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Your Personal Code of Ethics: How Does it Work in Today's World?

Jul 22, 2008
Each of us carries around within us a personal code of ethics. We may not be conscious of it; we may not deliberately consult it on a daily basis, we may not apply a decision tree against it to make a choice, but it exists. And, at times, it may falter, or we may apply different ethical principles in different situations.

Take a minute to identify your fundamental ethical philosophy. Which of the descriptions below best captures the way you like to operate in the world?

1. Humans have no special place within the world, but are just one of thousands of expressions of life. People have desires and free will and so can alter their nature. However, if one acts unnaturally, it upsets the balance of life. Therefore, one should seek balance in life.
2. Ethics is a practical science; you have to do it, not just think it. This philosopher thought in terms of virtue ethics which has to do with the proper function of a thing. Therefore, the best activity of the soul is to attain a joy in the good life.
3. The responsibility of all people is to help build the ideal society, and if it takes violating the norms of a society to do so, then do it. To some degree, the situation will dictate the proper thing to do at the proper time.
4. There is a single unconditional obligation, and that is to carry out your duty. How you feel when carrying out the action is what is important, although the outcome might not be what you intended.

Now, which statement resonates most with you? Which seems to be the path you travel in living your life?

If you select number 1, your pattern is most aligned with Laozi, a philosopher of ancient China and a key figure in Taoism.

If number 2 rang your chimes, your pattern is most aligned with Aristotle, the Greek who taught that to have a good life, you must live a balanced life and avoid excesses.

If number 3 resonated with you, your pattern is most aligned with Confucius, the Chinese philosopher who emphasized personal and government morality, correctness of social relationships, justice and mercy.

If number 4 makes the most sense to you, your pattern is most aligned with Kant, an 18th century Prussian philosopher.

No matter which philosophy attracts you the most, all are legitimate, honorable ways of being. In fact, you may apply different principles depending on any given situation.

While these are all laudable approaches to life, applying them will likely have different outcomes. For instance, consider the case of Zoe. Zoe has a co-worker, Alice, who was listing more hours worked on her timesheet than was true; she is cheating the company.

To apply the thinking of Kant in this situation, we'd say, "If everybody cheated on their time sheet, no work would get done and the company would be paying for nothing!" Since Zoe is a friend to Alice, she knows that Alice was just abandoned by her husband, and has two kids under four to care for. Day care is proving problematic. With this additional information, you might think about adopting a Confucian standard. This philosophy would encourage you to value helping to build an ideal society, which certainly includes making sure small children are well cared for.

See how applying different ethical standards would guide you to take different action?

Whichever approach makes the most sense to you, explore the strengths and limitations of your preferred approach. Under what circumstances does your approach work best? Under what circumstances would your approach result in unintended, maybe even negative, consequences? How have you consciously applied your philosophy in the past? Has it ever landed you in a hot spot? By the way, note that being in a hot spot may mean that you did exactly the right thing, it is just not well received!

Sometime tomorrow, find an opportunity to practice applying your favored approach very deliberately. It can be a small incident in your daily life. Think about driving in traffic, trash on the streets, standing in a line. What do you learn from the exercise? Knowing that, how will you change your pattern in the future, if at all?

And finally, I encourage you find out more about the thinking and teachings of the thinkers above. You might refine your thinking about how you want to live your life. Online encyclopedias are an easy first step.

Happy philosophizing!
About the Author
Sally Rhys, MS, coaches and consults on business ethics. As the former Director, Ethics and Compliance at a $1.5B publicly traded company, her expertise will help you increase both your business knowledge and professionalism. Contact her at http://www.coachingforperspective.com
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