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Why Do We Need Ethics?

The Pathway to Principle-Based Decision Making

I recently wrote a blog on my Workplace Ethics site on Principle Centered Leadership. Basic principles of ethics can help us lead a more fulfilling life whether on a personal or professional level. However, our commitment to act in accordance with ethical principles is often challenged because of pressures to do otherwise.

Peer pressure can make it more difficult for young people to act in a proper manner when conflicting interests exist. Workplace pressures may cause us to react in a way that is inconsistent with our values. Pressure from a superior may threaten our commitment to do the right thing.

Ethics is a system of principles that helps us tell right from wrong, good from bad. Ethics can give real and practical guidance to our lives. Ethical values (i.e. honesty, trustworthiness, responsibility) help guide us along a pathway to deal more effectively with ethical dilemmas by eliminating those behaviors that do not conform to our sense of right and wrong – our best rational interests – without sacrificing others.

Ethics is all about the choices we make. We constantly face choices that affect the quality of our lives. We are aware that the choices that we make have consequences, both for ourselves and others. We are aware of the responsibility we have for our actions.

Let’s assume you have discovered through a reliable third party that your best friend is cheating on his wife. Your wife asks whether you know anything about it after seeing your friend with another woman at a restaurant. Would you:

  1. Confide in her that the cheating is going on.

  2. Deny you know anything about it.

  3. Tell her your friend hasn’t said anything to you about it.

Honesty requires that you tell your wife that a reliable third party informed you of the cheating. You may think it is best to say that you have no direct knowledge of the cheating, which is technically correct, but it’s a lie by omission. Denying you know anything about it is an outright lie – a lie by commission. Your primary responsibility is to the truth. You may rationalize saying nothing out of loyalty to your friend. However, loyalty is generally a secondary value to honesty. If it were not, then one could rationalize doing something wrong or failing to act out in the right way out of loyalty to another party.

Why do some people lack ethics? One thought is they have “blind spots” where ethics is concerned. Max Bazerman and Ann Trebrunsel describe blind spots as the gaps between who you want to be and the person you are. In other words, most of us want to do the right thing but internal and external pressures get in the way. Let’s assume we approached our best friend about the cheating. He may swear us to secrecy and remind us of a past situation where he was loyal to our interests above all else. We want to be an honest person, but don’t want to get our friend in trouble. A classic ethical dilemma ensues.

Ethics is about character -- the sum of qualities that defines a person. These qualities include a person’s intellect, thoughts, ideas, motives, intentions, temperament, judgment, behavior, imagination, perception, emotions, loves, and hates. In virtue ethics, character is all about what a well-intentioned person with good character would do. Character counts, as the saying goes, and it is the sum of who we are. What we stand for.

Virtue ethicists place less emphasis on learning philosophical rules and instead stress the importance of developing good habits of character – dispositions to do the right thing in the right place at the right time in the right way. Cardinal virtues are wisdom, courage, temperance and justice. These virtues inform ethical decision making because they provide a foundation to make good judgments when faced with an ethical dilemma.

We need to be ethical because it defines who we are individually and as a society. These are norms of behavior that everyone should follow. If we would accept that everyone can pick and chooses what the right thing to do is, then our society may fall into chaos. Some people will lie; others will not do what they say they will do; still others act irresponsibly and engage in harmful behavior.

There is nothing wrong with pursuing one’s own interests. However, an ethical person must be willing – at least sometimes – to place the interests of others ahead of self-interest, because of our responsibility to a civil society.

Derrick A. Bell said in, Ethical Ambition: Living a Life of Meaning and Worth: “Courage is a decision you make to act in a way that works through your own fear for the greater good as opposed to pure self-interest. Courage means putting at risk your immediate self-interest for what you believe is right.”

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