Think You’re Ethical?

All of us face ethical problems. Whether it’s deciding to correct an error that’s in our favor, tell a friend the truth even if it endangers the relationship or sticking to a principle even though someone might get hurt, we make ethical decisions based on what we have learned from our parents and teachers, peer pressure exerted by friends, norms and laws established by society and our internal moral compasses. What seems clear is that notions of right and wrong, and good and bad, have changed over time.

You only need to do a cursory look at history to recognize that our era may compare favorably to many other times. Today there is greater tolerance and less discrimination than in the past, working conditions and pay are better than 75 years ago, and relations between the sexes and races have never been this positive.

When you think about it, we live in a society in which most people are trustworthy. For example, I don’t worry that the building in which I teach will collapse because I trust that the architect designed the building correctly, the engineer carried out the plans diligently, the construction workers did what they needed to, inspectors do what they are supposed to do and so forth. When a building collapses, it is news because it is a rare event.

Most of us face ethical problems of a different order. We aren’t tempted by huge sums of money or the need to steal to feed our families. The issues are often less dramatic, but they are real nevertheless. Here are four examples as told to me by the people involved. Each of these anecdotes presents a different kind of ethical problem and how each dilemma was handled.

Doing the right thing but at a monetary cost to oneself.
Elias finds a note on the windshield of his parked car. The driver who sideswiped his car left his contact information and offered to cover the cost of repairs. When Elias gets an estimate, he is told that the repair will cost about $700. Even though the damage was minor, replacing the entire bumper will take care of some previous dents and scratches that Elias hadn’t taken care of because of the cost. Elias decides to ask the person for only $350, reasoning (ethically) that the other person shouldn’t have to pay for repairing prior damage.

Following orders from a superior or following the law.
Emily is a student teacher. A student of hers gets into a fight and Emily attends a meeting that involves her student’s father. In the course of the get-together the father gets angry with his daughter and smacks her. Following protocol, Emily reports this to the principal. The principal tells Emily not to report the incident, as the law requires, saying that the school’s reputation was already bad enough. Furthermore, how can Emily be certain if Child Protective Services got involved that the father wouldn’t make life more difficult for her student at home? Emily doesn’t report the incident but also decides to quit teaching.

Loyalty to an individual vs. loyalty to an organization.
Bryan works for a major corporation that, like many others during the recession, is forced to lay-off employees. While Bryan isn’t in human resources, he processes the paperwork regarding employment. He finds out the person who has worked next to him for a couple of years will be let go in a few weeks. He wants to tell him that he is going to be fired so he can begin to look for another job. However, company policy forbids anyone being told they are being let go until the very day they are fired. Bryan is conflicted between loyalty to his co-worker and the company. He decides to abide by company policy.

Telling an acquaintance what to do
Dot, at a dinner party was sitting next to a woman she knew casually. What Dot did know was that the woman was diabetic, so when dessert was served Dot was faced with a decision. She watched the woman take a large piece of chocolate cake and begin to eat. This, it seemed to her, was like watching someone commit slow suicide. Should she say something? Was it her place? Didn’t the woman have the right to do whatever she wanted, no matter how foolish or dangerous? Didn’t Dot have an obligation to protect someone, even if from herself? Dot decided to say nothing and has felt guilty since.

Our lives are immersed in moral matters and the decisions we make define the kinds of people we are. The heart of my classes is to identify what the moral issues are and to think through the implications of the various options. Some may go on to become scoundrels, but if they’re taught correctly, they can’t say they didn’t know what they were doing. At least they will reflect before acting and, therefore, make more informed and better decisions. And the better the decisions made, the better all our lives will be.

For more stories like this, go to The Ethics Project at

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