Valentine’s Day is Thursday, and in that spirit, I would like to offer something sweet for your mind to ponder: No, it’s not chocolates, rather, it is a guide to live an ethical life, which reaps far more rewards than cavities from eating too many chocolates.

As a nation, we are plagued by unethical behavior. I have personally witnessed corrupt and unethical behavior at every level in state government during my 32 year-career. This was one of the driving forces for me to obtain my doctorate in Ethical Leadership and becoming a professor and servant leader to others. I became the change I wanted to see in the world.

From a more pragmatic perspective, a compelling article was presented by Ivy Magazine titled, “How to Lead an Ethical Life: A Step-by-Step Guide to the Good Life.” I will highlight salient points and then offer my commentary on how to add this to your leadership domain, and indeed, live a more fulfilled ethical good life.

Former Britain Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher once said, “Watch your thoughts, for they will become actions. Watch your actions, for they’ll become habits. Watch your habits for they will forge your character. Watch your character, for it will make your destiny.”

Therefore, ethical behavior begins with your thoughts and ends with your destiny. Articulating a good definition of ethics is one in which I ascribe to, “Ethics is doing the right things for the right reasons.”

Another way to look at ethics: “Ethics will not tell you what you should or shouldn’t do any more than studying art will tell you what you should or shouldn’t paint.” Rather, at its core, ethics should center on two dimensions: “What is the best way for people to live; and “What actions are right or wrong in any given situation?”

Therein lies the rub. What is good for one person might be wrong for others. If you had a choice to save your son or daughter compared to saving 50 people what would you do?

This dilemma is called the “Utilitarian Approach “doing the greatest good for the greatest number of people. As Spock said in “Star Trek II,” “The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few or one.” However, in reality, I would argue most of us would save our family members first.

From a philosophical perspective, we agree to a certain set of principles — one of which dictates that we have no basis to believe that our opinion is the right one. By engaging in these philosophical discussions, we enable ourselves to move beyond the stories and biases in our heads in order to make choices that are aligned with our values. Thus, by engaging in these philosophical discussions we can ascertain where our core ethical values are centered.

Additionally, the Ivy Magazine article illuminates the conceptual reality of knowledge equating to power. As practitioners of knowledge dissemination, professors often equate knowledge to power. As my former doctoral adviser, Don Daake used to say: “If you think you know everything by receiving a doctorate, then the process was lost on you.” The paradox of learning is that the more you know the less you know: as there are streams of knowledge that have not been gleaned or presented. It is like peeling an onion and the more you peel the bigger the onion gets. It is by understanding intuitively, that knowledge is the basis for defining what you do not know, and then advancing to the next tier of knowledge ad infinitum.

A continuous view regarding knowledge as presented in the Ivy Magazine article, “We all navigate the world filtered by our biases. Outside the realm of our day-to-day consciousness, biases impact the way we retrieve and evaluate information, and are at the heart of societal problems involving stereotypes and inequality. However, if we can come up with a plausible principle that backs up a judgment in a series of scenarios, we can take that principle and apply it in the world in a way that counters the negative impact of our biases.”

Therefore, using our knowledge and experiences as a baseline measure, we can navigate the thorny issues of ethics and make the right decisions based on the given facts and actual situation.

As well, the article in Ivy magazine discusses constructing a values-based belief system: “Compared with older generations, millennials are less likely to subscribe to a specific religious dogma, and are more likely to create their own systems of beliefs and values. Philosophy can be a vehicle to breaking down old beliefs and establishing a new set of core principles that align more personally to an individual’s values. By practicing ethics, we gain a greater sense of awareness of when these situations and choices arise. The aggregate of those decisions forms our character and the depth of experiences in our lives.”

But it is worth remembering that we are what we repeatedly do. Our character (what we do when no one is looking) is defined by our habits.

Consequently, habits take the thought out of doing what we perceive to be right and allow us to fall back on our core values in the face of life’s more challenging questions. As a result, there is value in the strength of our character. Whenever we perceive something like a moral choice and choose to take the moral choice, that has value according to the Ivy Magazine article.

Finally, ethical behavior assets itself in the notion of recognizing that a new set of circumstances challenges our deeply defined core principles, and we commit to digging deeper and figuring out why. The answer to living a fulfilled ethical good life is to understand the “why” we do things and then arrive at a decision that produces equitable results for all involved.

My Valentine’s treat to you is certainly worth its weight in gold, and as illustrated by Robert Greenleaf, “Where there is no community, trust, respect, ethical behavior is difficult for the young to learn and for the old to maintain.”

Dr. Edward Piatt, Ed.D., is a retired manager from the state of Illinois with 32 years of frontline leadership experience. He is an adjunct professor of business in the MBA and MOL programs at Olivet Nazarene University, and a doctoral advisor and adjunct doctoral professor at Trevecca University. He is also an organizational/economic development consultant and lectures frequently on Emotional Intelligence (EI), organizational culture, and leadership. You may contact him at epiatt@olivet.edu.

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