Companies & Industries

Five Easy Principles?


It's not enough to know what to do. Understanding why is important, too, so the Ethics Guy explores the deceptively simple guidelines that govern behavior

Over the past four weeks, this column has looked at some ethical questions that arise in professional and personal life, such as the ethics of New Year's resolutions, whether it's O.K. to lie to help the company, and collecting for kids at the office. By now, you might be wondering, "On what are you basing your analyses, Ethics Guy?" After all, it would be easy for anyone to shoot from the hip and say what he or she feels is the right thing to do when presented with an ethical dilemma.

As a professional ethicist, however, my responsibility is not merely to explain what we ought to do, but, perhaps more importantly, to say why we ought to do it. My ethical obligation to you is to provide good reasons for how we ought and ought not to act.

For the next several columns, I will present an account of the five fundamental ethical principles that are the foundation of right conduct in any arena of your life. They are:

Do no harm

Make things better

Respect others

Be fair

Be compassionate

These principles reveal the secret to living a rich, satisfying, and happy life, and we have known about them for more than 5,000 years. Every religious tradition in the world teaches them, as do parents in every country. Without them civilization would be impossible because there would be nothing but chaos everywhere. These principles have a transforming effect on who we are and where we go in life, and for that reason, we can rightly refer to them as "life principles."

Values We're Tempted to Ignore

You might wonder, "If these principles are so commonplace, why should I waste my time reading a column about them?" It's true that they're commonplace, but it's also true that in our hectic, overcommitted lives, we get so caught up in the details of getting through the day that it's easy to forget how important these principles are in everything we do. We're also tempted every day to ignore them and to place value on things that ultimately aren't that important. So taking a few steps back to consider these principles is a helpful thing to do.

Yes, they are simple, but too often we let fear, anger, or other negative emotions get us off track from following these principles, and it's sometimes difficult to get back to where we want to be. For example, how often do we really keep "Do no harm" in mind during our daily interactions with people? If a co-worker is nasty to us, aren't we tempted to return the nastiness and tell ourselves, "Serves them right?"

Do we always keep the principle of fairness front and center in our thinking? If so, how do we explain our choice at work to surf the Internet, make personal phone calls, and take a sick day when we're feeling fine?

On the face of it, the principles are about making a difference in the lives of other people. To this extent, taking them seriously seems like something we have to do, something we ought to do, something that, quite frankly, we'd rather not do.

Central to Happiness

What we'll discover, however, is that making ethics our central concern is actually the best way to lead a richer, more fulfilled life. A life that helps us get the things we want: a job we love, the right partner, and a comfortable place to live. By taking ethics seriously, we serve as role models to our children and increase the chances that they will go into the world and make us proud.

Recent scandals in the news show the risks we take when we neglect these principles: public humiliation, shame, and in some cases a lengthy visit to prison. But the main reason for taking ethics seriously is not the dangers of failing to do so, but rather because it's the right thing to do.

The path to a happier, more fulfilled life lies in becoming reacquainted with the principles of ethics, which tell us how we should treat one another. When we act with integrity, we feel better about ourselves, and we then create the conditions for making many wonderful choices in our own lives.

Just as a house needs a strong foundation so that it can do what it was meant to do, society needs a strong moral foundation to function effectively. The most fundamental building block of any society is Principle No. 1: Do no harm. This is both the most important of the five ethical or "life" principles and the easiest to put into action. It is the most important, because we would live in constant fear if we could not trust others to take the principle seriously. It is the easiest of the five principles to apply to our lives because in most cases, all we have to do is…nothing.

The Ethics of Getting Involved

requires that we take action so that harm will not occur to someone else, and thus a corollary of "Do no harm" is "Prevent harm." When we're at a cocktail party and we see an obviously inebriated person about to leave and drive away, the right thing to do is to prevent a foreseeable accident, which can mean taking the person's keys away or arranging for someone to take him or her home.

Edmund Burke once said, "All that is necessary for evil to flourish is for good [people] to do nothing." When we witness someone else doing something they shouldn't be doing, it may be easier to do nothing, but the easiest thing to do isn't always the right thing to do.

When we take the high road, we give a gift to others—and ourselves. It's the greatest gift of all. Next week, we'll consider whether simply avoiding harming other people is sufficient for living an ethical life.

Have a professional ethical dilemma? Need help figuring out the right thing to do on the job? Ask the Ethics Guy! Write to Dr. Bruce Weinstein at Bruce@TheEthicsGuy.com, and your question may be answered in his weekly column on BusinessWeek.com.

Weinstein is the corporate consultant, author, and public speaker known as The Ethics Guy. He has appeared on numerous national TV shows and is the author of several books on ethics. His Ask the Ethics Guy! column appears every other week on BusinessWeek.com's Managing channel.

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