Ethics is 4 Everyone

by Don Meyer, Ph.D. | Aug 21, 2010

"Despite the codes of ethics, the ethics programs, and the special departments - corporations don't make the ultimate decisions about ethics. Ethical choices are made by individuals."
M. Euel Wade, Jr.

The other day a little 45 page booklet titled Ethics is 4 Everyone by Eric Harvey and Scott Airitam arrived in my mail. In addition to the title on the front page are these words, "For those who are serious about business ethics." 

According to the dictionary "ethics" is defined as: "A system of moral principles or values; the rules or standards governing the conduct of the members of a profession; accepted principles of right and wrong." 

Ethical decisions are before us every day of our lives. It would be impossible to function well in society without each of us committing ourselves to making good ethical decisions. Will we stop at the red light? Will we pay our bills? Will we leave a tip at the restaurant? Will we tell the truth? Will we take credit for that which someone else did? The list is endless. 

Sometimes ethical choices are easy. There is before us the obvious sense of right and wrong. We know the behavioral boundaries once we are married. We know we should return that extra five dollar bill the clerk inadvertently gave us. We know we should not cheat on the exam. 

But, as Eric Harvey and Scott Airitam say, "those binary points do exist in our worlds, but so do the areas in between - the gray zones where the line between 'should' and 'shouldn't' gets blurry. Sometimes what's right is obvious - sometimes it's not." 

Not long ago I stepped into a restroom at the Philadelphia airport and there was a huge amount of water all over the floor. If something were not done immediately to warn people or correct the problem, someone could be seriously injured by slipping on the tile floor. 

I looked around for an airport employee to inform but no one was in sight. Just a few steps away was a small news/gift shop. I quickly walked up to the counter and urgently explained the situation to the uniformed gentleman. I could tell immediately by the expression on his face he was bothered by my concern and I could hardly believe the first words out of his mouth, "That's not my department." And he really meant it. 

I wasn't quite sure what to say but, not trying to be sarcastic I simply said, "Sir, it's not my department either but if someone doesn't do something soon, someone might be seriously injured." It was obvious that his sense of ethical responsibility was very different from mine. Finally, and somewhat reluctantly, he and the person next to him started to do something about it. 

In Ethics is 4 Everyone the authors suggest three ethics challenges we all face: 

1. Knowing What's Right. Our laws, our rules and procedures, our shared values, our conscience, our promises, and even our heroes are some of the things which help frame our sense of right and wrong. 

2. Doing What's Right. It is one thing to know what is right but it is another thing altogether to do what is right. As Martin Luther King, Jr. once said, "The time is always right to do what is right." 

3. Managing Competing Rights. As David Cottrell said, "The toughest issues any of us face are those involving 'right vs. right.' The problem: There are no obvious 'wrongs' to avoid." We all know "It's right to tell the truth but it's also right to be kind and considerate of peoples' feelings and emotions. It's right not to share information given to you in confidence but it's also right to report violations of laws, rules, and ethical standards." 

Not many would debate Jane Goodall's observation, "We could change the world tomorrow if all the millions of people around the world acted the way they believe." 

Think about it.

Dr. Don Meyer is President of 
Valley Forge Christian College, Phoenixville, PA 
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