Making Ethical Decisions -- What Is Ethics Anyway?
To think clearly about ethical issues and develop practical approaches for
dealing with ethical problems, it is important to speak a common language,
with the vocabulary defined.
Ethics refers to standards of conduct, standards that indicate how one
should behave based on moral duties and virtues, which themselves are
derived from principles of right and wrong. As a practical matter, ethics
is about how we meet the challenge of doing the right thing when that will
cost more than we want to pay.
Aspects of Ethics
There are two aspects to ethics: The first involves the ability to discern
right from wrong, good from evil, and propriety from impropriety. The
second involves the commitment to do what is right, good and proper.
Ethics entails action; it is not just a topic to mull or debate.
"Is" vs. "Ought" Ethics
Discussions about ethics and what is or isn’t ethical often veer off into
semantic debates about the nature of ethics. Many will argue that ethics
are "relative," "situational" or "personal." Such positions usually reveal
a misunderstanding of ethics. "Is," or descriptive, ethics describes
operational standards of behavior — that is, how an individual or group
actually behaves, without reference to what should be. It is usually
associated with cultural relativism and absolute nonjudgmentalness.
"Is" ethics provides no basis for distinguishing right from wrong. In that
sense, descriptive ethics is really not ethics at all, but more like
anthropology or social psychology. "Ought" (or prescriptive or
normative) ethics is concerned with discernment of and commitment to
principles that establish "norms" of behavior applicable to every person.
Such ethics prescribe how people should behave, prescribing standards
for what "ought" to be without reference to how things actually are. The
ideal behavior is based on specific values and principles, which define
what is right, good, and proper. These principles will not always dictate
a single ethically acceptable course of action, of course. But the
prescriptive approach to ethics does provide a structure for evaluating
and resolving competing ethical claims.
Ethics, Morals and Mores
The terms "morals" and "mores" describe beliefs, customs and traditions
that are reflected in personal convictions about right and wrong. In
modern times, morals tend to be associated with ever narrower and more
personal concept of values, especially concerning matters of religion,
sex, drinking, gambling, lifestyle and so forth. Historically, however,
"ethics" and "morality" were essentially interchangeable terms.
Moral duty refers to the obligation to act or refrain from acting
according to moral principles. Moral duties establish the minimal
standards of ethical conduct. Thus, the failure to perform a moral duty
properly evokes the moral judgment that the conduct is wrong, unethical or
improper. There are both affirmative and negative dimensions to moral
duties. As a result, moral duty obliges us to act in certain ways (e.g.,
honestly, fairly and accountably), as well as to not act in other ways
(cruelly, disrespectfully, etc.).
Moral virtue goes beyond moral duty. It refers to moral excellence,
characteristics or conduct (say, generosity or valor) worthy of praise or
admiration because it advances moral principle. Moral virtue is an ideal,
not ethically mandatory. Thus, we ought to be charitable, temperate,
humble and compassionate; however, it is not unethical if we are not so
long as we do not harm others.
Values are core beliefs or desires that guide or motivate attitudes and
actions. They also define the things we value and prize the most, and,
therefore, provide the basis for ranking the things we want in a way that
elevates some values over others. Thus, our values determine how we will
behave in certain situations.
Values vs. Ethics
The terms "values" and "ethics" are not interchangeable. Ethics is
concerned with how a moral person should behave, whereas values simply
concern the various beliefs and attitudes that determine how a person
actually behaves. Some values concern ethics when they pertain to beliefs
as to what is right and wrong. Most values do not.
Ethical values directly relate to beliefs concerning what is right and
proper (as opposed to what is correct, effective or desirable).
Most of what we value is not concerned with our sense of ethics and moral
duty but rather with things we like, desire or find personally important.
Wealth, status, happiness, fulfillment, pleasure, personal freedom, being
liked and being respected fall into this category. We call them nonethical
(not unethical) values, for they are ethically neutral. The pursuit of
nonethical objectives is normal and appropriate so long as ethical values
are not sacrificed in the process.
Our values often conflict. For example, the desire for personal
independence may run counter to our desire for intimacy and relationships
of interdependency. Similarly, in particular situations, our commitment to
be honest and truthful may clash with the desire for wealth, status, a job
or even the desire to be kind to others. When values conflict, choices
must be made by ranking our values. The values we consistently rank higher
than others are our core values, which define character and personality.
Sometimes we hold values that are internally inconsistent. For example, it
is possible to believe simultaneously that "honesty is the best policy"
and yet that one could be "honest to a fault." Similarly, one could accept
the aphorism "a penny saved is a penny earned" and find oneself
occasionally acting on the belief "you can’t take it with you" or "here
today, gone tomorrow." A belief that "a bird in the hand is worth two in
the bush" may contradict the equally strong belief, "nothing ventured,
nothing gained." Some accept the principle to "love thy neighbor as
thyself" and still believe that "in order to make your way, you have to
look out for Number One."
Personal Moral Values
Most people have convictions about what is right and wrong based on
religious beliefs, cultural roots, family background, personal
experiences, laws, organizational values, professional norms and political
habits. These are not the best values to make ethical decisions by — not
because they are unimportant, but because they are not universal.
In contrast to consensual ethical principles — trustworthiness, respect,
responsibility, fairness, caring, citizenship — personal and professional
beliefs vary substantially over time, among cultures and even among
members of the same society. They are a source of continuous historical
disagreement. Although it is proper for individuals with strong personal
and professional moral convictions about right and wrong to treat these
beliefs with special reverence, they should be careful about imposing
these individual, non-consensus moral values on others. This is an area
where, as much as possible, the universal ethical value of respect for
others dictates tolerance and respect for the dignity and autonomy of each
person and cautions against self-righteousness in areas of legitimate
Personal Moral Value Systems
Each person has an "operational value system" which reflects how one ranks
competing values in deciding how to act. A personal value system
encompasses all values — core beliefs and attitudes that guide and
motivate behavior — and, therefore, it includes personal convictions about
right and wrong, sometimes called "personal moral values." The fact that
everyone has a personal value system that includes opinions and beliefs
about what is right and wrong, however, does not mean that ethics is
purely a personal matter. Again, ethics — if the term is to have any real
meaning — refers to moral norms, how persons should behave according to
general moral principles about what is good and right.
The False Notion of "Personal Ethics"
While every person inevitably must decide for himself how to regard his
moral obligations, to say that ethics are "personal" misconstrues the
nature of ethics.
It is likely that personal conscience will embrace a wider range of values
and beliefs than core, universal ethical norms. When these "extra" values
simply supplement ethical norms with personal moral convictions that are
compatible with the dictates of normative ethics, there is no conflict
between universal ethics and personal ethics. Unfortunately, some people
are "moral imperialists" who seek to impose their personal moral judgments
on others as if they were universal ethical norms. A bigger, sometimes
related problem is that some people adopt personal codes of conduct that
are inconsistent with universal ethical norms. Clearly, not all choices
and value systems, however dearly held, are equally "ethical." If they
were, we would have no way to distinguish between the ethical levels of
Hitler and Gandhi.
A person who believes that certain races are inferior to others and
therefore that it is "right’’ to oppress or persecute those races has
adopted a personal value system that is inherently "unethical" according
to the universal and consensus values associated with normative ethics.
Similarly, an individual who has decided that lying is proper if it is
necessary to achieve an important personal goal cannot assert personal
ethics as a shield against impropriety.
Simply put, all individuals are morally autonomous beings with the power
and right to choose their values, but it does not follow that all choices
and all value systems have an equal claim to be called ethical. Actions
and beliefs inconsistent with the Six Pillars of Character —
trustworthiness, respect, responsibility, fairness, caring and citizenship
— are simply not ethical.
Imposing Value Judgment on Others
Prescriptive, or normative, ethics requires an objective examination of
personal values, exposing certain beliefs (e.g., that one race is superior
to another) as wrong precisely because they conflict with core ethical
values. But while we must insist on honesty and integrity over hypocrisy
and corruption, we cannot also claim that a particular religion, political
philosophy or sexual orientation is universally superior to another.
Indeed, allowing the widest possible latitude in matters of personal
choice and conscience is critical to upholding the core ethical value of
treating all with respect.
Values and Principles
When we speak of values we are referring to broad, general beliefs or
attitudes about something we prize or desire. These beliefs, however,
guide and motivate ethical conduct only when they are translated into
principles. Ethical principles are the rules of conduct that are derived
from ethical values. For example, "honesty" is a value that becomes
operative in the form of a series of principles, such as: tell the truth,
don’t deceive, be candid, don’t cheat. In this way, values give rise to
many principles in the form of specific "dos" and "don’ts."
Making consistently ethical decisions is difficult. Most decisions have to
be made in the context of economic, professional and social pressures
which can sometimes challenge our ethical goals and conceal or confuse the
In addition, making ethical choices is complex because in many situations
there are a multitude of competing interests and values. Other times,
crucial facts are unknown or ambiguous. Since many actions are likely to
benefit some people at the expense of others, the decision maker must
prioritize competing moral claims and must be proficient at predicting the
likely consequences of various choices. An ethical person often chooses to
do more than the law requires and less than the law allows. The ethical
person is concerned with what is right to do, not with what she has a
right to do.
The Ethical Perspective
Any decision affecting other people has ethical implications, and
virtually all important decisions reflect the decision maker’s sensitivity
and commitment to ethics. These decisions can be evaluated in terms of
adherence to the six core ethical principles — trustworthiness, respect,
responsibility, fairness, caring and citizenship.
The Process of Ethical Decision Making
Ethical decision making refers to the process of evaluating and choosing
among alternatives in a manner consistent with ethical principles. In
making ethical decisions it is necessary to:
Perceive and eliminate unethical options. These options subordinate
ethical values to nonethical or unethical values.
Select the best ethical alternative. Although there may be several ethical
responses to a situation, all are not equal.
Ethical decision making requires more than a belief in the importance of
ethics. It also requires sensitivity to perceive the ethical implications
of decisions, the ability to evaluate complex, ambiguous and incomplete
facts and the skill to implement ethical decisions without unduly
jeopardizing a career. Ethical decision making requires ethical
commitment, ethical consciousness, and ethical competency.
Ethical commitment refers to a strong desire to do the right thing,
especially when behaving ethically imposes financial, social or emotional
costs. Surveys taken by the Josephson Institute reveal that, regardless of
profession, almost all people believe that they are, or should be,
ethical. While most are not satisfied with the ethical quality of society
as a whole, they believe that their profession is more ethical than others
and that they are at least as ethical as those in their profession.
Unfortunately, behavior does not consistently conform to self-image and
moral ambitions. As a result, a substantial number of decent people,
committed to ethical values, regularly compromise these values — often
because they lack the fortitude to follow their conscience.
People need to understand that ethical principles are ground rules of
decision making — not just factors to consider. It is OK to lose; in fact,
it is preferable to lose than to lie, steal, or cheat in order to win.
People who are unwilling to lose have to be willing to do whatever it
takes to win. Ethics has a price and sometimes people must choose between
what they want and what they want to be. But ethics also has a value,
which makes self-restraint and sacrifice, service and charity, worthwhile.
While weakness of will explains a good deal of improper conduct, a much
greater problem arises from the failure to perceive the ethical
implications of conduct. Many people simply fail to apply their moral
convictions to daily behavior. And some tend to develop a kind of
professional tunnel vision that blinds them to ethical issues that
everyone else sees.
Some people don’t always see ethical issues that are likely to trouble
outsiders. They don’t seem to recognize that perfectly legal conduct often
appears to be improper or inappropriate to those who expect them to avoid
even the appearance of impropriety.
Noticing the ethical issues and being committed to act ethically is not
always enough. In complex situations, reasoning and problem-solving skills
are also necessary.
Evaluation — the ability to collect and evaluate relevant facts and to
know when to stop and how to make prudent decisions based on incomplete
and ambiguous information.
Creativity — the capacity to develop alternative means of accomplishing
goals in ways which avoid or minimize ethical problems.
Prediction — the ability to foresee potential consequences of conduct and
assess the likelihood or risk that people will be helped or harmed by an
The Stakeholder Concept
A person concerned with being ethical has a moral obligation to consider
the ethical implications of all decisions. Each person, group or
institution (sometimes referred to as a constituency) likely to be
affected by a decision is a “stakeholder” with a moral claim on the
decision maker. The stakeholder concept is a system of evaluating these
interests in such a way as to bring about the greatest good. The
stakeholder concept reinforces our obligation to make all reasonable
efforts to foresee possible consequences and take reasonable steps to
avoid unjustified harm to others.
A major concern of philosophers and theologians throughout recorded
history has been the development of coherent theories to describe the
nature of moral obligation and provide guidance for determining those
obligations in specific situations.
The Golden Rule
This most basic and useful ethical theory, sometimes called the “Rule of
Reciprocity,” has a long history:
Confucius (500 B.C.): “What you do not want done to yourself, do not do
Aristotle (325 B.C.): “We should behave to others as we wish others to
behave to us.’’
From the Mahabharata (200 B.C.): “Do nothing to thy neighbor which thou
wouldst not have him do to thee thereafter.’’
Jesus (30 A.D.): “As ye would that men should do to you, do ye also to
The “golden rule” is a thought process valid for all decisions,
professional or personal. Even in the most difficult situations,
application of the “do unto others’’ standard often reveals which actions
are ethical and which are not.
Concern for Others. The Rule establishes an ethical baseline: a good
person is concerned with and responsible for the well-being of others.
Period. Thus, ethical people take into account the interest of all those
they affect and seek to help others when they can and refrain from causing
The Golden Rule asks us to place ourselves in the position of those who
will be helped or harmed by our action and to treat others as we would
want to be treated in a similar situation. If you don’t want to be lied to
or deceived, don’t lie to or deceive others. If you want others to keep
their commitments to you, keep your commitments to them. One aspect of the
Golden Rule requires restraint, self-discipline and even sacrifice in
avoiding acts that harm others. Another is expressed in the maxim “Love
thy neighbor as thyself,” which stresses love, not self-interest, as the
moral base of conduct.
Treating Others Better Than They Treat You. Cynics claim that the Rule
will not work in the “real world.” They suggest that to survive one must
“do unto others before they do unto you.” This, of course, becomes a
self-fulfilling prophecy fueling an anti-ethical, everyone-for-himself
ethos. The fact is, of course, that many people do not live by the Golden
Rule; they do not treat others fairly, honestly or compassionately. The
challenge to an ethically committed person is to overcome this fact of
life and do what is right in spite of, maybe even because of, the failure
of others to do so.
Problem of Conflicting Interests.
The Golden Rule alone, however, is not a sufficient guide to ethical decision making in situations that involve a complex network of stakeholders with conflicting interests. Often our choices involve competing beneficiaries, and the Golden Rule provides no guidance on how to choose among them. We cannot demonstrate equal love or caring to every person affected by our decisions. Sometimes we must prioritize certain interests over others and advance the well-being of some people, even at a cost to others.
Kant’s Categorical Imperatives: Absolute Moral Duties Based on Principle
According to Immanuel Kant, the moral character of an action is determined
by the principle upon which it is based — not upon the consequences it
produces. The foundation of morality is the ability to act rationally. A
rational being is free to act out of principle and to refrain from acting
out of impulse or the desire for pleasure. Kant contends that ethical
obligations are “higher truths,” which must be obeyed regardless of the
consequences and in spite of social conventions and natural inclinations
to the contrary. Referred to as “deontological,” Kant’s view of ethics is
duty-based. Thus, people have an absolute duty to do the right thing under
all circumstances, and what is “right” has nothing to do with the actual
consequences produced or avoided.
No Exceptions, No Excuses
According to Kant, moral obligations are absolute and invariable, allowing
no exceptions or extenuating circumstances. A major virtue of Kant’s duty
theory is its simplicity; it does not require one to consider or predict
consequences of a decision.
Two especially useful rules are derived from Kant’s categorical
Rule of Universality — Behave only in those ways you feel appropriate
for all people, at all times.
Rule of Respect — All individuals are intrinsically important and the
well-being of each is a moral end in itself; never treat others as
simply the means for your own gain or gratification.
Problems With Absolute Duty Theories
While this absolutist view requires great personal discipline and
commitment, Kant’s theory is useful in that it makes the resolution of
real-world problems clear in many situations that tempt the decision maker
to lie or deceive, break a promise or injure another. Yet the major
shortcoming in Kant’s ethical duty theory remains: it produces
unresolvable conflicts when a person faces a choice between two ethical
values. For example, since truth-telling is always right and deception is
always wrong, under Kant’s theory, one cannot lie or deceive to achieve a
“greater good” — not even to save an innocent life from terrorists or
sparing the feelings of a friend from candid opinions. As a result, it is
useful to moderate Kant’s absolutism with a theory that allows the ethical
person to weigh and evaluate competing ethical values in terms of
Consequentialism / Utilitarianism
Most people moderate Kant’s absolutism with a theory that allows the
ethical person to weigh competing values in terms of consequences. This
“teleological” approach is the most commonly applied theory of ethics and
permits much more flexibility than Kant’s strict duty theories.
Classically referred to as “consequentialism” or “utilitarianism,” this
theory holds that the ethical merit of an act is best determined by the
consequences produced. Consequence-based decision-making models allow the
ethical person to evaluate competing ethical values in terms of likely and
intended results. In essence, the ends can justify the means.
Principle of Utility
Actions are right and good when they produce benefit, pleasure or
happiness or prevent harm, pain or unhappiness.
Act Utilitarianism — The ethical merit of an act is judged in terms of its
immediate and direct consequences.
Rule Utilitarianism — The ethical merit of an act is judged in terms of
the consequences if such conduct became the general rule and everyone
Greatest Good for the Greatest Number
Theoretically, consequentialist theory requires the decision maker to
consider and predict the likely consequences of contemplated conduct and
weigh the good the act will produce against the harm. Consequentialists
should seek to produce the greatest possible balance of benefits (“good”)
over burdens (“evil”).
Problems With Consequentialism
The major shortcoming of pure consequentialism is the ease with which it
can be manipulated by self-serving rationalizations to produce situational
ethics and an end-justifies-the-means credo that elevates expediency over
principle. In practice, many people treat ethical and nonethical values on
the same plane, often concluding that nonethical values can outweigh
ethical ones and that self-interest (including the needs and wants of
family and friends) can be given greater weight than the interests of
others. This is not consistent with true philosophical consequentialism,
but it seems to be the dominant application of the theory.
The Josephson Institute Ethical Decision-Making Model
In developing a decision-making model that avoids the shortcomings of each
traditional theory and can be practically applied to common problems, the
Josephson Institute has combined features of each and added the
stakeholder concept. Acknowledging its primary influences, this hybrid
theory might (humorously) be called “Golden Kantian Consequentialism.”
There are three steps:
1. All decisions must take into account and reflect a concern for the
interests and well being of all stakeholders.
The first principle of the JI model is the underlying principle of the
Golden Rule. It embodies both the affirmative and negative dimensions of
the Rule — help when you can, avoid harm when you can. It also utilizes
the stakeholder concept.
2. Ethical values and principles always take precedence over nonethical
Like Kant’s absolute duty theory, the second principle asserts that
ethical values are superior to nonethical ones and that when faced with a
clear choice between such values, the ethical person should always choose
to follow ethical principles. This principle operates only when the
decision maker perceives the conflict as one between an ethical value,
such as honesty, and a nonethical value, such as money or power.
Perceiving the difference between ethical and nonethical values can be
difficult. Faced with this sort of dilemma, people rarely see choices as
being between ethical and nonethical values. Instead, they see ethical
dilemmas arising from the clash between what they want or “need” and
ethical principles that might deny them their desires. A rationalization
process then kicks in, transforming self-interested, nonethical motives
into others-centered, ethical ones.
3. It is ethically proper to violate an ethical principle only when it is
clearly necessary to advance another true ethical principle, which,
according to the decision maker’s conscience, will produce the greatest
balance of good in the long run.
Many ethical dilemmas pit honesty against fidelity or fairness against
promise-keeping or loyalty to one person against commitment to another. In
such cases, it is difficult to evaluate the problem objectively and not
allow self-interest and nonethical values to unduly affect the process.
The consequentialist facet of JI’s decision-making model acknowledges the
need to prioritize among competing ethical values in particular cases, but
only when it is clearly necessary to do so because the only viable options
require the sacrifice of one ethical value to advance another. In such
cases, the ethical decision maker should act in a way that will cause the
greatest amount of good and the least harm to the greatest number of
people. Dispensing with comparatively abstract principles such as honesty
or promise-keeping is generally acceptable in order to avoid immediate and
serious physical harm to oneself or others.
Like traditional utilitarianism, the third principle of the JI model is
vulnerable to manipulation by those who know what they want to do and are
willing to construct a rationale for doing it. An ethical consequentialist
must assert the necessary justification on two separate levels: (1) the
purpose of the conduct must be deemed necessary, and (2) the specific
conduct contemplated must be necessary to accomplish that purpose.
People tend to operate on an instinctive, unreflective level that presumes
and invariably exaggerates the importance of personal and professional
goals. Objective scrutiny would reveal that, in many cases, our
motivations are no more noble than the desire to get a job done, to build
our reputations, to satisfy our pride, to win or to avoid the shame of
failing. Many people pursuing worthy goals do not search diligently enough
for acceptable ways of achieving them. Ethical ways are available — though
they may be less convenient and more costly. In many cases, ethical means
of reaching worthy ends only require a little more work, a little more
Five Steps of Principled Reasoning
Determine precisely what must be decided. Formulate and devise the full
range of alternatives (i.e., things you could do). Eliminate patently
impractical, illegal and improper alternatives. Force yourself to develop
at least three ethically justifiable options. Examine each option to
determine which ethical principles and values are involved.
If any of the options require the sacrifice of any ethical principle,
evaluate the facts and assumptions carefully. Distinguish solid facts from
beliefs, desires, theories, suppositions, unsupported conclusions and
opinions that might generate rationalizations. Take into account the
credibility of the sources of information and the fact that self-interest,
bias and ideological commitments tend to obscure objectivity and affect
perceptions about what is true. With regard to each alternative, carefully
consider the benefits, burdens and risks to each stakeholder.
After evaluating the information, make a judgment about what is or is not
true and about what consequences are most likely to occur. If there is an
ethical dilemma, evaluate the viable alternatives according to personal
conscience, prioritize the values so that you can choose which values to
advance and which to subordinate and determine who will be helped the most
and harmed the least. It is sometimes helpful to consider the worst case
scenario. In addition, consider whether ethically questionable conduct can
be avoided by modifying goals or methods or by consulting with those
likely to be affected in order to get their input or consent. Finally, you
may want to rely on three “ethics guides”:
GOLDEN RULE — Are you treating others as you would want to be treated?
PUBLICITY — Would you be comfortable if your reasoning and decision were
to be publicized? How would feel about seeing it on the front page of
KID-ON-YOUR-SHOULDER — Would you be comfortable if your children were
observing you? Are you practicing what you preach?
Once you decide what to do, develop a plan to implement the decision in a
way that maximizes the benefits and minimizes the costs and risks.
Remember that any decision or act, however ethical, is bound to be
weakened by a sanctimonious, pious, judgmental or self-righteous attitude.
5. Monitor and Modify
An ethical decision maker should monitor the effects of decisions and be
prepared and willing to revise a plan, or take a different course of
action, based on new information. Since most decisions are based on
imperfect information and “best effort” predictions, it is inevitable that
some will be wrong. Those decisions will either fail to produce the
consequences anticipated or they will produce unintended and/or unforeseen
consequences. The ethical decision maker is willing to adjust to new
The Six Pillars of Character
Trustworthiness, respect, responsibility, fairness, caring, and
citizenship — these six core ethical values, which the Josephson Institute
dubs "Pillars of Character," provide objective criteria to guide our
choices. The standards of conduct that arise out of those values
constitute the ground rules of ethics, and therefore of ethical decision
There is nothing sacrosanct about the language of the Six Pillars. The
terms simply represent discrete ethical concepts that function as moral
truths. Why is a common lexicon necessary? So that people can see what
unites our diverse and fractured society. So that the challenge of ethical
relativism can be tackled. So that ethical decisions, while not
necessarily made any easier, can nevertheless become more consistent and
Consensus, discovered and acknowledged, has a special power to change
society and lives. A clear, consistent language represents that consensus.
The principles represented by this common language in turn act as filters
through which to process decisions. So, being trustworthy is not enough —
we must also be caring. Adhering to the letter of the law is not enough —
we must accept responsibility for our inaction.
Finally, using core ethical values as the basis for principled reasoning
can help us detect situations where we focus so hard on upholding one
moral principle that we sacrifice another — where, intent on holding
others accountable, we ignore the duty to be compassionate; where, intent
on getting a job done, we ignore how.
In short, systematically using the Six Pillars can dramatically improve
the ethical quality of our decisions, and thus our character.
When we’re trusted we’re given greater leeway by others because they don’t
feel they need contracts to assure that we’ll meet our obligations. They
believe in us. That’s satisfying. But there’s a downside: we must
constantly live up to the expectations of others and refrain from
competitive, self-serving behavior that tarnishes if not destroys
relationships, both professional and personal.
Simply refraining from lies and deception is not enough. Trustworthiness
is the most complicated of the six core ethical values and concerns a
variety of behavioral qualities — qualities like honesty, integrity,
reliability and loyalty.
There is no more fundamental ethical value than honesty. We associate
honesty with people of honor, and we admire and trust those who are
honest. But honesty is a broader concept than many may realize.
Honesty in communications requires a good-faith intent to convey the truth
as best we know it and to avoid communicating in a way likely to mislead
or deceive. There are three dimensions:
Truthfulness — The obligation of truthfulness precludes intentional
misrepresentation of fact (lying). Intent is the crucial distinction
between truthfulness and truth itself. Being wrong is not the same thing
as being a liar, although honest mistakes can still damage trust insofar
as they may show sloppy judgment.
Sincerity/non-deception — The obligation of sincerity precludes all
acts, including half-truths, out-of-context statements, and even silence
that are intended to create beliefs or leave impressions that are untrue
Candor — In relationships involving legitimate expectations of trust,
honesty may also require candor, forthrightness and frankness, imposing
the obligation to volunteer information that another person needs to
Honesty in conduct prohibits stealing, cheating, fraud, subterfuge and
other trickery. Cheating is a particularly foul form of dishonesty because
one not only seeks to deceive but to take advantage of those who are not
cheating. It’s a two-fer: a violation of trust and fairness.
Not all lies are unethical, even though all lies are dishonest. Huh?
That’s right, honesty is not an inviolate principle. Occasionally
dishonesty is ethically justifiable, as when the police lie in undercover
operations or when one lies to criminals or terrorists to save lives. But
don’t kid yourself: occasions for ethically sanctioned lying are rare and
require serving a very high purpose indeed — not hitting a
management-pleasing sales target or winning a game or avoiding a
confrontation. We’re talking saving a life, that sort of thing.
The word integrity comes from the word integer, meaning "one" or
wholeness. This means there are no divisions in an ethical person’s life,
no difference in the way she makes decisions from situation to situation,
no difference in the way she acts at work and at home, in public and
alone. At one time or another, we all have allowed our behavior to depart
from our conscience or to vary according to locale. Even so, almost all of
us have lines we will not cross; our challenge is to draw the line around
the Six Pillars.
Because she must know who she is and what she values, the person of
integrity takes time for self-reflection, so that the events, crises and
seeming necessities of the day do not determine the course of her moral
life. She stays in control. She may be courteous, even charming, but she
is never duplicitous. She never demeans herself with obsequious behavior
toward those she thinks might do her some good. She is trusted because you
know who she is: what you see is what you get.
The four enemies of integrity:
Self-interest — Things we want
Self-protection — Things we don’t want
Self-deception — A refusal to see a situation clearly
Self-righteousness — An end-justifies-the-means attitude
When we make promises or other commitments that create a legitimate basis
for another person to rely upon us to perform certain tasks, we undertake
moral duties that go beyond legal obligations. The ethical dimension of
promise-keeping imposes the responsibility of making all reasonable
efforts to fulfill our commitments. Because promise-keeping is such an
important aspect of trustworthiness, it is important to:
Avoid bad-faith excuses — Honorable people interpret their contracts and
other commitments in a fair and reasonable manner and not in a way
designed to rationalize noncompliance or create justifications for
Avoid unwise commitments — Be cautious about making commitments that
create ethical obligations. Before making a promise consider carefully
whether you are willing and likely to keep it. Think about unknown or
future events that could make it difficult, undesirable or impossible.
Sometimes, all we can do is promise to do our best.
Avoid unclear commitments — Since others will expect you to live up to
what they think you have promised to do, be sure that, when you make a
promise, the other person understands what you are committing to do.
Loyalty is a special moral responsibility to promote and protect the
interests of certain people, organizations or affiliations. This duty goes
beyond the normal obligation we all share to care for others. Some
relationships — husband-wife, employer-employee, citizen-country — create
an expectation of allegiance, fidelity and devotion.
Limitations to Loyalty — Loyalty is a tricky thing. It is not uncommon for
friends, employers, co-workers and others who have a claim on us to demand
that their interests be ranked first, even above ethical considerations.
Loyalty is a reciprocal concept, however, and no one has the right to ask
another to sacrifice ethical principles in the name of a special
relationship. Indeed, one forfeits a claim of loyalty when so high a price
is put on maintaining the relationship.
Prioritizing Loyalties. Because so many individuals and groups make
loyalty claims on us, it is often impossible to honor them all
simultaneously. Consequently, we must rank our loyalty obligations in some
rational fashion. In our personal lives, for example, most people expect
us to place the highest degree of loyalty on our family relationships.
It’s perfectly reasonable, and ethical, to look out for the interests of
our children, parents and spouses even if we have to subordinate our
obligations to other children, neighbors, or co-workers in doing so.
Safeguarding Confidential Information. Loyalty requires us to keep secrets
or information learned in confidence.
Avoiding Conflicting Interests. Employees and public servants have an
additional responsibility to make all professional decisions on merit,
unimpeded by conflicting personal interests. Their goal is to secure and
maintain the trust of the public, to whom they owe their ultimate loyalty.
The way one shows respect varies, but its essence is the display of regard
for the worth of people, including oneself. We have no ethical duty to
hold all people in high esteem or admire them, but we are morally
obligated to treat everyone with respect, regardless of who they are and
what they have done. We have a responsibility to be the best we can be in
all situations, even when dealing with unpleasant people.
Respect focuses on the moral obligation to honor the essential worth and
dignity of the individual. Respect prohibits violence, humiliation,
manipulation and exploitation. It reflects notions such as civility,
courtesy, dignity, autonomy, tolerance and acceptance.
Civility, Courtesy and Decency
A respectful person is an attentive listener, although his patience with
the boorish need not be endless (respect works both ways). Nevertheless,
the respectful person treats others with consideration, conforming to
accepted notions of taste and propriety, and doesn’t resort to
intimidation, coercion or violence except in extraordinary and limited
situations to teach discipline, maintain order or achieve social justice.
Punishment is used in moderation and only to advance important social
goals and purposes.
An ethical person exercises personal, official and managerial authority in
a way that provides others with the information they need to make informed
decisions about their own lives.
An ethical person accepts individual differences and beliefs without
prejudice and judges others only on the content of their character.
Life is full of choices. Being responsible means being in charge of our
choices and, thus, our lives. It means being accountable for what we do
and who we are. It also means recognizing that what we do, and what we
don’t do, matters and we are morally on the hook for the consequences.
Responsibility makes demands on us. It imposes duties to do what we can,
not because we are being paid or because we will suffer if we don’t, but
simply because it is our obligation to do so. The essence of
responsibility is continuous awareness that our capacity to reason and our
freedom to choose make us morally autonomous and, therefore, answerable
for how we use our autonomy and whether we honor or degrade the ethical
principles that give life meaning and purpose.
Beyond having the responsibility to be trustworthy, respectful, fair, and
caring, ethical people show responsibility by being accountable, pursuing
excellence and exercising self-restraint. They exhibit the ability to
respond to expectations.
An accountable person is not a victim and doesn’t shift blame or claim
credit for the work of others. He considers the likely consequences of his
behavior and associations. He recognizes the common complicity in the
triumph of evil when nothing is done to stop it. He leads by example.
Pursuit of Excellence
The pursuit of excellence has an ethical dimension when others rely upon
our knowledge, ability or willingness to perform tasks safely and
It is hardly unethical to make mistakes or be less than
excellent," but there is a moral obligation to do one’s best, to be
diligent, reliable, careful, prepared and informed.
Perseverance. Responsible people finish what they start, overcoming
rather than surrendering to obstacles and excuses.
Continuous Improvement. Responsible people look for ways to do their
Responsible people exercise self-control, restraining passions and
appetites (such as lust, hatred, gluttony, greed and fear) for the sake of
reason, prudence and the duty to set a good example. They delay
gratification if necessary and never feel it’s necessary to "win at any
cost." They realize they are as they choose to be, every day.
Most would agree that fairness and justice involve issues of equality,
impartiality, proportionality, openness and due process. Most would agree
that it is unfair to handle similar matters inconsistently. Most would
agree that it is unfair to impose punishment that is not commensurate with
the offense. Beyond that, there is little agreement. Fairness is another
tricky concept, probably more subject to legitimate debate and
interpretation than any other ethical value. Disagreeing parties tend to
maintain that there is only one fair position (their own, naturally). But
while some situations and decisions are clearly unfair, fairness usually
refers to a range of morally justifiable outcomes rather than discovery of
one fair answer.
In settling disputes or dividing resources, how one proceeds to judgment
is crucial, for someone is bound to be disappointed with the result. A
fair person scrupulously employs open and impartial processes for
gathering and evaluating information necessary to make decisions. Fair
people do not wait for the truth to come to them; they seek out relevant
information and conflicting perspectives before making important judgments.
Decisions should be made without favoritism or prejudice.
Fairness requires that an individual, company, or society correct
mistakes, promptly and voluntarily. It is improper to take advantage of
the weakness or ignorance of others.
Caring is the heart of ethics. It is scarcely possible to be truly ethical
and not genuinely concerned with the welfare others. That is because
ethics is ultimately about our responsibilities toward other people. If
you existed alone in the universe, there would be no need for ethics and
your heart could be a cold, hard stone without consequence to anyone or
It is easier to love "humanity" than it is to love people. People who
consider themselves ethical and yet lack a caring attitude toward
individuals tend to treat others as instruments of their will. They rarely
feel an obligation to be honest, loyal, fair or respectful except insofar
as it is prudent for them to do so, a disposition which itself hints at
duplicity and a lack of integrity.
A person who really cares feels an emotional response to both the pain and
pleasure of others. Oddly enough, though, it is not uncommon for people to
be remarkably ungracious, intolerant, and unforgiving toward those they
love — while at the same time showing a generous spirit toward strangers
and business associates. Go figure.
Of course, sometimes we must hurt those we truly care for and some
decisions, while quite ethical, do cause pain. But one should consciously
cause no more harm than is reasonably necessary to perform one’s duties.
The highest form of caring is the honest expression of benevolence. This
is sometimes referred to as altruism, not to be confused with strategic
charity. Gifts to charities to advance personal interests are a fraud.
That is, they aren’t gifts at all. They’re investments or tax write-offs.
The concept of citizenship includes civic virtues and duties that
prescribe how we ought to behave as part of a community. The good citizen
knows the laws and obeys them, yes, but that’s not all. She volunteers and
stays informed on the issues of the day, the better to execute her duties
and privileges as a member of a self-governing democratic society. That
is, she does more than her "fair" share to make society work, now and for
future generations. Such a commitment to the public sphere can have many
expressions, such as conserving resources, recycling, using public
transportation and cleaning up litter. The good citizen gives more than
When we say something is a civic duty, we imply that not doing that duty
is unethical. Yet that can be a harsh and erroneous judgment. If one has a
duty to be honest, caring, fair, respectful and responsible, then we mean
it is ethically wrong to be the opposite of those things. But does that
then mean that, if one has a "civic duty" to stay informed, one is
unethical if one is ignorant? Certainly we don’t have to admire people who
take their citizenship for granted. It is important, however, to make the
distinction between what is ethically mandated and what is merely
desirable and worthy of emulation.
We judge ourselves by our best intentions, our most noble acts and our
most virtuous habits. We are judged by our last worst act. Conscientious people who want to do their jobs well often fail to adequately consider the morality of their professional behavior. They tend to compartmentalize ethics into two domains: private and occupational. Fundamentally decent people thereby feel justified doing things at work that they know to be wrong in other contexts. They forget that everyone’s first job is to be a good person. People are especially vulnerable to rationalizations when they seek to advance a noble cause.
"It’s all for a good cause" is a seductive rationale that loosens
interpretations of deception, concealment, conflicts of interest,
favoritism, and violations of established rules and procedures. In making
tough decisions, don’t be distracted by rationalizations. Here are some of
the most common.
If It’s Necessary, It’s Ethical
This rationalization is based on the false assumption that necessity
breeds propriety. The approach often leads to ends-justify-the-means
reasoning and treating tasks or goals as moral imperatives.
The False Necessity Trap
As Friedrich Nietzsche put it, "necessity is an interpretation, not a
fact." We tend to fall into the "false necessity trap" because we
overestimate the cost of doing the right thing and underestimate the cost
of failing to do so.
If It’s Legal and Permissible, It’s Proper
This substitutes legal requirements (which establish minimal standards of
behavior) for personal moral judgment. This alternative does not embrace
the full range of ethical obligations, especially for those involved in
upholding the public trust. Ethical people often choose to do less than
the maximally allowable, and more than the minimally acceptable.
I Was Just Doing It for You
This is a primary justification for committing "little white lies" or
withholding important information in personal or professional
relationships, such as performance reviews. This rationalization pits the
values of honesty and respect against the value of caring. An individual
deserves the truth because he has a moral right to make decisions about
his own life based on accurate information. This rationalization
overestimates other people’s desire to be "protected" from the truth, when
in fact most people would rather know unpleasant information than believe
soothing falsehoods. Consider the perspective of people lied to: If they
discovered the lie, would they thank you for being considerate or would
they feel betrayed, patronized or manipulated?
I’m Just Fighting Fire With Fire
This is the false assumption that promise-breaking, lying and deceit are
justified if they are routinely engaged in by those with whom you are
It Doesn’t Hurt Anyone
Used to excuse misconduct, this rationalization falsely holds that one can
violate ethical principles so long as there is no clear and immediate harm
to others. It treats ethical obligations simply as factors to be
considered in decision making, rather than as ground rules. Problem areas:
Asking for or giving special favors to family, friends or public
officials, disclosing nonpublic information to benefit others, using one’s
position for personal advantage.
Everyone’s Doing It
This is a false, "safety in numbers" rationale fed by the tendency to
uncritically treat cultural, organizational or occupational behaviors as
if they were ethical norms, just because they are norms.
It’s OK If I Don’t Gain Personally
This justifies improper conduct done for others or for institutional
purposes on the false assumption that personal gain is the only test of
impropriety. A related, but more narrow excuse, is that only behavior
resulting in improper financial gain warrants ethical criticism.
I’ve Got It Coming
People who feel they are overworked or underpaid rationalize that minor
"perks" — such as acceptance of favors, discounts or gratuities — are
nothing more than fair compensation for services rendered. This is also
used as an excuse to abuse sick time, insurance claims, overtime, personal
phone calls and personal use of office supplies.
I Can Still Be Objective
This rationalization ignores the fact that a loss of objectivity always
prevents perception of the loss of objectivity. It also underestimates the
subtle ways in which gratitude, friendship, anticipation of future favors
and the like affect judgment. Does the person providing you with the
benefit believe that it will in no way affect your judgment? Would the
person still provide the benefit if you were in no position to help?