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What is the Essence of Ethical Behavior?

Reclaiming ‘The Golden Rule’

Acting ethically has become a lost art. Most people do not stop and think whether they are about to do the “right” thing before making a decision when conflicting interests exist. For example, Joe Paterno at Penn State failed to act on information that his assistant football coach, Jerry Sandusky, was abusing young children. Was this the right thing to do or the most expeditious one for Penn State and its football program? Did he fail to act and protect the most vulnerable among us?

The Golden Rule is the basis for modern ethics. The Golden Rule requires that we try to understand how our actions affect others; thus, we need to put ourselves in the place of the person on the receiving end of the action.

Virtue Ethics

The origins of Western philosophy trace back to the ancient Greeks, including Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle. The ancient Greek philosophy of virtue deals with questions such as: What is the best sort of life for human beings to live? Greek thinkers saw the attainment of a good life as the end or goal of human existence. For most Greek philosophers, the end is “happiness.”

However, the Greeks thought that happiness meant much more than just experiencing pleasure or satisfaction. The ultimate goal of happiness was to attain some objectively good status, the life of excellence. The Greek word for excellence is “virtue.” Thus for the Greeks, “excellences” or “virtues” were the qualities that made a life admirable or excellent. They did not restrict their thinking to characteristics we regard as moral virtues, such as courage, justice, and temperance, but included others we think of as nonmoral, such as wisdom.

Being Ethical and Following the Law

Being ethical is not the same as following the law. Although ethical people always try to be law-abiding, there may be instances where their sense of ethics tells them it is best not to follow the law. These situations are rare and should be based on sound ethical reasons. Did Edward Snowden act from a purely ethical point of view even though he knew he was breaking the law? Was he motivated to disclose sensitive information “for the greater good?”

Benjamin Disraeli, the noted English novelist, debater, and former prime minister of Britain, said, “When men are pure, laws are useless; when men are corrupt, laws are broken.” A person of goodwill honors and respects the rules and laws and is willing to go beyond them when circumstances warrant. Such people do not need rules and laws to guide their actions. They always try to do the right thing.

On the other hand, the existence of specific laws prohibiting certain behaviors will not stop a person who is unethical (e.g., does not care about others) from violating those laws. Just think about a Ponzi scheme such as the one engaged in by Bernie Madoff, where he duped others to invest with him by promising huge returns that, unbeknownst to each individual investor, would come from additional investments of scammed investors and not true returns.

Laws create a minimum set of standards. Ethical people often go beyond what the law requires because the law cannot cover every situation a person might encounter. When the facts are unclear and the legal issues uncertain, an ethical person should decide what to do on the basis of well-established standards of ethical behavior. This is where moral philosophies come in such as Teleology and Deontology.

Ethical people often do less than is permitted by the law and more than is required. A useful perspective is to ask these questions:

  • What does the law require of me?

  • What do ethical standards of behavior demand of me?

  • How should I act to conform to both?

Ethical Relativism

I have observed that in today’s society many people are motivated by self-interest. No doubt this is due to the lack of ethical guidance at home and in our schools; the social media-driven culture and desire for 15 minutes of fame; and the lack of role models in society.

These folks tend to act from the perspective of ethical relativism. Ethical relativism is the philosophical view that what is right or wrong and good or bad is not absolute but variable and relative, depending on the person, circumstances, or social situation. Ethical relativism holds that morality is relative to the norms of one’s culture and beliefs -- whether an action is right or wrong depends on the moral norms of the society in which it is practiced. The same action may be morally right in one society but be morally wrong in another.

For the ethical relativist, there are no universal moral standards—standards that can be universally applied to all peoples at all times. The only moral standards against which a society’s practices can be judged are its own. If ethical relativism is correct, then there can be no common framework for resolving moral disputes or for reaching agreement on ethical matters among members of different societies. And, if ethical relativism is correct we face a scary future as a global community where non-ethical values such as the pursuit of power and fanatical beliefs, such as one’s culture is superior to others, will “crowd out” ethical beliefs such as fair treatment of others, respect for differences in cultures, and the sanctity of human life.

If we could only turn the tide and get all cultures to follow The Golden Rule we could create harmony out of dis-harmony: We could bring justice back to what seems to be an increasingly unjust world, simply by committing to The Golden Rule in all our decisions and actions: 'Do unto others what you would have them do unto you.'

Blog posted by Steven Mintz on June 14, 2016. Dr. Mintz is a professor in the Orfalea College of Business at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. He also blogs at

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