I’ve always had a hard time explaining ethics.
Let me give you an example: why do I think lying is wrong? Because my parents told me so and because my teachers reinforced that idea in elementary and middle school.
It was drilled into my being that it’s unethical (at an age when I didn’t know what ethics meant), and it remained ingrained.
But as I grew up I noticed my parents’ white lies … their “necessary” lies. And I realized that there were occasions in one’s life when lying was ok.
It wasn’t something they were explicitly trying to teach me, but it was a subtle message that I inadvertently got.
And as the initial years of innocence and idealism gave way to the realities of life, I became more accepting of the role … nay, need … for lies.
Professionally, I’ve kept a very “ethical profile.”
But I have stumbled upon dilemmas where I justified to myself that lying was the only reasonable thing to do.
For example: taking a sick leave when actually going to interview for a job. What does one do in a situation like that? You obviously can’t tell your boss why you need the day off.
Is it ethical? No.
But is it wrong? Not entirely…
So, does being ethical mean always doing the right thing?
And how does one ever really know what is the right thing to do?
A philosophy professor had once told me in an interview: “Over time humans, as collective groups, have come to consider judgments about what’s right and wrong. For example, torturing babies for the fun of it would be labeled as ‘bad’ by everyone, independent of the culture they come from. But ethics is not about knowing what is the right thing to do. You just want to be able to make a good decision under uncertainty.”
And I think therein lies the key.
It isn’t just about gut reaction or intuition.
It’s about taking a deep breath, introspecting, analyzing, recognizing what’s shaping our thought process (culture, religion, peer group, internet influences), and then arriving at a reasonable conclusion that resonates with who we are.
And that I find is the toughest part of this equation: most of us don’t even know who we are.
We’re just products of the society in which we were raised.
Not many of us take the time to ask the difficult questions of ourselves. About what shapes our beliefs. And what coerces us to conform. Or instigates us to rebel.
Ethics is much more complicated than saying, “I feel it’s the right thing to do.”
How do you feel that? How do you know that?
Did you ever care to examine the process behind that statement?
We make a lot of personal moral decisions based on “our gut” but if we were to reflect a little bit and think about why we’re doing what we’re doing, we might see things in a whole new perspective. We may still arrive at the same moral decision, but at least we’ll know the rationale behind it.
It also merits the thought that perhaps, we would arrive at a different moral decision given a different family, cultural, religious, and moral context.
Essentially, what happens when you cast aside religious dictats, values taught by your parents, and social moral compasses? What are you left with then?
You see where I’m going with this?
I think the whole idea of ethics is that they’re relative. Relative to where we are, who we are with, and what we see around us.
The Greek philosopher Socrates believed that ethics consisted of “knowing what we ought to do.”
But I think as we grow older, and hopefully wiser, it isn’t really about knowing what the right thing to do is … what ethics boils down to, as the philosophy professor pointed out, is making a good decision in the face of uncertainty.
So, while collective human consciousness defines a general set of ethical norms, each individual’s interpretation of right and wrong and each person’s ethical choices are different based on their personal set of values and life experiences.
Thus, each one of us is an authority on ethics.
Flawed argument? Robust theory? Share your thoughts.
What does being ethical mean to you? Is it just something you do without thinking…because there were some “values” instilled in you as a kid? Or is it something that you have thought about long and hard?
P.S. To read the article on Ethical Decisions for which I interviewed the aforementioned philosophy professor, click here. [PDF]