Crappy Ethics? Are we doomed? Or is there hope for the ethically challenged?
During a spirited discussion in our office last week, the question was asked “What if someone just has crappy ethics? Is there any hope of improvement or are you just out of luck because they just can’t change?”
This question challenged me because for a number of years I thought that you are either ethical or you are not. My views on the importance of decisive action on ethical problems have not changed. However, for the past several weeks I have been teaching a Saturday morning college course on ethics. Through this course I have been reacquainted with Socrates, Plato and Aristotle in the last few months, so when the ‘crappy ethics’ questions came up…I found it to be perfect timing!
“Neither by nature, then, nor contrary to nature do the virtues arise in us; rather we are adapted by nature to receive them, and are made perfect by habit.”
According to this quote, we can grow and expand in our virtuous behavior through habit. It might also provide more hope for the ethically challenged. It also sheds additional light on why virtuous leaders are so important. Leaders help to establish guidelines not only by words, but by their actions. They also serve as examples to help “perfect by habit” good choices and virtuous behavior in the workplace.
Parents, like leaders, are also instruments of influence for virtuous behavior, and just like leaders, sometimes have to take decisive action when a problem presents itself. One of the most painful examples of this for me was when my son, then 12 years old, did something that I found distressing. One day I was returning home, and just as my car rounded the corner near my house, my eyes locked on an odd site—my son dropping something down the sewer grate in the street while watching my car. Guilt was written all over his face, and somehow I knew I was not going to be happy with the explanation of what I just witnessed.
When we both came inside I asked what he had tossed down the sewer. He struggled to offer a plausible explanation, which fell short of believable. I asked him to empty his backpack and sure enough there was a new cassette, which he confessed, he had stolen from a large store near our home. The item discarded in the sewer was the security cover.
My initial reaction was disbelief, then anger and eventually profound embarrassment that a child of mine could do such a thing…I mean, I was speaking on ethics back then too! I evaluated the best course of action. I quickly put him in the car, walked him into the store, and asked for the manager. I had my son tell the manager what he did. The manager asked me what I would like to have happen, and I told him to treat my son like any other shoplifter. He lectured my son for a while, told him he would not call the police this time, but that he was banned from the store for the next year.
So, how does this relate to the question about “crappy ethics?” Well, thanks to Aristotle I can now consider that practice makes perfect, even in ethics. ” Luckily for a great many of us, work and home tends to provide ample opportunity for practice!