; while ethics and cultural norms are often used synonymously. Theodorson calls an attitude the application of a value to concrete objects and situations, while ethics are standards of morality that contain greater social efficacy than cultural norms. For example, when someone values honesty, an attitude of trust is produced in a relationship that is characterized by truthfulness. Also, although hospitality is a cultural norm in most African communities, someone less hospitable would not necessarily be judged as being unethical or immoral. Ethics are defined as “the doctrine of morality or social manners; the science of moral philosophy, which teaches men their duty and the reasons of it." Values, according to Milton Rokeach are defined as “deep-seated beliefs; conceptions of a desirable which influence the selection from available modes, means and ends of actions." Aubrey Malphurs in Values-Driven Leadership contends that values are the why behind what we do. He states that “values precede and determine actions.” While ethics provide the standard or guide for moral behavior and action, values and beliefs provide the ethics.


Leadership guru James MacGregor Burns said, “Moral leadership emerges from, and always returns to, the fundamental wants and needs, aspirations and values, of the followers.” In other words, the basis for ethical leadership is rooted in human values. Kuczmarski and Kuczmarski in Values-Based Leadership argued that “anomie,” or,the breakdown of norms that rule the conduct of people,” results from people not having a solid foundation of values and beliefs. Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount reflects this distinctive relationship between foundational heart issues (values) and moral decisions (ethics). According to Dr Bruce Winston, author of Be a Leader for God’s Sake, the beginning or the Beatitude section of the Sermon on the Mount is a compilation of heart standards and values, whereas, the remaining message emphasizes a relationship between those values and specific moral behaviors. For example, “blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness” highlights a deep desire and value for what's right. Jesus continued by saying, “unless your righteousness surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees you shall not enter into the Kingdom of heaven,” thereby exposing the false pragmatic assumption that outward behavior is a sufficient starting point or measurement for being ethical. In other words, having a deep desire or value for what’s right (integrity) becomes the best driver behind thinking and acting right. It is values like “blessed are those who mourn(compassion) and “blessed are the pure in heart (honesty) that motivate the adoption of good relational ethics.  Professor Gyertson from the Regent University faculty in leadership studies said, “Ethics are the visible expression of what we ultimately value.” Does this mean unethical behavior proves the absence of appropriate values? Not necessarily, but it strongly suggests that when certain values are cultivated, ethical behavior in human relationships will occur.      


When dealing with the ethical problem of racial discrimination a values-based approach has proven to be most effective. If values are “primary beliefs that determine every decision and dictate every dollar spent,” then the first port of entry for solving the problem of ethnic discrimination is through our primary beliefs about people and their differences. For decades, South Africa was dominated by a virulent form of ethnocentrism. It's the belief that one’s own group and subculture are inherently superior to other groups and cultures. When ethnocentrism is carried to its insidious extreme prejudice, discrimination and oppression become prominent. The beliefs of cultural superiority began their journey into South African social policy as far back as 1857 when a Dutch Reformed Synod changed its policy to accommodate “the weakness of some.” The “weakness” was white congregants who were objecting to black inclusion. Dr Derek Morphew stated, "The first time the term 'apartheid' was used was by a minister from the Dutch Reformed Church." Since the values and beliefs of South Africans laid the foundations for this unethical menace, it would take new values and beliefs to eradicate it.


For South Africa, the values and beliefs began to change at the very same place they had started: in one of the most influential organizations within South Africa, the Dutch Reformed Church. South Africa is a deeply religious country with over eighty percent of the population claiming religious or church affiliation. Dr Derek Morphew made this insightful observation, "Afrikaners have enormous respect for the authority of the church, and if the church authorities teach that a particular attitude is biblical and therefore moral, that 'morality' will be defended at all costs. Remove the 'moral' sanction of the system of apartheid and the will of the people to defend and maintain it will evaporate." What happened was a “moral” replacement, which went way beyond the pragmatism of just ridding the country of an unworkable system.


The 1986 Dutch Reformed Church Synod represented a change in values. Both the 1974 and 1986 Synod reports addressed the issues of unity and diversity. Unlike the 1974 report which emphasized diversity, the 1986 report focused on unity. This strategic gathering of leaders struck at the very heart of discrimination by acknowledging the fundamental value of every human being and confessing racism as sin. The report underscored the value and belief that "all men are made in the image of God, and that Christians must treat all people with the dignity they deserve and not as mere objects." The record of this 1986 Synod reads, "to the extent that the church and its members have been responsible for the suffering that this system has inflicted on people, it confesses this with humility and regret." The foundation was being set for the transformation of all social structures. According to the Synod report “social structures which have a destructive effect upon the lives of people must be opposed and replaced with better ones."  Within five years of that new values commitment Nelson Mandela was released from prison, all liberation organizations were un-banned and the unethical practice of apartheid was being dismantled.



Ethical behaviors not only speak louder than words, they are the sole vehicle through which expectations created by shared values and vision can be realized. As Dr Martin Luther King Jr. said, “Nothing will be done until good people put their bodies and their souls in motion.” Since the South African elections of 1994 there has been an alignment between the values of equality and the treatment of all people. From the churches to the boardrooms to the public square, decisions and actions have been taken to turn South Africa from a pariah state into a promised land of opportunity for all South Africans.





Geisler and Feinberg, Introduction to Philosophy, (Grand Rapids Michigan, Baker Books, 1980)

Webster’s American Dictionary of the English Language, 1828, Facsimile Edition

Milton Rokeach, Understanding Human Values. (New York: Free Press, 1979)

Malphurs, Aubrey, Values-based Leadership, (Grand Rapids MI, Baler Books, 2004)


Burns, James MacGregor, Leadership, (New York: Harper and Row, 1978)


Kuczmarski & Kuczmarski, Values-Based Leadership, (Paramus NJ, Prentice Hall, 1995)


Bruce Winston. Be a Leader for God's Sake. Virginia Beach Virginia: Regent University, 2002


Morphew, Derek, South Africa: The Power Behind, (Cape Town, Nelson Publishers, 1989)


Copyright 2006 - William Bennot

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