America is a large country. While we have a few traditions that are common to most of us, Americans are actually a diverse group of people with a multitude of heritages and cultures. While cultural and philosophical differences violently tear other countries apart, how is it that we can live together in peace? How do we manage to work well together despite our differences? We have done so because of our standard of ethics. Ethics is the standard of behavior that leads to greater freedom of agency. Agency is the ability to make a choice. Therefore, the better our ethical standards are, the more freedoms we can enjoy.
Ethics is the set of values we use to determine whether a course of action is good or bad and whether we will allow an action to occur and in what circumstances this action may be acceptable. There are three main sources of ethics. Religions instill a code of living into their adherents, teaching the right way to live, usually according to holy texts. The Ten Commandments is one well-known example. Standards of social behavior are also created by popular agreement. Americans vote for and against laws that formalize acceptable practices in society. Finally, sociologists are also studying ethics, scientifically explaining how certain behaviors lead to the rise and fall of civilizations. Marcus Aurelius, writing on social unity, said, “Since you are an integral part of a social system, let every act of yours contribute to the harmonization of social life. Any action that is not related directly of remotely to this social aim disturbs your life, and destroys your unity.”
(Forstater, 2000, p. 105) Humans are highly social and even the least interactive of us is inextricably linked to the whole of society. The ability to choose how we may live our lives is a cherished freedom in America. While it is not absolute, the test of agency is a good rule of thumb for most applications. The test of agency asks two questions: Will this action lead to greater or lesser ability to choose? And, will this action interfere or constrain another’s ability to choose? As a simple example, we may apply this test to addictive chemicals. Currently, I can choose to take drugs, or I can choose to abstain. If I choose to abstain, I have lost no agency. If I choose to partake, then I will no longer have an easy choice. Abstinence would be the ethical choice in this situation. There are other philosophies on the source of ethics. In his overview of ethics, Kakos states, “Some philosophers view ethics as an "a priori" truth, i.e. like something that we have embedded in us as "knowledge" prior to any physical or social experience … That knowledge is what drives us into behaving good or bad during our lifes. Philosopher Kant played a major role in that part. In this case the inherent validity of a invinsible but imperative moral law is what drives us into being good (or have guilts for being bad).” (Kakos, 2011) Kakos goes on to describe other types of ethics and ethical rules such as the Golden Rule: do unto others as you would have done to you. Another test of ethics is that of consistency. Is what I am doing consistent with the end goal? Much has been written on the end justifying the means. Gandhi refuted that argument in an article of the Hind Swaraj. “Your belief that there is no connection between the means and the end is a great mistake. Through that mistake even men who have been considered religious have committed grievous crimes. Your reasoning is the same as saying that we can get a rose through planting a noxious weed. If I want to cross the ocean, I can do so only by means of a vessel; if I were to use a cart for that purpose, both the cart and I would soon find the bottom…. The means may be likened to a seed, the end to a tree; and there is just the same inviolable connection between the means and the tree as there is between the seed and the tree.” (Brown, 1989, p. 84)
The founders of the United States of America were in search of a way to govern a fledgling civilization. They researched and debated and worked to create a system of government that would benefit all. They borrowed heavily from other cultures, like the Greeks and the Romans. In this society, all would have equal opportunities to live as their conscience directed and attain whatever they worked for. It wasn’t perfect then, and it still has room for improvement now though it has improved greatly. We no longer tolerate slavery, and women enjoy most of the same legal benefits as men. This process of continual improvement may never finish as we strive to create a system that is just and equitable for all individuals. The goal is to create a society where all are free to decide for themselves how to live, so long as it does not interfere with the freedoms of others.
Leading an ethical life creates many personal benefits. If you are honest with everyone, then you will never have to worry about what story you told to whom. Additionally, people who consistently tell the truth are respected and honored. Indeed, “Act uprightly, and despise Calumny; dirt may stick to a Mud Wall, but not to polish’d Marble.”
(Lemay, 1997, p. 554) Going in the other direction, what would our society be like if there were no standard of honesty? Gordon Hinckley, a former president of the LDS church said, “Without honesty, our lives disintegrate into ugliness, chaos, and a lack of any kind of security and confidence. Imagine a society in which it would be unwise or unsafe to trust anyone-from elected officials to financial advisors to insurance adjusters to your child’s babysitter or kindergarten teacher. Imagine having surgery performed by someone who had cheated in medical school or found a way to short-circuit the requirements of medical residency. Imagine the terror of a society that condones or at least turns a collective blind eye to dishonesty. The prospects are horrifying!” (Hinckley, 2000) Indeed, we have found these words accurately describe what started happening just eight years after their telling. Integrity comes from dealing honestly with your fellow man. It feels good to be thought well of, and a rise in self esteem can result from an ethical lifestyle. Honesty is not the only thing that brings its own rewards. “Leave your campsite better than you found it” (Huntsman, 2005, p. 171) is not just a good adage but a great way of life. If every time you borrow something you return it in as good or better condition, then no one will worry about lending to you. A financial parallel to this is the credit report and its attendant score. As a person proves to be responsible in managing and repaying debt, their score can rise over time. The higher the credit score a person has, the easier it is to obtain credit and the cheaper that credit will be. A woman asked me once if defaulting on a credit card would be considered dishonest. I told her it would, because when she applied for the credit card she signed her name on the credit agreement. This is a written promise to abide by the terms of the agreement. If she defaulted on the loan, this would break two ethical laws: she would have broken her word, making her promise a lie, and the money in question, lent in good faith for its return, has been stolen. Keeping a promise to gain a reward falls under the philosophy of enlightened self interest. Enlightened self interest is the philosophy that one reason to be ethical is to garner good karma. In other words, doing good things brings rewards. This cannot be the only reason or people would lie, cheat, and steal when they believe they can get away with it.
Societal benefits from ethical standards cannot be overstated. No business can operate without trust. The foundation of any contractual dealing is the expectation that each party will discharge their duties to each other. There are safeguards in place to limit the damages should one party fail to fulfill their obligations, but these only mitigate risk. It is the expectation that each party will deal honestly with the other that leads to partnerships in business. This ability to trust is what allows us to enter into negotiations and create contracts to build roads and hospitals, hire employees, and buy and sell products. Another benefit to society that ethics brings is peaceful conflict resolution. Countries that have a reliable system for addressing grievances are able to enjoy a peace that is otherwise unobtainable. If the only way to redress wrongs is through violence, then that society will suffer from the “might makes right” philosophy. This only benefits the powerful at the expense of the weak and the timid. One may make the argument that the application of best ethical standards will lead to the greatest peace and stability. This stability leads to another benefit; that of economic expansion. With the notable recent exception of the Great Recession, America realizes the potential that economic stability brings. Ethical behavior at all levels of society is required to take full advantage of continued stability. Actually, the Great Recession helps prove this point. Ignorant and greedy consumers purchased more than they could afford. Banks allowed poor lending practices that cheated the consumer to benefit only the banks. So many people thought only for themselves and this resulted in a financial upheaval that destabilized the world economy. This hurt not only the greedy, but also the innocent, whose home values dropped, and jobs were lost by the score. Companies are now hiring more Ethics Compliance Officers to ensure that this debacle is not repeated.
According to a current Management textbook, “We define ethics as an individual’s personal beliefs about whether a behavior, action, or decision is right or wrong.2 Note that we define ethics in the context of the individual—people have ethics, but organizations do not. Likewise, what constitutes ethical behavior varies from one person to another.”
(Griffin, 2011, p. 100) While it is true that each individual has their own set of ethics, I must respectfully, but emphatically disagree with disregarding organizational ethics. To hold blameless an organization in its dealings with society is, by extension, to disregard the responsibility of those who created the system in the first place and those who are responsible for the maintenance and upkeep of the organization. Just as it is possible for an organization that benefits society’s welfare to have employees that are corrupt, so it is possible for ethical employees to work for an organization that actively degrades the quality of life of its consumers. For example, payday loan companies operate in this exact manner. They offer short term loans at usurious rates that invariably leave the customers worse off than before. This fails the agency test because it reduces the ability of the customers to make choices (they have less money and so are constrained by their lack.)
It is important to note that ethics is not an application of arbitrary rules listing all the things that we are not allowed to do. When first learning social norms it may seem that way. Many of us learned the Ten Commandments when we were very young. After all those “Thou shalt not” directives it is important to learn the “Thou shalt” imperatives that make life meaningful. Michele Borba, Ed.D. in her book Building Moral Intelligence, listed seven essential virtues to teach children to do the right thing. These virtues are: empathy, conscience, self-control, respect, kindness, tolerance, and fairness.
(Borba, 2001, p. ix) I would add that they are good for adults to learn as well. Aristotle, in his loquacious manner, wrote, “Virtue has been taken to be the state which makes people doers of what is best and through which men are best disposed in regard to what is best, and the best is that which is in accord with the right principle, this being the mean between excess and deficiency relative to us. So it would follow that virtue of character is essentially a mean state in each case, and concerns certain means in pleasures and pains, and things pleasant and unpleasant.” (Woods, 1982, p. 21) By which he warns against dwelling on things that are painful and refusing pleasure, and also warns against focusing solely on living a life of pleasure only while refusing to acknowledge anything unpleasant. His virtue is that of refraining from excess and keeping to the ‘mean’ of life’s experiences.
We still need to work on equality in social interactions. In a discussion with a friend, she mentioned how we think differently about an action depending on who performs it. If a girl slaps a boy, many would think, “He probably deserved it.” In the reverse situation, the boy is thought of as an abuser. Similarly, I have always thought it unfair and contradictory for the ‘N’ word to be racist and derogatory – unless a person of color used it. Finally, it has been the trend to remove chemicals from classroom settings, including chemistry class. This, to prevent some student from burning themselves on a Bunsen burner or otherwise hurting themselves. The same is not true for sports, however. Football is a popular sport in which students are injured often and sometimes severely. No one attempts to remove footballs from school. In each of these three examples, there is an inequality of standards based on situation. Should physical violence be allowed based on gender, or profanity allowed by color, or should teaching be limited if it is risky and there is no paying audience?
Ethics is a way of living that when practiced, provides many benefits. Living an ethical lifestyle promotes respect and honor. It opens doors leading to greater choices in life. When practiced as a community, it simplifies complex interactions and makes possible steady business. Communities with high ethical standards stand out and can be more prosperous than their neighbors. It promotes peace and creates the ability to work productively in a multicultural environment. A study of ethics can be a turning point in any life for the better. As I researched this topic, I started with an idea of ethics that turned out to be incomplete. My original idea was that ethics was a system of personal rules that make life better for everyone. While correct, it was missing empathy. A high standard of ethics is what has enabled America to prosper economically and socially. It has also made life more satisfying. Honesty, honor, and integrity can be good places to focus on, but it would be incomplete without attending to empathy, forgiveness, and charity as well.
Borba, M. (2001). Building Moral Intelligance. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
Brown, J. (1989). Gandhi, Prisoner of Hope. New Haven and London: Yale University Press.
Forstater, M. (2000). The Spiritual Teachings of Marcus Aurelius. New York: HarperCollins Publishers, Inc.
Griffin, R. (2011). Management. Mason: Cengage Learning.
Hinckley, G. (2000). Standing for Something. New York: Random House.
Huntsman, J. (2005). Winners Never Cheat. Upper Saddle River: Wharton School Publishing.
Kakos, S. (2011, Jan 7). The Source of Ethics. Retrieved Feb 10, 2011, from knol (Beta) A unit of Knowledge: http://knol.google.com/k/the-source-of-ethics#
Lemay, J. (1997). Benjamin Franklin: Autobiography, Poor Richard, and Later writings. New York: Literary Classics of the United States, Inc.
Woods, M. (1982). Aristotle's Eudemian Ethics. Oxford: Clarendon Press.