Acting on Peacebuilding Values


Miho Taka and Michaelina Jakala – TRANSCEND Media Service

22 Mar 2023 – In teaching, researching and practising in the field of peacebuilding, we talk about ethical challenges and the importance of considering ethical issues. The ethical challenges resonate with most of us in this field and spark lively conversations even outside the committee or department for ethics. Ethics for Peacebuilders. A Practical Guide (Neufeldt 2016, vii) suggests that enquiring and reflecting on our ethics in practice requires “a process of asking better questions about peacebuilding values, listening for values, and how values inform” peacebuilding work that is broadly defined. Then, we need to go beyond the values of fairness, respect, care and honesty (Schroeder et al. 2019) that underpin procedural ethics and institutional based trust (Schroeder et al. 2019) as Cummings and Chervany (1998) suggest.

We started reflecting on our practice and exploring the ideas of ethics and values among us. We have since then formed a small network on Values, Ethics and Trust in Peacebuilding to explore these ideas further and with other people who might be interested in these ideas. To begin with, we used Giving Voice to Values (GVV) to think about values and acting on values.  

GVV was developed by Professor Mary Gentile from the reflection on past ethical approaches that had resulted in ‘ethics fatigue’ – being overloaded with so many big ethical theories and dilemmas – amongst business management circles (Gentile 2010). The previous approaches typically promoted creating awareness about ethical issues to avoid problems arising from these issues, hence ‘awareness and avoidance.’ They also emphasised on analysis of ethical issues so that decisions are made through ethical reasoning.

GVV is an effort to move away from such ‘ethics fatigue’ and to help individuals act on their values and ethics. It holds an assumption that ‘most of us want to find ways to voice and act on our values in the workplace’ but believe it is impossible to make the hard choices (Gentile 2010, xxvi). To help individuals act on their values, GVV equips individuals with ‘the skills, the scripts, and the confidence to act on their most deeply held values in the workplace’ (Gentile 2010, xiii) and provides practice for building the ‘ethical muscle’ to voice and act effectively.

GVV does recognise that it is profoundly challenging to know what our core values are and we often face choices between right versus right rather than right versus wrong in our complex life (Gentile 2010, xxv). However, the focus of GVV is on ‘post-decision making,’ hence knowing how to act on the values rather than distinguishing what is right or wrong (Gentile 2010, xv). It is about ‘those times and situations when we believe we know what is right and want to do it, but we experience external pressures […] to do otherwise’ (Gentile 2010, xxiii).

GVV and Reflections

We experienced the Giving Voice to Values (GVV) Workshop with the participants joining from the UK, Kenya, the Philippines, Japan and Bosnia and Herzegovina in 2022[i]. After the workshop, we shared the views of the participants and collectively reflected on our observations and thinking. Our reflections centre around two broad areas: questions about values and action.


By focusing on the process of voicing and acting, GVV does not question or explore our ‘unspoken’ values. It identifies that there are certain universal values that individuals (employees in GVV’s focus) share. This assumption of universal values within GVV has created a conundrum for us. We question the assumed values especially as it is implied that values are based on a common moral compass delineating right versus wrong in GVV.

After reflecting on the GVV workshop, we have become curious if there are indeed universal values. Are there universal values? What are they? Are they connected to principles, to the truth? And do they remain the same on different occasions and at different times? Do we uphold the same values in a very challenging context, including the context of violent conflict? Do we not encounter the moment when our values are shaken?

Here we share Neufeldt’s (2016, xii) critical observation that ‘any moral value commitment not thoroughly questioned was dogmatic and a potential problem’ from a context of violent conflict. We also acknowledge that ‘[t]he problem with absolute values is that people who think deeply know how hard it is to find them, while those who do not think deeply too often believe it is easy to find them – and think they have already done so’ (Kane 1996, 8-11). We do recognise the challenge of finding absolute or universal values in the modern pluralistic world, and at the same time, we are warned of the implications of rejecting absolute values – it can lead to moral confusion and ‘a relativism, skepticism, or nihilism in which the spiritual “center cannot hold” and “the best lack all conviction.” Is this what we have been going through?

In addressing values conflicts (right versus right) in workplace, GVV refers to four prevalent patterns that we may face – truth versus loyalty, individual versus community, short-term versus long-term, and justice versus mercy (Rushworth 2005, 89) – and encourages us to identify how the dilemma or conflict is framed in preparing our response to avoid a consequentialist approach (weighing the relative costs and benefits of different actions).

We strongly feel that there is a problem of a false dichotomy as values are pitted against each other. However, values conflict remains largely and challenges us acutely, especially in peacebuilding fields, even though there may be many ‘basic moral values’ that are widely shared and bind us (Tams 2019). As Neufeldt (2016, 95) suggests, it is not only two options and what we lack is creativity to generate more options for moral dilemmas in addressing peacebuilding contexts.


It is also important to keep asking questions when we act on our values which is considered ‘ethical behaviour’ and enactment of ‘moral agency’ (Tams 2019). When we engage in promotive moral agency, as opposed to constraining moral agency to ‘do no harm’, we rely on self-motivation, basic psychological needs, including autonomy to act on moral values and construct shared values (Tams 2019).

Consideration of moral agency leads us to ask questions about how ‘action’ takes place. When we start reflecting on action, we realise that it is much more intricate than needing to prepare scripts and practice to act on our values and that there is a question of whether we want to act. What can the philosophy of action tell us?

Philosophy of action differs from a narrowly focused understanding of action, such as sociology on social action or economics on rational choice theory, and focuses on two questions: what are actions? (‘a theory of the nature of action’) and how are actions to be explained? (‘a theory of the explanation of actions’) (Mele 2003). This area of thought involves epistemology, ethics, metaphysics, jurisprudence and philosophy of mind. Donald Davidson developed influential answers to these questions and a simple theory – the desire and belief jointly cause the action.

Do we desire to act on our values? What beliefs do we hold to act on our values? More specifically, what values do peacebuilders hold? What does it mean to be ethical peacebuilders? Do peacebuilder desire to act on the values? What belief do peacebuilders hold to act on the values? We need to be asking these questions as peacebuilders, but are we?


Kane, R. 2015 Through the Moral Maze: Searching for Absolute Values in a Pluralistic World. Oxon: Routledge (Originally published in 1994, New York: Paragon House).

Gentile, M. C. 2010. Giving Voice to Values. New Haven and London: Yale University Press.

Mele, A. R. 2003. ‘Philosophy of Action.’ In Ludwig, K (Ed.) Donald Davidson. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Neufeldt, R. C. 2016. Ethics for Peacebuilders. A Practical Guide. Lanham, Boulder, New York, London: Rowman & Littlefield.

Rushworth, K. 2005. Moral Courage: Taking Action When Your Values Are Put to the Test. New York: William Morrow, HarperCollins Publishers Ind.

Schroeder, D., Chatfield, K., Singh, M., Chennells, R., Herissone-Kelly, P. 2019. ‘The Four Values Framework: Fairness, Respect, Care and Honesty.’ In: Equitable Research Partnerships. Springer Briefs in Research and Innovation Governance. Springer Cham.

Tams, C. 2019. ‘Ethic As Freedom, Part II: How To Apply Motivational Science To Ethics Management’ Forbes Leadership, October 31, 2019.


[i] On 9th – 10th June 2022, Coventry University’s Centre for Trust, Peace and Social Relations hosted Professor Subhasis Ray to deliver the Giving Voice to Values (GVV) Workshop to 13 participants in the UK and to be observed by other groups from Kenya, the Philipines, Japan and Bosnia and Herzegovina. This workshop was the first of the five workshops for the Values, Ethics and Trust in Peacebuilding Network, funded by the AHRC Networking Grant UN Year of Trust and Peace.


Dr Miho Taka is an Assistant Professor at the Centre for Trust, Peace and Social Relations, Coventry University. Specialised in the political ecology of conflict, natural resource governance, sustainability, business and human rights and responsible sourcing of minerals. She also works on education for peace and sustainability and engages with wider society.

Dr Michaelina Jakala is an Assistant Professor at the Centre for Trust, Peace and Social Relations, Coventry University. She is also ethnographer with a background in Peace Studies. Her research interests broadly focus on the everyday experiences of peacebuilding and transitional justice with particular interest in justice, reparation, and education amongst marginalised groups. She has experience with participatory research and arts-based methods.

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This article originally appeared on Transcend Media Service (TMS) on 27 Mar 2023.

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