Ethical behavior and personal survival

There are so many different definitions of ethics and ethical behavior, that I will cut through the fog and suggest a definition that works for me.

When someone exhibits a consistent ethical behavior,
I know what to expect from them.

This is based on the fact that ethics and the root word ethos have no universal rightness or wrongness in their definitions. They are words that relate to rightness or wrongness within an individual or a group. Thus, ethical behavior can be, and sometimes is, anti-social!

eth·ics:       The rules or standards governing the conduct of a person or the conduct of the members of a profession.

e·thos  The disposition, character, or fundamental values peculiar to a specific person, people, culture, or movement:

Lets get some actual examples of anti-social, but ethical behavior from life:

1. For some people I know, anything that isn’t nailed down is theirs to steal.
2. For others, anyone who does not believe in their god deserves to be killed.
3. For others, freedom of speech and tolerance apply only to their ideas.
4. For others, anyone outside the group is an enemy to be dealt with.

Fortunately, there are others whose ethics are less inimical to society at large.

These are the people of good will, whose behavior tends to benefit society as well as themselves. They may not always be recognized as such, because of the people in groups 1-4 who scream loudly about anything that conflicts with their beliefs. However, when the facts are known and emotions have cooled down, people of good will are recognized because they have helped civilization more than they hurt it.

On a more personal level, when a person’s code of honor includes being honest and trustworthy as well as helping others to survive, they are a delight to live with.

I’ve had acquaintances who were charming, even charismatic, with high ideals and lofty goals in life, but their observance of those ideals was always marred by hidden reservations such as:

…as long as it doesn’t cost me money.
…as long as I don’t lose the sale.
…as long as I don’t have to tell the truth.

When someone is truly honest and trustworthy, they have a tremendous potential for survival.

I am fortunate in having a wife, Gretchen, who embodies this to an incredible degree. She received a check for many, many thousands of dollars this week from her former employer. We  were happily planning how we might use it when she started wondering why she was receiving this check. It was a retirement fund payout, but she was sure that she had already received all separation payments that were due to her.

She called the bank that issued the check, the group that managed the fund, and her old employer. Nobody could seem to find a record of the transaction, but they promised to look into the matter. A day later, she received a call that the check had been issued in error. She looked at me, smiled, shrugged and fed the check into the shredder.

It was a lot of money, but it wasn’t ours, so we laughed about our two-day fortune and went back to work. Our system of values requires us to earn our money through fair exchange. It makes things much simpler in the long run.

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