News reports bring us plenty of examples of poor professional ethics being practiced in business, entertainment, and government. But in terms of personal ethics as applied to everyday choices that we don’t read about, what percentage of people lie, cheat, steal, cut corners, or take advantage of others?
Some studies show over 50 percent would cheat on their marital partner if they knew they wouldn’t get caught, and well over 1 million cheat on their taxes annually. Ethical transgressions some would consider small by comparison, such as accidentally denting a car door in a parking lot and then not leaving your contact information, or cutting someone off on the freeway, are just as important in living an ethical life, says international ethics expert Dr. Christopher Gilbert. That’s because if we fail to make the correct ethical decisions and harm others in the little things, we can often rationalize that harm with the big things.
“No corporate president walks into their board and asks for a show of hands about scamming the consumer,” says Gilbert, author of There’s No Right Way To Do the Wrong Thing and senior consultant/speaker at NobleEdge Consulting (www.nobleedgeconsulting.com). “They make immoral decisions and then, like us with the little stuff, rationalize so the choice seems fine – even good.
“We can often look for information or knowledge that helps us rationalize making a wrong choice,” adds Gilbert. “But if we follow the Golden Rule consistently and treat others the way we want to be treated, the ethical decision is clear.”
Gilbert provides some thoughts about understanding and practicing good personal ethics:
- Ethics are best understood when they are personalized. People often become conflicted in situations demanding an ethical decision. What helps the most? Personalize the choice. For example: If you dent a stranger’s car door in some parking lot, don’t think of them as a stranger. “Instead,” Gilbert says, “ask yourself, ‘What if this was my best friend’s or my sister’s car?’ Or, what if you you returned to your own car and saw it scratched, with no note left behind. Don’t you wish the perpetrator had identified their responsibility to you? The ability to practice ‘right’ when it involves those we know, and ‘wrong’ against those we don’t, means our ethics only protect those we already care for. If that’s true, no stranger should ever do a good deed for us, either. So much for the Good Samaritan, or being of service to others.”
- Ethics bridge the gap between your knowledge and your wisdom. “Knowledge isn’t wisdom,” says Gilbert. “How someone uses their knowledge is an indicator of their wisdom. Wisdom is making the right choice, sometimes despite the knowledge you have,” he says. “Our ethics are the bridge between what we know and what we should do about it.” Additionally, Gilbert sees wisdom standing on three pillars: rational intelligence (“Knowing the right thing to do”), emotional intelligence (“Feeling right about what we do”), and spiritual intelligence (“Actually doing right”).
- Ethics combine empathy and compassion. Most people know the story of the Good Samaritan. In order to be ethical, Gilbert says, strangers help strangers even in the worst of times. “What’s the difference between those that stop to help and those that take care of themselves? It’s the way they framed their ethical choice. To the selfish, the important question is, ‘If I stop to help this man, what will happen to me?’ To the empathetic and selfless, the important question is, ‘If I don’t stop to help this man, what will happen to him?’ The second question evidences all three pillars of wisdom. Now, that raises some interesting moral questions in our country’s immigration and family separation policies.”
“Ethical decisions increase our trustworthiness, unethical choices erode that trust. Since trust is the foundation of all human virtues”, Gilbert says. “Our ethics aren’t philosophical, or about codes or laws, they are at the heart of all our relationships.”
About Christopher Gilbert, Ph.D.
Dr. Christopher Gilbert, the author of There’s No Right Way To Do the Wrong Thing, is an international ethics consultant and senior consultant/speaker at NobleEdge Consulting (www.nobleedgeconsulting.com). Having spent much of his career focused on the study of human moral development, Dr. Gilbert has over 30 years of experience in organizational development as a strategic facilitator and leadership and operations consultant. He has served an international clientele, including Fortune 1000 companies and government agencies in the U.S., Canada, Asia and Africa. Dr. Gilbert completed work for the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation on a sustainable food-security program across four nations of sub-Saharan Africa, and he has been a professor of business ethics who taught at universities on four continents. He earned his doctorate in Organization, Management and Leadership Ethics at Capella University.