Companies & Industries

Imagine a World Without Ethics


Why do we behave ethically? Just think what life would be like if everyone did what they wanted, without regard for consequences

Much of my time is devoted to traveling around the country and giving speeches about ethics. Because this topic is of fundamental importance across all social groups, I'm hired to address people in business, education, health care, law, and the government. At the end of every talk, I ask the group, "Why should we be ethical?" Over the years, I've heard a wide range of responses, including:

To sleep better at night.

To be able to look myself in the mirror.

To be a good role model to my children.

It's the easiest way to live.

Without ethics, life would be pure chaos.

It's the right thing to do.

One of the most creative answers came a few weeks ago when I was speaking to a group of human-resources managers in Cleveland: We're all going to live forever. The question is where!

The answers people give are thoughtful, sincere, and often inspirational.

Then on the other hand, there's the e-mail I get.

As soon as my column appears, I'm always besieged by nasty letters, some of which are nothing more than personal attacks. It's one thing to take issue with an argument. It's quite another to insult the person making the argument. Of course, in taking on the role of public adviser, one needs to have (or to develop) a thick skin. What is striking to me about these hateful e-mails is the underlying assumption in most of them that ethics is a ridiculous topic, and that only a fool would take ethics seriously.

In response to this chorus of naysayers, I propose the following Code of Ethics for the 21st century:

1. The most important thing in life is to get exactly what you want, whenever you want, and by any means necessary. Thus, you have the absolute right to do whatever you have to do to satisfy whatever desire, craving, or wish you have.

2. Tell the truth at all times, unless it's to your advantage to lie, deceive, or tell a partial truth.

3. Never take responsibility for anything. That way, you never have to worry that you may have done the wrong thing. Blame the misfortunes of the world, and in your own life, on the poor judgment of other people.

4. Keep your promises, unless something better comes along.

5. Kindness is for wimps. Let your true feelings show, no matter how unpleasant they may be.

6. Show care and compassion for your fellow human beings, unless they've hurt you. In that case, all bets are off.

7. Have little or no regard for how your actions affect other people. It's their problem, not yours, if they're offended or harmed by what you say or do.

8. Never, ever cheat, unless you can get away with it.

9. Do not, under any circumstance, report wrongdoings you observe. Don't get involved. It's none of your business.

10. Always follow the New Golden Rule: "Do unto others before they do unto you."

For those who criticize the subject of this column, this code might seem like the perfect antidote: Think about yourself, and only about yourself, and you will be fine.

But how long could anyone live this way? What would the world look like if everyone followed these rules? It doesn't take long to realize that it's in our own interest to take ethics seriously, to do our level best to apply the five Life Principles that we've discussed in this column, and to do what we can to correct the injustices we encounter in everyday life.

Yes, it's possible to imagine a world without ethics. But is that a world in which any rational person would want to live?

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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