Learn What Ethical Issues We’re Facing Today

Ethical IssuesWeinstein writes the column “Ask the Ethics Guy” for BusinessWeek.com and appears as an ethics analyst regularly on CNN and other shows. For this interview, we asked him to share with our readers his five principles, what “ethics” is, and why being ethical benefits us.

BOYT: Bernie Madoff got away with his Ponzi scheme for decades.  If he had read your book, would he have acted differently?

Bruce Weinstein: No, and I wouldn’t expect him to.  That’s because the book’s purpose—and the purpose of ethics in general—isn’t to turn evil people into good ones.  It’s to help good people make the best decisions possible.  Madoff got away with his Ponzi scheme for a long time; he must have known that what he was doing was wrong, yet he just didn’t care.  He lived the high life (at others’ expense) for as long as he could, and then his past caught up with him.  Recall that Judah Rosenthal, the character that Martin Landau played in Woody Allen’s Crimes and Misdemeanors, literally got away with murder at the end of the movie.  He committed the ultimate form of wrongdoing—murder—and he, like Madoff, didn’t care.  My book wouldn’t have helped him, either. 

But you, me, and most of the people we know often struggle with the question, “What’s the right thing to do?”  We care about how our actions affect others, and it’s not always easy to know what’s right or to have the courage to do what we know is right.  It is for this group of people that I wrote the book.

BOYT: What is ethical intelligence?  Is it similar to emotional intelligence?

Bruce Weinstein: Suppose that you and I know each other well and we meet for coffee one day. You ask me how I’m doing, and I say, “I’m fine.” But several signs suggest I’m anything but fine: I avoid eye contact, which is unusual for me; my voice is quieter than it normally is; I’m not smiling, which isn’t like me; and I seem unusually distracted. It is your emotional intelligence that allows you to notice these signs and to correctly conclude that I’m not fine at all. Someone who doesn’t possess your level of emotional intelligence (or any at all) wouldn’t notice that something is amiss when we meet.

But now comes a tough question: What should you do? The answer isn’t obvious. Is it better to mention the fact that I don’t seem all right to you, or should you just ignore it? If our chat over coffee doesn’t give you any useful information about what’s really going on, would it be right to follow up with a phone call or email, or simply say to yourself, “He’s an adult, and if he wants to tell me what’s going on, he will”? Emotional intelligence alone won’t—and can’t—tell you what you ought to do. That’s because emotional intelligence is a psychological matter, but the question “What’s the right thing to do?” is an ethical one. To be fully human, it’s not enough to have emotional intelligence. We need ethical intelligence, too.

BOYT: One of your five principles is respect.  Isn’t that a matter of etiquette, not ethics?

Bruce Weinstein: Not entirely. It’s true that when a dinner guest arrives empty handed, stays too long, and leaves your bathroom a mess, that person has disrespected you through his or her poor manners. But there are other aspects of respect that are squarely within the realm of ethics because they touch upon the things that matter most. It’s one thing for a dinner guest to chew with his mouth open; it’s another thing for him to tell everyone about a private conversation you had, steal money from the wallet you left lying around, or describe the contents of your medicine cabinet to his 4,000 followers on Twitter. All of these acts are disrespectful, but the second set cuts more deeply and causes greater damage. Rude or offensive behavior is a breach of etiquette. Behavior that is harmful or violates another person’s rights is a breach of ethics.

BOYT: Aren’t ethics determined by what your religion is, or where you were raised?  After all, different cultures and religious traditions have different ethical standards.

Bruce Weinstein: There are certainly plenty of examples of differences across religions and cultures when it comes to issues directly or tangentially related to ethics. Jews and Muslims believe that it is wrong to eat pork, but this isn’t true for many Christians, and Jains are required to abstain from eating animals altogether. For Christians and Hindus, human beings have souls, but Buddhists reject this idea (at least insofar as the term “soul” is commonly understood).  These differences aren’t trivial, and they can and do give rise to heated discussions across the traditions, as well as within each one.  Is it right for Jewish women to become rabbis (scholars qualified to rule on Jewish law)?  In Orthodox Judaism, the answer is “no”; in Reform Judaism, it is “yes.”  Catholics believe it is permissible and even obligatory to receive a blood transfusion if this will save a human life; Jehovah’s Witnesses hold that it is wrong to do so.  There has never been, and there probably never will be, universal agreement among religious traditions about precisely how human beings ought to live.

But the above examples merely show that followers of religious traditions, and the texts upon which their religions are based, have different interpretations of how ethical principles apply in particular instances. The same is true with respect to cultures. Every faith or social group that has ever existed, or is likely to exist, calls upon its members to follow the five principles of ethical intelligence: Do No Harm, Make Things Better, Respect Others, Be Fair, and Be Loving. Not all groups codify these principles into law, nor do they all agree on what it means to be respectful or fair, or even on what constitutes harm. It’s also true that history is filled with atrocities committed in the name of God. But the problem is not the religions themselves or their commitment to ethical behavior but the misguided faithful who twist the peaceful messages to meet their own evil objectives. If you and your friend play Scrabble online and your friend cheats when it’s her turn by consulting a Scrabble website, who should bear the blame for that—the rules of Scrabble or your friend?

At their most fundamental and meaningful level—the level of principle—religions and cultures alike are committed to the same ethical ideas and ideals.  Misguided members of religious communities, and even those who are conscientious, may make ethical blunders, but this doesn’t take away from the integrity of the sacred texts themselves and the ethical principles upon which they are founded.

BOYT: What is the single most important ethical issue facing us today?

Bruce Weinstein: Taming the beast of technology.  Consider the following questions:

  • A friend of yours has just posted a picture of herself on Facebook in which she is smoking a bong.  Her profile mentions her employer.  Should you tell your friend that it’s not a good idea to post such a picture or mind your own business?
  • A colleague has a habit of calling you on his cell phone while driving.  Should you ask him to stop doing this or say nothing and hope he doesn’t get into an accident?
  • Your boss expects you to be available after hours via cell phone and e-mail, even though you didn’t explicitly agree to this when you accepted the job.  Is this right?

You probably don’t know anyone who has bilked clients and friends out of billions of dollars, but I’ll bet you’ve faced, or are currently facing, at least one of the above questions.  Social media, the Internet, e-mail, and smartphones challenge our ethical intelligence on a daily basis, and it’s easier than ever before to do things that might hurt others or ourselves.  Cheating in school use to mean writing an essay in English class based on the CliffsNotes version of the book you were assigned; now, students who haven’t read the book don’t have to bother writing anything at all, since they can buy entire essays online.   Technology itself isn’t to blame for this; it’s morally neutral and can be put to either good use or bad use.   It’s we who are faced with making ethically intelligent decisions whenever we log onto Facebook, get a cell phone call while we’re driving, or check our BlackBerrys for work-related e-mail after hours.

BOYT: What’s the difference between ethics and morality?

Bruce Weinstein: None, historically. In fact, the word “morality” comes from moralis, a Latin word that Cicero coined as a translation of the Greek word ethikos, which is the origin of the term “ethics.” Thus “morality” is to “ethics” what chapeau is to “hat” or caliente is to “hot.”

It’s true that many, perhaps most, people make a distinction between morality and ethics, but the problem is that no two people seem to agree about what that distinction is. Test this claim by asking five people you know, “Do you believe there is a difference between ethics and morality? If so, what is that difference?” You’ll get responses like these:

  • Ethics has to do with social standards; morality is about personal beliefs.

  • Ethics comes from secular institutions, whereas morality is a religious phenomenon.
  • Ethical judgments are absolute and objective; moral judgments are relative and subjective.

Not only do folks differ about what the distinction between the concepts is; they also differ about how to define each one. Even those who believe there is no difference between ethics and morality may differ over how to define them.

Yow! This sure is confusing. But it doesn’t have to be, because just about everyone understands that both ethics and morality have to do with identifying right conduct and good character. To keep everyone on the same page, and to honor the linguistic history of these two noble concepts, it’s much better to treat ethical and moral as synonymous.

In Ethical Intelligence (and in all of my writing and public speaking), I generally avoid using the word moral, because it makes some people see red when I interchange that word with ethical. I’d rather focus on what’s really important—discovering the best ways to respond to difficult situations and understanding why those approaches are right. That is why, I suspect, you’re interested in discussing this book in the first place.

BOYT: What are the life-long benefits of becoming more ethically intelligent?

Bruce Weinstein: There are many, but here are a few that stand out:

  • Life is easier when you’re honest, because you don’t have to remember which lies you told, when you told them, or who you told them to.
  • In business, there are lots of ways to get people to buy what you’re selling, but the only way to keep them coming back is by earning their trust.  The best way to do this is to run your business with ethical intelligence, which means hiring men and women who share this commitment, and treating them—and yourself—with respect, fairness, and compassion.
  • Making ethically intelligent decisions can be extraordinarily difficult, but one of the biggest payoffs in doing so is the knowledge that you’re doing the right thing, which makes you feel good about yourself—and rightly so.

Bruce Weinstein

About Bruce Weinstein

Bruce Weinstein, PhD, is the host of “Ask the Ethics Guy!” on Bloomberg Businessweek Online’s management channel, where he also writes an ethics column. He regularly gives keynote addresses to businesses, schools, and nonprofit organizations across the country. He lives in New York City. More information at www.TheEthicsGuy.com.

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