“Reputation is what men and women think of us; character is what God and angels know of us.”

—Thomas Paine

A colleague of mine who advises city governments, recently commented that he had the unenviable task of trying to teach 3rd grade math to a group of politicians.

My reply to his woeful lament was “You think your jobs is tough try teaching them ethics 101.”

Merriam-webster.com defines ethics as follows: The discipline dealing with what is good and bad and with moral duty and obligation, a set of moral principles, a theory or system of moral values.

Most of us are taught at an early age that we are to play by the rules, do unto others as we would have them do unto us and to tell the truth.

But when we are a little older it seems that there are variations and even downright contradictions to what we learned as children.

As adults, we find that these three simple rules are not easy to practice and are sometimes ignored altogether.

This behavior can be witnessed in friends, in colleague and even in ourselves on occasions.

Should we then believe that because an error is ubiquitous it is also acceptable?

“Natural law” theories of morality claim that it is possible for any average adult in any society to know the general kinds of actions that morality forbids, requires, inhibits, promotes and tolerates.

The Golden Rule fits as a classic example of how we can determine a moral norm. We should do to others what we would want others to do to us. Since I do not want my neighbor to break into my house and steal my cookies, then I can know that it is wrong for me to break into her house and steal her cookies. So, based on the Golden Rule, I know that it is wrong to lie, cheat, assault or murder because I would not want those things done to me.

Of course, there are those who deny such a universal code of conduct.

And there are more than a few that think the Golden Rule is, he who has the gold makes the rules.

However, there are three basic ethical propositions that are most in evidence today, they are, virtue ethics, duty ethics, and consequentialist ethics.

Moral theories are designed to understand right and wrong behavior as in, “What is the right action?”

However, “virtue ethics” turns the question on its head and asks, “What kind of person should I be?”

In a virtue-based system the emphasis is on the person’s character not his or her actions. The argument is that by perfecting the person the outcome of their individual actions will result in what is right to be done.

Virtue theory, in short, places its emphasizes on the moral character of the individual, rather than rules or consequences. This many find parallel with the biblical teaching of the New Testament.

The next type of ethic theory is called “duty-based” ethics. This theory holds that individual acts are intrinsically good or evil, regardless of the consequences of the acts. Therefore, rules that govern actions are essential to right living.

Duty ethics would say put a great emphasis on the rule “always tell the truth.” The reason being that regardless of the outcome it is our duty to take a right action even if the consequences turn out badly.

The Old Testament Ten Commandments are primarily rooted in duty-based or rules-based ethics.

The 18th-century German philosopher Immanuel Kant gave the following adage as a way of checking one’s ethical actions.

“Act only according to that maxim by which you can also will that it would become a universal law.”

Or as my mother put it, “If all the world were to act just like me, what kind of world would this world be?”

Lastly, we come to Consequentialism, this is a form of ethical theory that has made great advances in our culture in the last few decades.

In Consequentialism a morally right action is one that produces a good outcome, or consequence. It does not judge the action as necessarily right or wrong as long as there is a good outcome. This is best expressed as “the ends justify the means.”

This, of course, raises three basic questions:

What sort of consequences count as good consequences?

Who is the primary beneficiary of the action?

How are the consequences judged and who judges them?

John Stuart Mill, an influential liberal thinker of the 19th century and a teacher of utilitarianism, taught a Unitarianism type of Consequentialism that judged the morality of an act based on that which produced, “the greatest good for the greatest number of people.”

However, most often Consequentialism is seen in application as, “What is best for me?”

This form of ethics has its foundation in secular thinking rather than faith-based principles.

Sadly, it seems that there is a growing national trend to rationalize, compromise and tell ourselves that the means are justified by the ends. But are they?

In city councils and in the halls of Washington power, we see men and women whose only interest is in what is best for them.

The other day someone said, “Well, at least ‘so and so’ speaks his mind.” But what if he is confused, uninformed or just plain stupid? What if he has NPD?

NPD is Narcissistic Personality Disorder, a personality disorder defined by the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, as “a pervasive pattern of grandiosity, need for admiration, and a lack of empathy.”

For these Narcissists the wind that propels their words can easily be mistaken for the wind that escapes their bowels.

So it is that we the people could use a few virtuous leaders, even some duty-based leader but all we seem to get it a majority of Consequentialist who care only for what’s in it for them.

Aristotle warns us that the study of ethics is imprecise but right and wrong are not indistinguishable.

This Week's Circulars

Recommended for you