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The Life of Benjamin Franklin and Ethical Principles

Doing well by Doing Good

Doing well by doing right has many interpretations such as by your good deeds, you have achieved success and are doing well. Very few of us would look to the life of Benjamin Franklin and his life experiences to provide an example of leading one’s life with virtue and giving back to society that which society provided for him – the opportunity to accumulate wealth.

Despite being wealthy enough to retire comfortably by the age of 42, Franklin continued to pursue civic projects and carry out benevolent acts throughout the rest of his life. He staunchly believed that the good life was achievable in direct proportion to one’s contribution to society and thus, from universities to hospitals to firehouses, Franklin dedicated his resources to giving back. Franklin became one of the wealthiest men of his time, but ironically, it was never the money that he was after. He believed that a person’s net worth, instead of being attached to dollar signs, was actually “determined by what remains after your bad habits are subtracted from your good ones.” And so, Franklin set out to develop his good habits through the likes of philanthropic offerings. “Money never made a man happy yet, nor will it,” believed Franklin. “The more a man has, the more he wants. Instead of filling a vacuum, it makes one.” To this end, Franklin began to use his money for benevolent purposes, including the creation of the Philadelphia Hospital and the Pennsylvania Academy, the country’s first liberal arts college. He believed these institutions would “advance civic public purposes and at the same time support the self-help efforts of individuals.” Much in the same way as how he refused to copyright his inventions, Franklin wanted to encourage the advancement of all mankind rather than just himself; putting forward resources for the common good was something Franklin considered “divine.” The charitable motivations behind his deeds are reflected in the projects itself. When Franklin was just six years old, he witnessed a major fire in Boston in 1711, which caused the destruction of over 110 families’ homes. When given the forum of the Pennsylvania Gazette in which to voice his views, Franklin began to write about the dangers of fire and the need to create better protection. Already in existence were ‘Fire Clubs’, but these existed solely for the protection of its members. Franklin thought it was important to protect lives and property no matter whose they were. And so, in 1736, Franklin created the Union Fire Company with 30 volunteer firefighters. The idea soon caught on and Franklin had once again proved to be the source of a revolutionary idea. “Individual endeavor can change the course of history for the better,” said Franklin. And indeed, in his case, it did. Franklin’s legacy comes as much from his business success and scientific inventions as it did from the way he treated both those around him and his community at large. A frugal man, Franklin hated to waste resources, but he made an exception when it came to helping others. “I would rather have it said ‘He lived usefully’, than ‘He died rich’,” said Franklin. Franklin demonstrated that you could be a successful entrepreneur and still have compassion and care for the world around you. A precursor to today’s movement towards corporate social responsibility, Franklin proved to be once more a pioneer in his field.

We all have the capacity to do well by doing right. We must internalize ethics and use it to guide our life decisions. Stephen R. Covey's book, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, has been a top-seller for the simple reason that it ignores trends and pop psychology for proven principles of fairness, integrity, honesty, and human dignity. From Franklin to Covey, the message basically is to follow “The Golden Rule” in life; treat other the way would wish others to treat you.

Blog posted by Steven Mintz, aka Ethics Sage, on May 20, 2014 Professor Mintz teaches at Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo and also blogs at:

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