Aligning Values with Actions and Thinking Ethically by William M. Timpson

Laying the groundwork for teaching and learning peace must also include a close examination of how ethical we are—how well our actions reflect our values. How effective can the Rotary Four-Way Test be in promoting a deeper, more reflective reaction to challenging, complex issues, in particular?

Bringing values and actions in line is no easy task; and if they are not in line, we should be willing to take action and make changes. You can see a deep well spring of anger and frustration when core values are not in alignment with actions. For example, James Farmer (2000), one of the founders of CORE (Congress on Racial Equality) and a leader in the U.S. Civil Rights movement, noted in this essay from 1945 that a fundamental values conflict had emerged out of World War II when African American veterans returned home to find that little had changed. Despite fighting for their country, they returned to a second class citizenship or worse, a culture weighted down by the legacy of slavery and racism with very little in the way of meaningful opportunities.

Nearly a million [African American] youth have been inducted into the nation’s armed forces. These men have been told that they were fighting against the theory of the “master race” and for freedom from the terrors of exploitation. That lofty aim they have in large measure accepted, though sensing an inconsistency in fighting abroad to protect for others the rights which they themselves have never enjoyed. Furthermore, their treatment, while in uniform, by their own countrymen and superior officers, has often been such as to lead them to question the war aims professed by their superiors and their government…We do not know whether the American people realize how shameful, wicked and tragic it is…These young (African Americans) will have gone through all that other servicemen have of weariness, of danger, pain, disfigurement, horror. But in addition they will have experienced almost constant discrimination of one kind or another and frequent humiliation, and this while fighting a war allegedly fought to put an end to such a thing (p. 170).

We want practiced what is preached. Going off to fight in World War II to stop a self-proclaimed master race meant some deep national soul searching when the returning African American veterans insisted that their country face its own racial bigotry. Muhammad Ali went to prison and lost some of his best years as a fighter when he refused induction during the Vietnam War on religious grounds, citing the hypocrisy of a war for freedom abroad when racism kept African Americans in shackles in the U.S. He offers a model of someone acting courageously on his values. His action was one of many in the 1960s that forced Americans to face the contradiction between the traditional values of democracy and the continuing practice of discrimination. In a similar manner, we can ask students to use the four way test to reflect on their values and actions, to see if there might be something out of alignment that is limiting their ability to learn.

Working with values in the classroom

Arriving at an ethical and moral position where we act consistently with our values requires a process of development and growth.   The book Values Clarification: A Handbook of Practical Strategies for Teachers and Students offers a model for working with values that many have found useful. This six-level model reflects a hierarchy of growth beginning with clarification and moving to commitment and action. It builds from a very egocentric, self-referenced position on the first level to one that emanates from deeply held “universal ethical principles” at level six.

Level 1: Choose your values freely

Level 2: Choose from alternatives after considering the consequences

Level 3: Prize your value choices

Level 4: Prize (affirm) your values publicly

Level 5: Act on your values

Level 6: Act repeatedly and consistently

Try using this model of values clarification when thinking through the four-way test.


Farmer, J. (2000) The coming revolt against Jim Crow. In W. Wink (Ed.) Peace is the way, New York: Maryknoll, 170-174.

Simon, S., Howe, L., and Kirschenbaum, H. (1972) Values clarification: A handbook of practical strategies for teachers and students. New York: Hart.


Bill Timpson has been on the faculty at Colorado State University in its School of Education for many years and a member of the Fort Collins Rotary Club where his focus on sustainable peacebuilding in Burundi, East Africa, has been supported by two Global Grants. This post is adapted from his (2002) book, Teaching and Learning Peace (Madison, WI: Atwood). 



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