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This article was published on: 05/01/2005



Understanding the heart of ethics
How to be ethical every day
More About Tom Morris
The six tests of ethical action

Doing the right thing leads to personal power, prosperity, and a life of meaning.


Mark Twain once remarked that to act morally is noble, but to talk about acting morally is also noble and a lot less trouble. Funny, yes, but misleading. When we begin to understand what acting morally, or ethically, really means, we learn very quickly that the real trouble in life comes from ignoring the insights and requirements of ethics.

Ethics is one of the most important, and most misunderstood, aspects of life. Getting it right—acting with ethical consistency—is the foundation for success. Getting it wrong is a setup for disaster, as so many business headlines over the past few years have indicated.

More than 25 centuries ago, the philosopher Anacharsis described the business practices of his time by saying, “The market is a place set apart where men may deceive one another.” The ancient philosopher Diogenes once carried around a lighted lamp in the middle of the day and, when asked what he was doing, said, “Looking for an honest man.”

There have been saints and scoundrels at every point in history. The saints have understood some important things that the scoundrels never grasped. If we share the right insights, we’ll gain a motivation to resist the temptations that threaten to lure us off the high road of ethical action.

When you think about it, the word ethics itself can be a bit confusing. Is it singular or plural? Oddly, it’s both. We might say, “His ethics are deplorable,” but we could just as easily remark, “Ethics is crucial in business.” This can be worrisome for any of us haunted by the memory of an uncompromising English teacher. But the key to a basic mastery of this word is simple. When we’re talking about the various principles or patterns of action that a person lives by, we tend to speak of ethics in the plural. When we want to refer to the study of such principles, we use the singular.

One more source of potential confusion is that some people use the words ethics and morality differently, limiting the former to professional and business contexts and the latter to personal matters. I’ve heard people say, “I wear one hat at work and another hat at home.” I like to reply, “Yes, but you wear them both on the same head.” I use the words ethics and morality as synonyms, meaning roughly the same thing.

Life is confusing enough without letting our words wrap us in needless perplexity. The problem with our modern view of ethics has less to do with grammar than with a fundamental misunderstanding over what ethics is really all about.

Understanding the heart of ethics

People tend to think that ethics is about staying out of trouble. That’s why corporate and industry discussions of ethics often center on issues of law, regulation, and codes of conduct. If you believe ethics is about staying out of trouble, you can be tempted to accept any alternative way of avoiding trouble as a substitute for real ethics. Enron has become a case study in this kind of thinking. Some very smart executives came to believe that complex and creative accounting practices would keep them out of trouble. Catastrophic failure was the result. Ancient philosophers recognized that ethics is really about creating strength. Ethical action produces a form of strength grounded in trust that nothing else can duplicate.

It’s important to understand that ethics and the law overlap but are distinct. Consider the fact that, throughout history, ethical people have often felt they were morally obligated to disobey grossly unjust laws while working to see them changed. On the other side, sometimes the law is silent but the demands of ethics are clear. To use a common real estate example, it’s not against the law to talk buyers into more house than they can comfortably afford. Yet many practitioners say they’d never operate that way, because it is wrong and would undermine their reputation.

In ancient Greek, the word ethos, from which we get our term ethics, actually meant character, not rules or regulations. Ethos has to do with the integrity of a person’s character. Our term integrity comes from the same root word as integer, which means whole number, and the word integrate, which means to bring together into a greater unity or wholeness.

Integrity is about wholeness, unity, and harmony. When you make a decision, do you always act in harmony with your most fundamental beliefs and values? Are your words united with the truth? These are questions of integrity and character. Understanding this helps us avoid the common belief that ethics is a matter of restraint and restriction, involving rules that tell us we can’t do what we might really enjoy, and benefit from, doing.

My dad owned a real estate company that focused on large residential land development. He went out of his way to be helpful to—and honest with—his clients and prospects. As a result, his reputation for integrity spread. I remember that, in the course of his career, he sold the same piece of land—250 acres—six times. When each owner or group of owners decided to sell, they came back to my father to handle the transaction. They all did well in their investment, and my dad did very well, too. His success was rooted in his character. Strong character is a foundation for strong business.

As my dad demonstrated to me every day, personal power comes from being honest with yourself, candid with others, dependable, courageous, caring, persistent, and creative. These qualities create character and are all relevant to ethical living. When you understand this, you no longer see ethics as mainly about staying out of trouble.

How to be ethical every day

There’s another aspect of the modern misunderstanding of ethics—that it’s mainly about big, complex headline-grabbing challenges. In reality, ethics is mostly about the little things: How do we act toward those around us? Are we a blessing or a curse to those who cross our path? Do others see us as short-tempered, insulting, dismissive, or arrogant—or rather as kind and caring? Do we get back to people with answers to their questions, or do we ignore their needs when we think we can get away with it? Are we as good as our word, or do we expect a free pass in life? These everyday things are the basic ingredients of ethical living.

Sometimes, of course, we face difficult questions; ethical demands pull us in opposite directions. This can happen when loyalties to more that one person or institution are in play, as for example when you’re both the listing agent for a property and also representing a prospective buyer.

Figuring out what to do in such situations isn’t always easy; that’s why codes of ethics are so critical. But the decision always involves treating others as well as we possibly can. It always means treating others the way we’d want to be treated if we were in their place.

I’ve just stated a version of the most famous ethical rule of all, the Golden Rule. It’s a principle recognized by the wisest people in every developed culture, and it’s as relevant to modern life as our latest technology. Other people respond to Golden Rule treatment and find it difficult not to treat us well in turn. I think of this rule as the most important tool there is for ethical living.

A top resort property salesperson told me about a sad incident he recently witnessed. Another salesperson had just listed a property, and two well-informed prospective buyers called him to discuss it. When he told them the price, they said it was far below the true value. They discovered the next day the property was no longer on the market. Surprised, they asked around and learned that he’d bought it for himself. Did the salesperson do anything illegal? That’s actually irrelevant. He hadn’t lived the Golden Rule. He had abused his position, damaging his client and his own reputation. Short-term greed created a situation of long-term loss. And it always does.

Ethical decisions can sometimes be complicated, and applying the Golden Rule doesn’t guarantee we’ll make the right decision. However, it can refocus our minds, remind us of consequences, and nudge us in the right direction.

Sometimes you might find it difficult to do the right thing under pressure. Basically good people can be tempted to break the ethical rules in the same way they might drive five miles an hour over the speed limit. But principles like the Golden Rule aren’t like highway laws. They’re rooted in universals of human nature. We all know that, as important as our speed limits are, they could have been set a little higher or lower. It’s possible to violate them on occasion without obvious harm and for what you feel is a greater good. The problem is that this can contribute to a relaxed attitude toward all limits. As Socrates taught us long ago, whenever we cross the moral line, it always causes harm—at least in own souls.

The late British philosopher and novelist Iris Murdoch pointed out in her book The Sovereignty of Good that if we think and act well in the normal course of business and life, valuing the right things, then when a difficult decision arises, we may find to our surprise that the decision has already been made for us by those structures of value and care that we’ve long been developing. Life is habit—and if we take care in the little things, the big things won’t be so hard to get right.

It helps to have friends and mentors with whom we can honestly discuss our trials and struggles. But ultimately it’s up to each of us to remind ourselves that the strength that comes from ethics can’t be had any other way. It’s up to each of us to resist the occasional illusions that there are shortcuts to happiness to be had outside the realm of ethical action.

As Socrates reminds us, we each have to ask ourselves what sort of life is best worth living and whether our actions support that life or undermine it. The ethical path is the only reliable road to a life of fulfillment and meaning. Why should we ever settle for anything less?

Morris, a native of North Carolina, is a graduate of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and holds a Ph.D. in both philosophy and religious studies from Yale University. For 15 years, he was a professor of philosophy at the University of Notre Dame. He’s now chairman of the Morris Institute for Human Values ( in Wilmington, N.C.

Tom Morris is a philosopher to business and author of 16 books, including If Aristotle Ran General Motors: The New Soul of Business, The Art of Achievement, True Success: A New Philosophy of Excellence, and the new Superheroes and Philosophy. He has brought the insights of great thinkers to dozens of companies and organizations, including Coca-Cola, IBM, Merrill Lynch, Motorola, NBC Sports, The U.S. Air Force, the World Presidents Organization, and the NATIONAL ASSOCIATION OF REALTORSŪ.

The six tests of ethical action

There are simple tests we can use to evaluate the ethical appropriateness of our actions. These little thought experiments can help us gain mental clarity and get our moral bearings, especially when some measure of financial gain, power, or status is at stake, and we might be tempted to rationalize an action that we know to be wrong. Oscar Wilde famously admitted, “I can resist everything but temptation.” These tests can help us to resist even that.

The publicity test. Ask, “Would I want to see this action described on the front page of the local paper?” or “How would I feel about having done this if everyone, including the people I love, were to find out?”

The transparency test. Ask, “Could I give a clear explanation for the action, including an honest and transparent account of my motives, that would satisfy a fair and dispassionate moral judge?”

The moral mentor test. Carry around the image of a wise and good person you admire: a parent or friend, a professional mentor, or a great moral example from history, such as Jesus or Gandhi. Ask: “What would my moral mentor do in this situation?”

The admired observer test. A variant on the two previous tests, this one recommends that we ask, “Would I want my moral mentor to see me doing this?” or “What would make my moral mentor proud of me in this situation?”

The man/woman in the mirror test. Avoiding all questions of weight, hair color, the exigencies of a bad hair day, bloodshot eyes, bags, and wrinkles, ask, “Will I be able to look at myself in the mirror and respect the person I see there?”

The Golden Rule test. Ask, “Would I like to be on the receiving end of this action and its potential consequences? Am I treating others the way I’d want to be treated?”

REALTORŪ Magazine is pleased to present a special excellence and innovation series throughout 2005. This article is the fourth in the series. Read other articles in the series online: Excellence and Innovation Series.

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