Words of Wisdom from the Ethics Sage
Do you care about others or are you a selfish individual? Do you accept responsibility for your actions or blame others for bad things that happen to you? Do you love others unconditionally or expect something in return? These are some of the questions to ask yourself to gauge whether you are an ethical person.
Ethical people follow basic principles of right and wrong.
The Golden Rule. Treat others the way you want be treated. This time-honored principle applies today even more than in the past because, as a society, we have lost our moral compass. It is up to each one of us to treat others fairly, with compassion and empathy, and respectfully.
The Rights of Others. Ethical people consider whether their actions may affect the rights of others. In today’s society, especially on college campuses, we increasingly see students trying to stifle free speech when a speaker puts forth a point of view that offends them, which happens frequently today in part because of our entitlement society.
The Consequences of Our Actions. Our actions have consequences. People who use social media to vent against others rarely first consider how their actions and words may affect others before posting a comment on Facebook or Tweeting. Those who do consider the consequences do so with the goal of upsetting others rather than to state one’s objective point of view or start a productive dialogue.
Be Accountable for Your Actions. When we make a mistake in life we should accept responsibility for our actions, promise to never do it again, make amends to the people we have harmed, and carry through our ethical intent to do better by being a better person. We learn from our mistakes and move forward in a productive manner.
Truthfulness is a virtue and, along with integrity (i.e., being a principled person; having the courage of your convictions), make up the most fundamental standard of ethical behavior. I’m always amazed how little people understand what is truthfulness and what it requires to be an ethical person.
Many people do not realize that dishonesty is not only telling an untruth – a lie by commission – but it also entails a positive obligation to disclose all the information another party has a right to know; not committing a lie by omission. Consider, for example, that the FBI comes to your house one day and asks about Nikolas Cruz, the shooter at Parkland High School in Florida. You know a lot of bad stuff about the kid but don’t share it with the FBI because the questions they asked were unrelated to what you know about him and his propensity for violence. This is a good example of why being truthful is an affirmative behavioral trait.
I use three guiding principles in teaching ethics to help my students quickly focus on what is most important in being an ethical person.
- Do no harm.Do and say nothing that may bring harm to another person, shame them for any reason, and avoid bullying behavior.
- Contribute to the betterment of others.Do something every day to show kindness to others. It can be something as simple as saying “thank you” or complimenting someone. Paying it forward is sound advice in today’s impersonal world where people communicate, often anonymously, on the Internet rather than on the phone or in person. We seem to have lost the ability to interact with others on a deeply personal, ethical level.
- Consider how you want to be remembered at the end of your life.Think of what you want written on your tombstone. Is it that you became rich, famous, or powerful during your life or that you were a good person; cared about others; and left this world a better place than you found it?
- Think about the newspaper headline. Before acting, when faced with an ethical dilemma, think about how you might feel if your intended action made the front pages of the local newspaper. Would you be proud to defend it? Proud if your child read about it?
I leave you with a quote from W. Clement Stone: Have the courage to say no. Have the courage to face the truth. Do the right thing because it is right. These are the magic keys to living your life with integrity.
Blog posted by Steven Mintz, aka Ethics Sage, on March 20, 2018. Dr. Mintz is a Professor Emeritus from Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. Visit his website and sign up for the newsletter.