Everyone talks about ethics and doing the right thing, and these ideas are, in fact, important to most people. But power and wealth often flow to those who show the least regard for ethical considerations; the most ruthless dictators often attain unlimited power, and modern democracies are governed by politicians whose ruling passion seems to be hypocrisy. There appears to be no correlation between wealth and goodness — often the wealthiest people have little or no regard for ethics.
The most interesting question is not what ethical standards should be — virtues, especially the value of honesty, are generally intuitive and widely acknowledged. The most interesting question is, “Do ethics matter?” In other words, if you know the right thing, why should you do it?
At one time, when almost all Europeans and North Americans subscribed to the doctrines of conventional religion, the answer to this question was simpler: If you did the right thing, you would go to Heaven and enjoy eternal bliss; do the wrong thing and you were destined for the endless tortures of Hell. But if you judge ethics in the context of life on earth, the answer becomes less obvious.
But ethics do matter, and serve important functions:
• To simplify decision-making. When evaluating alternative actions, ones that are wrong should simply be eliminated from consideration, leaving only those options that are morally acceptable.
• To lead you to your most fulfilling destiny. It is impossible for any man or woman to look into the future and predict the long-term consequences of a series of actions. In each situation, by doing the right thing, you advance in the direction that is best for you, even if you cannot see or know the full, long-term implications of your actions or how those actions ultimately affect your life.
• To make a comprehensible game of life, in the grandest sense. To keep score, you must have a set of rules. But the rules are only effective if you believe in them: they must be rules you create — not a set of rules which are dictated to you.
• To evaluate the actions of others. The most important role of ethics is to judge your own actions — which you can control — rather than to judge others. But you do need to decide whom to associate with, whom to do business with, whom to love; all of these relationships will be more successful if you choose people with ethical values similar to your own.
• You may be called to sit on a jury; you certainly have a responsibility to vote; in these situations the ability to exercise moral judgment is imperative. The standard should hark back to yourself; you should judge others by standards no more or less demanding than your own. When judging others, it may be useful to ask, “If I had committed this action, what judgment would I regard as fair?”
• What separates ethics from other elements in life is that ethics require rigid adherence, unlike other areas in which compromise is often proper and feasible. Compromised ethics are really no ethics at all — the ethics of convenience are meaningless. Ethics means drawing a firm line between the things you will and will not do to reach your objectives. And to take ethics seriously is to say that process is more important than results, rather than vice versa.
On ethics as a positive part of your personal philosophy that can help you create value and reach your full potential as a human being.