I’d like to welcome you to a conversation about ethics for people on the move. When I tell folks that I have spent my entire life teaching and studying ethics, they look at me and go, “Wow!” And then they say things like, “I learned everything I needed by kindergarten.” Or “What my parents taught me, it’s good enough.” Or “I just know the right thing to do.”
And then my personal favorite, “Some people are good, some people are bad, and that’s all we need to know about ethics.” Really? Now, I don’t know about you, but when I became an adult and started to go to work, now three careers later, I still don’t always know the right thing to do in a difficult situation. I don’t know how to forgive without condoning the action.
How to hold a friend accountable and still have a friend? How to put together an ethical bid or a request for proposal? How to meet the expectations of Wall Street and Main Street? How to speak up in the face of hatred or just plain meanness? Or perhaps most importantly, how to recognize my own ethical blind spots? If you’re like me, still looking for the answers to life’s persistent questions, welcome to a conversation about ethics for people on the move. Whether you’re moving through your interior landscape, this wonderful world of ours, or you’re a mover and a shaker in your professional world, your ethics, how you translate your values into action, define how far you will go and how satisfied you will be with the journey.
None of us will ever really agree on which specific action counts for the most ethical in a given situation. But just because we don’t agree, it does not mean that we have a license to lie, cheat, or steal. Or more importantly, it does not give us a pass, so that we don’t have to engage the conversation.
So let’s start with a very basic question: who are you? We spend a lot of our time honing professional excellence on our job, our volunteer work, even parenting has become a competitive sport. But I’m not asking you what you do. We spend lots of money and energy collecting stuff: degrees from the best university, a honed body, the perfect Facebook page, a beautifully manicured lawn. But I’m not asking you what you have; your degrees, your title, your stuff, I’m asking you, “Who are you?” It turns out that our identity is shaped by our ethics, what we do every day.
While values are universal, each one of us in this room has a particularly unique fingerprint, as we decide which values are going to take priority in our particular life. And then we make choices. We choose what we’re going to see, how we’re going to interpret it, the story we tell about ourselves and others, and then what we’re going to do. Our ethical self is shaped every day by the myriads of choices that we make, choices that we don’t think of as being ethical, but which contribute to what philosophers call ‘our character.’
So as Joan Rivers used to say, “Let’s talk!” If you want to become friends with your ethical self, where do you start? It turns out there are three strategies for making friends with that self.
The first, pay attention. Not just to what is going on around you but what is inside of you. What do you care about? What are you passions? What triggers your worst ethical self to come out as opposed to your best? Be mindful. And then have conversations with yourself and with others. Not about the latest football score, or who tweeted whom, but about the things that matter. How are you showing up in the world? What about your community would you like to change? How do you begin to be your best self? And then we get to choose, to choose wisely.
This is where lots of us get stuck because we have all these options, we don’t quite know what is right, and so we don’t do anything. And then rather than take responsibility for our own life, we blame everybody else for what is going on. So as we learn to choose wisely, that is when the conversation begins. So we start with our ethical self, our good self, our core values, our commitments, our gifts to the community. These are really pretty straight ahead.
The more difficult conversation is our shadow side. Where can I be tempted? Where do I fall off the ethical rails? Where do I not show up in the way that I want to show up? It turns out philosophers who have looked at this for a really long time tell us that there are two primary places we can look in order to see and become friends with our least ethical self. The first is to see our relationship between our head and our heart, our cool rationality, our warm passions. As long as our head and our heart are in sync, we have a grand time. But when they fall out of sync, we feel ethical tension.
If I believe somebody has slighted me, do I seek justice in retribution? Or do I show mercy? If my whole world is falling apart, do I decide that I’m going to use my rational self and hold people accountable? Or maybe am I going to be gentle and smooth the waters, and preserve relationships? The first kind of ethical tension. Then we have us and the rest of the world. Each of you has a moral compass, a guide to let you know every day how you are supposed to be. The communities in which you live and work also have expectations for how they expect you to show up if you’re going to be a member in good standing. Again, as long as they are in sync, life is wonderful.