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Everyday Ethics

Principles of Ethical Behavior

It’s not so much that The Golden Rule establishes a moral code for society as it provides guidance on how we should lead our daily lives. The Golden Rule Says to: Treat Others the Way We Want to be Treated. It is a mantra we should say over again as we navigate through the choppy waters of life’s experiences. The Chopra Center believes a mantra can be thought of “as a seed for energizing intention. You might say just as you plant a flower seed, you plant mantras in the fertile soil of practice. You nurture them and over time they bear the fruit of your intention.”

Our intentions dictate whether we will act ethically when faced with life’s choices. Why should we tell a girlfriend that her husband is cheating on her? Is it because we dislike the girlfriend and want to cause harm to her, or are we motivated by a desire to tell her something she has a right to know? Our intentions come from our character and if we tell her because we have empathy for her situation, then we care about her and are committed to serve her best interests as a friend. We are loyal to her and have a right to expect loyalty in return.

Ethics is prescriptive, not descriptive. Ethics teaches us what we ought to do, not what we do. We ought to treat others with kindness, compassion, respect, and so on. In other words, an ethical person practices applying virtues, our character traits, in making everyday decisions. Virtues are the positive traits of character that inform our ethical being. Integrity is the bedrock of virtue.

Imagine you are the quality control expert and your boss tells you to certify the product is 100% free of defects. However, you didn’t inspect the last batch because of time constraints. Do you agree to go along or refuse to certify? You feel the pressure and are concerned that your job may be in jeopardy if you refuse to certify. But, what happens if a defect does exist in that last batch and your child uses the product? In other words, consider what to do by personalizing the dilemma.

Ethical Principles go back to the ancient philosophers including Plato and Aristotle. They believed in virtue as a guide for ethical action. Immanuel Kant believed in “pure practical reason.” This is a concept that evaluates one’s motives for actions in deciding whether an action is right or wrong. Taken together, these philosophers believed ethical behavior is formed from wisdom gained over time and through practicing virtue in everyday decisions. In other words, practice makes perfect.

My ethical principles are simple to remember. I limit the principles to five so that you can best

incorporate them into your daily lives.

1. Make Things Better. Ethics requires that we improve life’s circumstances, not from a wealth perspective or success, but by engaging in virtuous behavior. Making things better is to lead a life of virtue -- strive to achieve happiness in our lives and avoid harming others.

2. Treat Others Fairly. The Golden Rule comes into play here. Ask yourself: Is this the way I would choose to be treated if the shoe were on the other foot? Treating others fairly means to treat them with respect.

3. Consider the Consequences of Your Actions. Our actions affect others. Remember that the ends do not justify the means. How we get to our goal is just as important as getting there. If this wasn’t so, we could rationalize abusing others in the name of achieving an end.

4. Respect the Rights of Others. How our lives go depends as much on whether we respect ourselves as much as respecting others. Apply the same standards of behavior in dealing with others as we do to ourselves. Be consistent in your actions.

5. Act with Integrity. Presidential Medal of Freedom winner, James Q. Wilson, writes about “The Moral Sense” and says: We must be careful of what we think we are, because we may become that. Integrity requires that we develop our character based on what Stephen Covey calls “natural laws” that govern human effectiveness. These laws exist whether we believe in them, value them, or not.

Covey’s Seven Habits of Highly Effective People are a roadmap for ethical, responsible behavior. Ethics requires adhering to a set of moral values that Covey recognized as human dignity, fairness, honesty, growth, and service.

My principles are aspirational values that we all should strive to achieve. No one does so 100% of the time. The key is to internalize the principles and use them as guideposts as you navigate through life’s journey.

Blog posted by Steven Mintz, aka Ethics Sage, on November 1, 2016. Dr. Mintz is Professor Emeritus from Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. He also blogs at

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