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ethics-for-the-real-world-book-coverEthics for the Real World by Ronald Howard, Clinton Korver & Bill Richard (credited on Amazon), was published in 2008, with the intent to help people to “master ethical distinctions to enable clear ethical thinking…” and to therefore help them to “commit in advance to ethical principles…and exercise disciplined decision-making skills to choose wisely.”

The whole idea to try and make ethics personal in this way came about when, one of the authors, Howard, found himself as the lynchpin in an ethical conundrum with the defense department. He soon realized “…how technical and financial analyses don’t offer all that is needed for smart decisions.”

So the book is written for everyman, as the subheading says “creating a personal code to guide decisions in work and life”.

Ethics are moral principals that determine the rightness or wrongness of a person or a group of people’s actions. Morals are a tricky thing. They vary from religion to religion and culture to culture. Ethics are a little more universal than that, although still personal. In the authors’ view, the tricky ethical situations generally involved lying to or deceiving someone, stealing from someone, or harming someone.

These three are put foreword because of their universal nature. Do unto others as you’d have them do onto you. Or, better for the notion of ethics, don’t do to others what you wouldn’t want them to do to you. Moral principles that don’t deal with any of these things are much less widely agreed upon. It may be considered immoral to blaspheme, but it probably isn’t right to call it unethical. Additionally, to lie, steal or harm are all conventionally likely to cause relational rifts–adding to the universality of the three, and making up almost the whole reason anyone ought to act ethically in the first place.

Ethics are often thought of in grander philosophical terms. “If you went back in time, would you kill Hitler?” In this case we know the outcome–many people may have been saved. So it’s tantalizing in that way to wonder. Could I betray one moral for another? But real ethics, as the authors suggest, are always personal. I say do no harm, but what if I were drafted to the military? I say do not steal, but what if I must steal a car to get a friend to the hospital? I say do not lie, but what if telling the truth will get me shot?

The authors argue that while the grandest examples of ethical challenges seem far fetched, if the situation did show up in front of us, having not thought through the ethics in advance, they’ll be decided for us on the spot. And, using a part of our brain that may not be the best ethical decision maker. But, they are not suggesting that we should spend hours and hours running absurd scenarios in our mind. They say that ultimately, we have the same ethical kinds of challenges every day.

When someone says “would you like to go see a movie tonight?”, without thinking about it, we might respond from our gut that we “have lots of paperwork to get done”, when in fact, we’re just bloated from dinner and would rather watch MASH reruns on TV. Perhaps answering that question honestly would cause a relational discomfort of some kind. But it would stand to reason that if the person discovered the lie, there might in fact be a conflict–which is at least a degree worse than discomfort–and lasting social effects.

Although the book offers no particular step-by-step to creating a personal ethics code–which is probably a good thing–one consideration they pointed out were the degrees of separation between you and unethical behavior. You do not harm, but can your bank harm? Your bank does not harm (ha), but can the property management from whom they lease their corporate headquarters harm? The property management doesn’t harm, but the owner of the CEO’s hedge fund harms. At what point do we consider ourselves culpable?

This became the sweeping conundrum for me as I was reading. I fight the tendency to be an absolutist. I’m urged by internal forces to feel that the ethics breach at any point in a chain of connectedness breaches the ethics of every link in the chain. Where one is responsible, all are responsible. The truth of this kind of thinking is only occasionally useful–and even more rarely truthful. So the encouragement to consider the degrees of separation when creating a personal governing code is actually a useful one form me. What may feel like the absolute nature of my own ethics is in fact a weakness in itself. If I choose to ignore the degrees of separation and simply say “I will not harm”, should the day come that harm is just one or two degrees away, and within my power to influence, I might not even notice it.

So everyone has to develop their own ethics. Though, it seemed a bit like the authors have a pretty good idea of what they should be. There was something reminiscent of the Christian literature I spent so much time reading in the past.

The authors put forth a familiar test of ethics. How would I feel if I were on the receiving end. Even under circumstances where we might be tempted to lie or deceive someone for their own good, if we test it with that question, we might find it not as right as we thought it was.

I couldn’t help but ponder the riots in Ferguson, St. Louis recently. Or the riots outside the Stonewall Inn in 1969. Or the race riots throughout the 60’s. When people are under so much pressure that something like a riot breaks out, you better believe there’s lying, stealing and harm–at least from some of the participants. But those unethical outpourings are some of the most important in our history. The  race riots paved the way for some of the most important equality changes in our country. The Stonewall Inn riots showed the world that gay people were everywhere and kicked off the modern gay rights movement. And my guess is, until the recent riots in Ferguson, the American people hadn’t realized how much their local police force looked like a military unit. That’s an important revelation to have, I’m betting.

So ethics become complicated quickly. Sometimes harm looks like it will be in everyone’s best interest. Sometimes it seems like we have to lie. If we’re hungry enough, stealing food might not seem so wrong–and hey, it might not be. Well planned ethics still can’t assure a person is absolved of their discomfort. They can’t plan for every ethical situation and they can’t predict the future. Planning helps, but at the end of the day, we still have to try and figure out how to do the most good–or at least, the least bad.

In Conclusion

I think for someone who hasn’t really pondered the ethical questions of life, it’s a good read and it does a good job of  staying personal. The book doesn’t get lost in a ton of grand theoretical questions, it keeps it fairly close to home. So, for someone wanting to understand the pressing ethical issues as they relate to one’s every day life, this is a easy place to look.