Debunking American Exceptionalism
Debunking American Exceptionalism Part II: Fraud, Waste and Abuse in Government

Some Thoughts on the Ethics of Being versus the Ethics of Doing

Being Ethical is not the same as Doing the Right Thing

In business, ethics are about what to do when good behavior and profitable business are not necessarily the same thing.

Some years ago, sociologist Raymond Baumhart asked business people, "What does ethics mean to you?" Among their replies were the following:

"Ethics has to do with what my feelings tell me is right or wrong."
"Ethics has to do with my religious beliefs."
"Being ethical is doing what the law requires."
"Ethics consists of the standards of behavior our society accepts."
"I don't know what the word means."

These replies might be typical of our own. The meaning of "ethics" is hard to pin down, and the views many people have about ethics are questionable.

Like Baumhart's first respondent, many people tend to equate ethics with their feelings. But being ethical is clearly not a matter of following one's feelings. A person following his or her feelings may recoil from doing what is right. In fact, feelings frequently deviate from what is ethical.

Nor should one identify ethics with religion. Most religions, of course, advocate high ethical standards. Yet if ethics were confined to religion, then ethics would apply only to religious people. But ethics applies as much to the behavior of the atheist as to that of the devout religious person. Religion can set high ethical standards and can provide intense motivations for ethical behavior. Ethics, however, cannot be confined to religion nor is it the same as religion.

Being ethical is also not the same as following the law. The law often incorporates ethical standards to which most citizens subscribe. But laws, like feelings, can deviate from what is ethical. Our own pre-Civil War slavery laws is one obvious example of laws that deviate from what is ethical.

Finally, being ethical is not the same as doing "whatever society accepts." In any society, most people accept standards that are, in fact, ethical. But standards of behavior in society can deviate from what is ethical. An entire society can become ethically corrupt. Nazi Germany is a good example of a morally corrupt society.

What, then, is ethics? Ethics is two things. First, ethics refers to well-founded standards of right and wrong that prescribe what humans ought to do, usually in terms of rights, obligations, benefits to society, fairness, or specific virtues. Ethics, for example, refers to those standards that impose the reasonable obligations to refrain from stealing, murder, deception, and fraud. Ethical standards also include those that enjoin virtues of honesty, compassion, and loyalty. And, ethical standards include standards relating to rights, such as the right to privacy. Such standards are adequate standards of ethics because they are supported by consistent and well-founded reasons.

Secondly, ethics refers to the study and development of one's ethical standards. As mentioned above, feelings, laws, and social norms can deviate from what is ethical. So it is necessary to constantly examine one's standards to ensure that they are reasonable and well-founded. Ethics also means, then, the continuous effort of studying our own moral beliefs and our moral conduct, and striving to ensure that we, and the institutions we help to shape, live up to standards that are reasonable and supportable.

Ethics is a complex area. It is concerned with the kind of people we are. This could be called the “ethics of being”. It is also concerned with the things we do or fail to do. This could be called the “ethics of doing”. The ethics of doing has at its focus: what we do, and how we decide what we ought or ought not to do.

Ethics is about right and wrong in human conduct. Ethics is about choices, dilemmas and grey areas. It explores the question of what we ought to do, rather than simply discuss what people could do or actually do. In order to know what to do in a given situation, we need to explore the issue carefully in terms of the action involved, its consequences on others, and the context in which it takes place.

The position taken on an ethical issue will depend on two things: values, and priorities. Values are the things that we hold important for our sense of who we are. They are expressed in statements such as "lying is wrong” or "loyalty to one’s superior in the workplace is essential." They develop over time and are influenced by family, religion, education, peers and, in business, by the corporate culture.  

In some situations even people who agree on the same values will disagree on the right choice because a particular situation brings different values into conflict and requires us to prioritize our values. For example, if my superior wants to manipulate earnings to make it appear the company is doing better than it really is, then I have a conflict between the values of honesty and loyalty.

In making a decision we should draw on the ethical notion that loyalty should never take precedence over other ethical values such as honesty, trustworthiness, personal responsibility and so on. If loyalty trumped all else, then we can imagine the tight situations where we do what is ethically improper out of a sense of loyalty to another person or an organization.

An ethical person might know deep within his or her soul that an action he or she is being asked to take is wrong; that person is an ethical person but still may do the wrong thing because of pressures that come to bear in the organization by superiors.

Most of us want to be ethical – to do the right thing – but many of use fail to make the right decision because we are blinded by non-ethical values such as power, prestige, and wealth. If we are to alter the decline in ethics in society, we need to focus on strengthening the ethical values and learning how to give voice to our values when we encounter ethical dilemmas. Sometimes this means turning to others’ for advice and support. Sometimes it means we must go it alone and accept the consequences of our actions even if it means a loss of a friend or our job. In the end we gain respect and that is what life is all about – respecting ourselves and having others respect us because we do the right thing.

Blog posted by Steven Mintz, aka Ethics Sage, on November 7, 2013