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Ethics in Personal Life

Lessons Learned or Mistakes Not Corrected?

I receive lots of emails from readers of my ethics blogs who look for advice on personal issues. They tell me that someone said something insulting or offended them in some way. They’re looking for guidance on how best to respond. Sometimes, I get the same request over and over again. I wonder if they have learned their lesson from previous experiences. Here’s some advice I give.

Ethics Advice

  • Wait before responding. Let it sink in. Get your thoughts straight.
  • Type out what you want to say and then email it to yourself.
  • Sleep on it overnight.
  • Read it over before responding. How would you feel if the offender responded to something you said in this way?
  • How would you feel if your son or daughter knew what you were about to do?
  • Send the appropriate response.

Honesty, caring and compassion, integrity, and personal responsibility are values that can help you behave ethically when faced with ethical dilemmas in your personal life. The following illustrates the application of these values and ethical reasoning in real life issues and issues you may face personally.                                                                                                                                                        

Lessons Learned

Scamming at the Supermarket

I recently read the results of a 2015 survey into stealing at the self-checkout. The authors audited 1 million self-checkout transactions over the course of a year, totaling $21 million in sales. They found that nearly $850,000 worth of goods left the store without being scanned and paid for. How do they do it? Some keyed in a smaller quantity than they were buying and bagged the difference. Others keyed in a cheaper product than the one they bought; for example, regular fruit rather than the organic product. Some customers even removed stickers from significantly cheaper on-sale items and placed it over the more expensive product they were buying. The researchers concluded that the ease of theft is likely inspiring people who might not otherwise steal to do so. In other words, why do ‘good’ people sometimes do bad things? It’s because they can. This seems wrongheaded to me. My view is self-checkouts tempt people who are already predisposed to shoplifting to steal and then rationalize their behavior. It’s motivated by the false impression of anonymity.

Blaming others for our wrongful behavior is rationalizing an unethical action. The checkout scammers in the study blamed the store for high prices or the lack of controls. A common rationalization was ‘everybody does it.’ This is ethical relativism pure and simple. It’s a pursuit of self-interests approach to ethical decision-making.

Ethical Analysis

An ethical analysis would lead to the following questions.

  • Assume the scammer owned a supermarket. Would they want customers to cheat them using the scanning machines? (The Golden Rule)
  • How might my actions affect me? I may get caught and have to pay the legal price. (Egoism)
  • How would my actions affect others? The store is harmed because the stolen goods are not paid for; it affects profitability. (Utilitarianism)
  • What if everyone used the scanners to cheat the store? Would you want your action to be universalized? (Categorical Imperative)
  • How would you feel if your action made it to the front page of tomorrow’s newspaper? Would you be proud to defend it? (Front page test)

Cheating or stealing in any form is wrong. Once a person starts down that path, it may be difficult to reverse course and reclaim the moral high road. If a scammer is able to get out of the store without being caught, then the likelihood increases that they will do it again. What else might they do? By stopping, thinking, and reflecting on your intended action, ethical behavior can win out.

Blog posted by Steven Mintz, aka Ethics Sage, September 20, 2018. Visit Steve’s website and sign up for his Newsletter.