Becoming More Ethical

How do you feel when you’re deceived by a coworker? Manipulated by a salesperson? Betrayed by a friend?

When you do unethical things, your gains are outweighed by the losses. You’ve pained another person just as you were pained when someone treated you unfairly. In addition, you might get caught, and, in my view, most important, you must live with knowing that your unethical act’s impact spreads through a society like cancer: “He’s unethical, so I can be too.” Each unethical act and its repercussions chip away at the culture of trust needed for every cooperative endeavor, from romance to commerce to creating world peace. A society in which trust cannot be assumed is doomed to failure, in our lifetime and even more likely, in our children’s.

And you probably are unethical, sometimes without really thinking about it. Why am I so confident? Priests molest children. One-third of people cheat on their resumes, 40 percent on taxes, 50 percent on their spouses, 72 percent on college exams. 90 percent of my fired clients want to lie to prospective employers. Most appalling to me, Blue Cross just sued surgery clinics for performing hundreds of unnecessary surgeries on healthy people. If even doctors, those well-off, highly educated helping professionals could put healthy people through the pain and risk of surgery just for money, can we claim that our society is so much better than others we disparage?

Unethical behavior damages not only a society but the lives of individuals within it, both the victims’ and perpetrators’. How meaningful is your life if punctuated by the unethical treatment of others? The life well-led leaves the world better than we found it, not worse. If you unfairly take advantage of others, you’re squandering the greatest gift you’ve ever received: the gift of having been allowed to live.

We must do something to reduce unethical behavior. No less than the preservation of civilized society is at stake.

Will ethics courses help? I doubt it. They focus on gray-area dilemmas. In real life, most ethical violations are clear-cut. You don’t need a course to know it’s wrong to cook the books, make exaggerated claims, let alone perform unnecessary surgery. I suspect that WorldCom’s Bernie Ebbers, Enron’s Ken Lay, and most other corporate thieves took ethics courses.

I have made unethical decisions but work hard to live an ever more ethical life. These thoughts help me:

  • I remind myself that those who choose to behave unethically mainly do so for mere material possessions. Studies find that the rich aren’t more content than those of modest means. The additional pleasure that derives from a new Lexus versus an old Toyota, a 3,000 square-foot house in a tony neighborhood versus a 1,200 square-foot cottage in a modest community, a 5-star European vacation versus a Motel-6 one is rarely outweighed by the distasteful things many people do to afford such things. I try to remember that contentment will more likely come from honorable work, someone to love, and being fair and kind to everyone, even those who are unkind.
  • The more ethical I am, the more at peace I feel. It’s been said that the softest pillow is a clear conscience.
  • If my income were ill-begotten, every time I got in my car, I’d know I didn’t deserve to own it. Every time I walked into my home, I’d know I didn’t deserve to live in it. Every time I bought something, I’d know it’s not rightfully mine. Is that how you want to live?
  • I don’t want to do things I’m ashamed to admit to my friends, spouse, or children. Do you?
  • On my deathbed, I don’t want to think I contributed to my society’s decline. Do you?

This paragraph, the world’s shortest ethics course, may, more than an ethics course, help you be more ethical. The opportunities for unethical behavior are endless, so be vigilant, aware when an ethical decision lies before you. And no matter what anyone else does, choose to be ethical. In the long run, you will be a more content person and have made the world a better place. That is what is truly important.

© 2010, Marty Nemko

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Marty Nemko holds a PhD from the University of California, Berkeley, and subsequently taught in Berkeley’s Graduate School of Education. He is the worklife columnist in the Sunday San Francisco Chronicle and is the producer and host of Work With Marty Nemko, heard Sundays at 11 on 91.7 FM in (NPR, San Francisco), and worldwide on . 400+ of his published writings are available free on that website and is a co-editor of Cool Careers for Dummies. and author of The All-in-One College Guide. E-Mail.

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