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.
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!
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.
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.
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?