Everyday Ethics



I just finished reading Be Good: How to Navigate the Ethics of Everything, a compilation of New York Times “The Ethicist” columns by Randy Cohen. I was interested for two reasons: I like to look at my own decisions and debate how ethical they are, and I am often perplexed by the ethics of other people’s behaviour!

The book didn’t answer the underlying question I went in for: How does one develop a somewhat consistent Ethical Approach to Everything? I know that’s a tall order, but hey, it was in the title!

I found answers to some of the questions troublingly inconsistent. For example, the author is against hunting and wearing fur, but not eating meat. He doesn’t acknowledge that many hunters kill animals for meat (not just for sport), or that the killing of livestock also causes animal suffering. These inconsistencies don’t make a bad book, but they highlight how inconsistent most of us are with our beliefs and practices.

Nevertheless, I really liked the book, because it helped me test my own biases.

Book_Be Good

I made a little list of what I see as everyday ethical thinking-points. (These are not the topics covered in the book). Which of these do I do unthinkingly? Which do I pause and mull over? Which do I feel are just plain wrong and do them anyway?

  • Driving over the speed limit
  • Parking in a handicapped spot “just for a minute or two”
  • Calling in sick to work when I’m not sick
  • Taking office supplies, cleaning supplies or food home from work
  • Lying to get out of jury duty
  • Doing (or “all but doing”) my child’s homework
  • Saying nothing when a co-worker jokes about how fat the last customer was
  • Paying someone “under the table” in cash to avoid paying tax
  • Accepting the employee discount from the store where my friend works
  • Returning to a store several times to get multiples of a “one per customer” item
  • Fudging my child’s age to get a lower admission price
  • Sharing my neighbour’s Netflix account (they gave me their log-in info)

I think people have different frameworks when it comes to everyday dilemmas like these.


Maybe it’s in my nature to obey laws and rules. After all, aren’t they designed to help society run smoothly? Or, I could be a rebel. There is an exception to every rule, and I will find it and exploit it!

Internal/External Consequences

If I cheat on my re-certification exam, I could get caught and be barred from my profession. If I’m not caught, I could spend the next ten years feeling like a fraud.


I might be outstandingly dutiful and kind when it comes to my family and friends, but I may also believe that capitalist pigs run the world and I owe nothing to corporations.

On Principal

Maybe I will never own a pet because I don’t believe animals can give consent to be kept by humans. Or I will only purchase mutual funds if none of their content is derived from fossil fuel investments.

Higher Authority

Our ethics could be guided – or compromised – by our faith, our government, our parents, a pledge or a manifesto.


My behaviour changes depending on who I’m with. I drive 120 km/h in a 100 zone when I’m just keeping up with traffic. I drink until I vomit in the street in New Orleans at Mardi Gras, but not in Ottawa on Canada Day. I give a generous tip to the server at a work lunch when my co-workers do, too.


I tell the server “just one bill” and pay for everyone at my table, to be seen as generous – even if I later have to scrimp on groceries that week. I tell everyone my dress only cost $8 at Value Village, to be seen as thrifty – even if I actually paid $80 for it at The Bay.


I may give nothing to the child soldier rehabilitation fund because the problem is so vast and my two dollars won’t help. Or, I may spend a whole day every weekend helping out an elderly neighbour just because I get to play with her adorable dog.

For almost all everyday ethical dilemmas, I can think them through using the same method:

  • What is the right thing to do? Says who? Do I agree?
  • Who or what might I harm?
  • How will I feel if I do A or B?
  • What will happen if I do nothing?
  • What if everyone behaved like I do?

For example, at election time, I have been brought up to believe I should exercise my democratic rights. When selecting a candidate, I think about the help or harm they could effect. If I choose not to vote, and so do my fellow citizens, we will get a leader that a vocal minority has selected. I will feel that my government doesn’t represent me, and feel further inclined to opt out of the political process. I believe every vote makes a difference, and so does every non-vote, because they are markers of involvement versus alienation (::steps off soapbox::)

What are the everyday ethical “violations” that don’t trouble your conscience in the slightest (in which case there is nothing to violate)?

Which ones bother you most when other people do them?


  1. A coworker was reading something – I never did find out what – when she suddenly looked up at me and asked: “Do you believe that evil exists?” I told her that I do.

    “Well, how do define evil?” she asked.

    I had never consciously thought about that, but somehow, the answer came immediately: “Evil is doing something merely because you can get away with it.”

    I don’t know if that answers your questions, but it’s what came to mind as I read this post.

    • Great answer! That was really thinking on your feet. I always liked that quote (in some variation), “All that is necessary for evil is for good men to do nothing.”

  2. Wow interesting post! Particularly as I recently got a fine of more than $500 for parking in a disabled spot. I didn’t see the sign and when I saw the ranger, I automatically admitted I was in the wrong. it hadn’t been my intent to park in the wrong place whilst I got my coffee. Anyhow, the fine stung. People suggested ‘fighting it’ and I just paid it and moved on.

    Speeding is an interesting one – i don’t actually intentionally speed, and given the work car has a system to track it, I’m mindful of it. So when I’m in the BF’s car, and my speedometer is a touch over, I always feel a sense of ‘ha! At least this time big brother isn’t watching’. I still adjust down – Australia is very rigorous at testing and fining for speeding in a way they aren’t in the US I’ve read.

    I definitely feel as a manager I now have to display the best behaviour & ethics. I almost ALWAYS text the BF when I leave work. Recently I was parked and colleague watched me get in the car, so I used the in car system to call him instead. He actually asked why I’d called, as I much prefer to text! Mind you, I usually send text messages when the car is stationary. Still against the law however.

    • Over $500 – ouch!! Speeding is not policed much here. There are only occasional and random “radar traps” and no surveillance from the air. So most people do speed, but not excessively. I usually try to stick within 10 km/h of the speed limit! A few years ago I used to play music from my iPod in the car and I would try to find songs or start a new playlist when I was at a stop light, but it was so distracting that I made myself stop doing it. I am also mindful of workplace rules and try to set a good example.

  3. I am very conscious of my food choices, always keeping in mind how they were sourced, and – if they are animal products – under what conditions the animals were kept and whether they were treated ethically. (I am a vegetarian but I eat eggs and some types of cheese. Having spent a good number of years in an agricultural community, I understand, for example, that there is a huge difference between “cage-free” and “free-range.”) I also try to buy brands that do not have discriminatory hiring practices and whose executive management practices fair-trade agreements. I can’t always do these things, but I try. I truly believe that every choice I make has an impact, and that one person can make a difference. In this area, I strive to be the change I want to see.

    The thing that probably bothers me the least is speeding while driving. I have limits about going over the limit, and in no way do I condone reckless endangerment, but 5mph over the speed limit in easy traffic is no big deal. Is it against the law? Yes. But if I’m within 5-7mph of the posted speed, I consider it “close enough.”

    Something that bothers me – A LOT – when I see other people doing it is texting while driving. You have the same concentration as a drunk driver when you engage in that activity, and I don’t appreciate you endangering my life. (‘You’ being the general ‘you’, not you personally. 🙂 ) Two of my friends sustained lifelong injuries when they were rear-ended on their motorcycle by a driver who was texting behind the wheel. There is no excuse. If it’s truly that important, PULL OVER, shut your vehicle off, and handle your business.

    • I agree that one person makes a difference. It is collections of “one person” that grow into movements. I am not as consistent with food purchasing as I’d like to be, because year-round food availability isn’t great here – the growing season is short and most foods are imported – so do I buy the oranges from Florida (closest to me) or the organic ones from South Africa, or limit myself to only apples all winter because they are grown and stored locally? etc. Your driving patterns sound just like mine. Fortunately, hardly anyone talks or texts on cell phones in the car here – far more pedestrians are distracted by their phones as they cross the street.

  4. Lots and lots of good food for thought here. My daughters and I were just talking about rules/ethics today, and I explained that while I believe most rules are there for a good reason, there is usually a gray area around most of them, and it takes time and thought to figure out when it’s OK to operate in that gray area and when it’s not. Although it’s not the only criteria I apply, my first question is always, “will this hurt someone else” (not just physically, but in other ways as well). In other words, “do no harm.” Sometimes I have to game out what I’m doing or wanting to do to see if it might cause problems down the line.

    And, I constantly am reminding myself that nobody’s perfect. Not all the time ;-).

  5. EcoCatLady

    Very interesting questions – I think it’s especially tricky to maintain a sense of ethical living when so many things about our society are unjust, and (in my view, at least) patently unethical. But perhaps this is because we all have different opinions about where the ethical boundaries should be drawn. During the Bill Clinton Monica Lewinsky scandal I remember some folks saying how he had “stained” the White House with his unethical behavior. I remember thinking that there are about a million worse things that have been done in that house – even if you cast political decisions and their murky implications aside, the fact that beef is regularly served in the White House dining room could be seen as an unforgivable ethical breach by a rather large segment of the human population.

    Anyhow, I think it all points out how incredibly inconsistent humans are – and not just about ethics… I’m thinking of the other day when I was at a friend’s house for dinner. We were making a salad & she handed me a bell pepper to chop. I looked at the tag and realized that it was organic and made some comment about how I just can’t bring myself to pay $5 for a bell pepper just to get an organic one. She went crazy and started quoting statistics about pesticides and the dirty dozen etc. Then a minute later I asked her if she had any olive oil. She scoffed and said how ridiculous it was to pay such an obscene amount for oil and handed me a bottle of corn oil! I was aghast! “Death in a bottle” I called it! I just found it funny how two equally health conscious people can draw such incredibly different boundaries around which things matter and which don’t!

    I have to agree with the other posters though… texting and driving is just plain inexcusable. Having been hit by a distracted driver on my bike once, I have absolutely no patience or sympathy for anyone who even talks on a cell phone while they are driving.

    • We all love your Democratic presidents in Canada and judge them on their Governmental Accomplishments while in office 🙂 Meanwhile in Canada we are thinking about things like, “Should the Trudeaus spend tax dollars restoring the indoor swimming pool at their official residence, which has been unused and in disrepair for many years?” Or should the Prime Minister and family live more modestly like average Canadians? (It was also controversial as to whether they should pay for their own nannies.) Given the choice of buying local or buying organic, I go for local, but I am not scrupulous about all my food buying. I just try to remember that while a small intake of pesticides may not affect me, it is bound to affect the farm workers.

  6. Great post. Book has been added to my Amazon wishlist for later on!

    • Thanks. I have to say I didn’t “love” the book. Because the original content was in the format of newspaper columns, the answers were short, snappy, and not always fleshed out. Some I dramatically disagreed with. However, it definitely got me thinking, and I liked the conclusion that respectful debate is a great aim.

  7. Juhli

    You always come up with the most interesting books! I’ve requested this one from my library and noted that he put out a similar volume 10 years earlier.

    • Let me know what you think. I like the wide range of topics that he covered, and the personal essays between the chapters. My favourite aspect was the author’s link (not addressed until the end of the book) between respectful debate and his Jewish heritage.

  8. I think we all have inconsistencies in our lives, that we attempt to rationalize. We should challenge ourselves when some are pointed out or are apparent, to rethink a position. We are also human, so we will err. I love the series on the Roosevelts, Teddy, Eleanor and Franklin. Each did many good things, but each were imperfect. Teddy’s ego often got in the way, Eleanor could be cool and Franklin was a philanderer and was the consummate politician. But, each made America better and helped the world be safer based on a strong sense of ethics and fighting for the disenfranchised.

    • I like to be challenged, and for someone to try to convince me of something with strong arguments. Or just by their example. I have learned not to dismiss a good line of reasoning because of the speaker’s unrelated personal “fault”!

      • Good point on not dismissing a line of reason based on someone’s fault. Since we are all imperfect, we would be dismissing a lot of arguments. I read editorial pieces by authors with whom I often disagree with. I want to understand the points I may have missed or ascertain if there is an element of truth in what they say, although their solution is different than the one I support.

      • I do the same, sometimes while rolling my eyes 🙂

  9. Kris

    Thanks for a very thought provocing post. Now I will be even less able to fall asleep, pondering my own ethical violations! 🙂 Just glad I have never been in an ethical dilemma like the kind Jodi Picoult writes about and hope I will never be. Take care, Dar.

    • I have read one of Jodi Picoult’s books. A good one I read recently with a serious moral dilemma was Little Bee by Chris Cleave. I would love to sleep soundly every night, knowing every decision I made was the right one 😉

  10. Great post. I have a “cheap” side and so I find “sliding scale” or “pay what you want” to be difficult – I know I have enough money to pay in the middle but I am always tempted to pay less.
    I support several radio stations and not-for-profit film societies, but I try to make my membership pay for itself (through reduced price tickets and discounts). A good example of this is I belong to MOMA (Museum of Modern Art) because the $85/yr gets me in for free and a guest in for 5$ – and I go more than 5x a year so it pays for itself…but I don’t belong to the Metropolitan Museum because it is pay what you want and we usually give $1 each…

    • Excellent examples! There was a period when it was so easy to download new music – full albums. I downloaded for a while, and then stepped back and tried to come up with a strategy. Ultimately I do want to support the artists. I am not so keen on some of the record labels, especially the majors (see: Kesha). I have come up with a mishmash: I go to more live shows, Rom and I each pay for a streaming music service, and I buy albums that are not available by subscription, or that I’m afraid will disappear (e.g. small labels, independent, local). But I still only spend a tiny fraction of what I used to spend on music 10 years ago.

  11. Fiona

    Another thought-provoking post! I’m with those who say that the ‘everyday ethical’ dilemma that bothers them least is speeding. I very rarely speed since we have such hefty fines here in Australia and constant policing. But if I creep over the limit somehow I don’t feel very guilty.

    Weirdly, I also don’t feel guilty about ‘loopholes’ in the system, even if illegal – if they seem at least partially a ‘victimless crime.’ For example, some online dating services also operate “black-market” systems of various kinds e.g. two people will meet and one will take over a speeding fine for another person. I’ve *never* done this (really!!) but I do know people who have, to avoid losing their driver’s licences. Strangely, this doesn’t bother me.

    Contradictorily, relatively smaller things bother me, like knowingly buying cage eggs instead of free-range. And small dishonesties irk me, like taking things from work, fudging details for advantage, cheating, scamming the system for advantage in various ways, fudging work for kids etc.

    I like your outline of how we decide these things! I certainly feel like I’m a bundle of contradictions and yet I feel very strongly about the things I think are ‘wrong.’

    • I don’t know about the black-market swaps you mentioned! The things that seem to bother me most are not the worst offenses (I imagine there will always be crime and awfulness) but bad manners! Like when a bunch of people are waiting in line to pay at a store, and another cashier is sent out, and when the new cashier calls out “Next customer, please!,” a latecomer from the back of the line runs over. Or when someone at work is chronically late at shift change (even 5-10 minutes) and their co-workers can’t leave until that person arrives. Or when I am helping someone at the library and they take a lengthy call on their cell phone and leave me hanging. I could go on and on but it would put me in a bad mood 🙂

  12. Living In Denim

    I believe we each come to our own ethical values based on our life experiences. For example,, having been born with a disability I know the difficulties people like me have getting around and even when I could walk (mind you never as well as a typical person) I would not park in handicap parking because I always knew someone else could need it more than I did. So seeing able bodied people park in handicap spots I have been known to confront them and even call the police if they are rude to me when I approach them on the subject especially in the winter with icy parking lots.

    On the other hand I grew up with a family of heavy footed drivers and as long as they weren’t being reckless drove over the speed limit so I too had a heavy foot and didn’t think twice about a few miles over the speed limit. There are motor rules I adhere too such as reduced speed in a school zone or stopping for the school bus which is very important to me as a mother and grandmother.

    My views were also formed by meeting Native Americans and listening to their views on behavior. One thing I heard over and over again was that it’s okay to live life how ever one wants to as long as it doesn’t affect another person, the planet, animals etc negatively. I’ve tried to incorporate that into how I live my life.

    • Hi Lois, I agree, we all have certain sensitivities and different life experiences. I like your reminder that our views can change at any point in life based on meeting people and learning about another world view.

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  14. i don’t think anyone can be totally consistent in their beliefs. Some may think they are but others will find inconsistencies.

    I accept my own inconsistencies. (I have long joked that I could be a slum landlord with a conscience. A slum landlord who feels guilty about being one.)

    I wish I could be more accepting of others’ inconsistencies. And not feel the need to point them out. Lol. Must be one of my inconsistencies.

    Oh, and I rarely speed more than 1 to 5 kms over the limit. Yes, motivated by not wanting a fine but also knowledge that the risk and effects of accidents are worse. I don’t want to be the cause of pain for others.

    • You are unique among drivers! I agree that no one is consistent. Those who are the most consistent with rules or routines are labelled and mislabelled (anything from Asperger’s to OCD to anal types or whatever people associate with rigidity).

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