26 May 2012


I think of myself as a highly ethical person.  My moral compass is (in my awareness) steady.  To paraphrase the cadet honor code at West Point, I do not lie, cheat, steal, or tolerate those who do.  Further, I go out of my way to leave the world a better place than I found it ~ which includes fighting social injustice and environmental irresponsibility, making people laugh, sharing love, and acting with integrity.  

But is it really that simple?  Not necessarily, according to a new study which examines why people make ethical or unethical decisions.  The study found that even though an individual's understanding of right and wrong may remain constant, choices may vary depending on that person's power position (employee vs. management), or work role (soldier vs. medic).  The shift may be unconscious, since we are responding to often-subliminal codes in our environment ~ codes which spell out what is expected of us, even if it conflicts with our personal values.

That's where many people find themselves making decisions at odds with their moral code.  If they notice, they may find ways to rationalize the conflict, or they may just live with the guilt.  Or, if their vision is clear, they may have the character to do the right thing, regardless of the expectations of others.  As one of the researchers put it, "We find that people tend to make decisions that may conflict with their morals when they are overwhelmed, or when they are just doing routine tasks without thinking of the consequences.  We tend to play out a script as if our role has already been written.  So the bottom line is, slow down and think about the consequences when making an ethical decision."

Which means that we must be aware that the decision involves ethics, whether it is a mundane daily act or something more uncommon in our lives.  Awareness is key.  Clarity is key.  Being true to one's ethos is key.  All else falls into place.  Taking risks with other people's money as a stock broker or banker, or cutting safety corners to save on costs on a construction project, or taking forbidden performance-enhancing drugs as an athlete, or deciding to shoot or not to shoot as a soldier, or returning a wallet found on the sidewalk, or writing the card or letter that you know means a great deal to the recipient .... all are choices which carry ethical consequences.

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