5 Lies About Ethics

December 28, 2015

NO topic is subject to more lies than ethics. As a matter of fact, our thinking about ethics typically begins with lying to ourselves. Each of us tells ourself that we’re ethical, while we question the ethics of most everyone else. We’re always the exception.

Ethics is the basis for a lot of fabrications because of its very personal nature. It ties in closely with our self image. People who do a lot of thinking about ethics may end up challenging the very foundation of who they are and what they stand for.

But lies about ethics are not harmless. They are a distraction that keeps us mired in endless ethical disagreement instead of addressing some of the most important issues of the day, including immigration, executive compensation, climate change and much more.

Here are the top 5 lies to expose about ethics:

  1. You can’t teach people ethics.

This is patently false as most parents teach their children ethical basics, albeit with varying degrees of success. Parents teach children ethics by using rewards, punishments, persuasion and example. And this mostly works. The goal of parental teaching is to equip us to make ethical judgments once we no longer have our parents to guide us. But while we know ethics can be taught, invariably, once children reach adulthood, they’re less open to learning about ethics as they then believe they already know their ethical do’s and don’ts.

  1. The profit motive undermines ethics.

Many believe that capitalism itself is unethical because the profit motive provokes people to act unethically. But, the truth is that any motive carried to an extreme can undermine ethics as much as or more than the profit motive. Can anyone doubt that the power motive distorts the judgment of politicians and public officials? Or that the ego motive corrupts the judgment of professional athletes or celebrities? The problem is not with the profit motive per se, but with any motive carried to an extreme.

  1. Society has made no progress ethically.

It often seems that society’s ethics are declining more than they’re improving. But can anyone deny that it’s more ethical to live in a society in which slavery is not tolerated than one in which it is? Is it not clearly more ethical to live in a society that allows participation by women than one that prohibits it? Ethical progress is not easy or equal, and it may come slowly or at great cost — but it does come.

  1. Ethics is about feelings.

It’s often said that ethical conversation is pointless because it all comes down to how people feel about a topic. This is clearly nonsense. I want to know your ethics if you owe me money, and I want to be sure you’ll pay me back. I want to know if I can count on you to tell me the truth even if it’s unpleasant to do so. I want to know what you will do, not how you will feel when you’re doing it. Your feelings may concern you, but it’s what you’ll do that really matters to the rest of us.

  1. Seek the advice of counsel.

When confronted with an ethical issue, many people and companies turn to their legal counsel. This is a mistake. A good lawyer is someone who will judge your actions according to a set of black and white rules and try to find the path most advantageous to you — which has nothing to do with ethics. When you’re looking for ethical advice, it’s typically because there are no black and white rules for the situation — or the rules seem to lead you to the wrong answer. Of course, many things that are unethical are also illegal. So if you are planning on doing something unethical, it’s not a bad idea to have counsel at hand.

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Understanding how ethics plays a role in your actions will enhance your relationship with others and build your personal reputation. Enhance your communication skills through these AMA skills and resources.

About The Author

Mark Pastin is an award-winning ethics thought leader, ethics consultant, and keynote speaker. He's the CEO of the Council of Ethical Organizations, a nonprofit dedicated to promoting ethics in business and government. A Harvard-educated ethicist who's received grants from the National Science Foundation and the National Endowment for the Humanities, he's published more than 100 articles and written a new book, Make an Ethical Difference: Tools for Better Action (Berrett-Koehler, 2013).

One Comment »

  1. avatar

    Thanks for your “tell it like it is” article, Mark. I agree that profit has its place in ethical decision making, but should not be in “first place.” And we are slowly making progress, even though it is sometimes hard to see. With so much negative ethics information out there, I created this graphic to describe POSITIVE trends in ethical leadership:

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