When we’re faced with those ambiguous choices where the “right” path is unclear or will produce some painful consequences, where do we turn? First and foremost, we must turn to our own code of conduct, the values and ethics we regard as important to us personally.
These values are always based upon what we’ve observed and learned, either at home or school or work. After all, we aren’t born knowing how to behave ethically—nobody in the delivery room gives us a code of ethical behavior! We all have to learn how to act ethically. Through the years, we assemble a hodgepodge of values and ethics based upon the sum total of all that has gone before us in our lives—all the people, experiences, relationships, etc., that have contributed to the development of our value system. Whether the influences were religious, ethnic, political, or cultural, they play a key role in the development of who we are as individuals.
The journey of life has instilled in us a variety of perceptions, attitudes, values and insights. If that journey has been one of positive influence, we must stay true to it. If our journey has had some negative influences, however, we may need to check our values to make sure they are leading us along the high road. Unfortunately, not every influence in our lives points us in the right direction. Once I caught a student cheating on the final exam for the ethics course I was teaching. (Cheating on an ethics exam!—what does that tell you?) The student and his father came into my office, and when I showed them the student’s cheat sheet, the father was visibly upset. For at least five minutes he berated his son, “How dare you cheat? How dare you cheapen your dignity?” Finally, feeling pushed against the wall emotionally, his son screamed, “What’s the difference between me cheating on this test and you cheating on your income tax for the last five years?”
I believe values are caught, not taught—that is, how people behave and the decisions they make speak much louder than anything they may say. So we may have been taught the Golden Rule, but if our parents and teachers lived more by the rule, “Every man for himself,” which rule do you think would have more impact on our lives?
Luckily, we are not forced to live by the values we’ve been taught, if those values lead us away from the high road to success. We are free to choose our own values. We are in control of our own values and rules, and we must build our own ethical code of conduct, our road map for the high road to success.
How do we do that? We must begin by consciously selecting and embracing the ethics and values we regard as essential for the kind of life we want to lead. I believe these ethics and values should be based not just upon what we’ve learned from parents, teachers, friends and society, but also upon the great ethical truths of the past—truths which are taught by religious/philosophical texts, the Magna Carta, the Constitution, etc. When we begin with the great truths as our basis, we can then examine our own experiences in the light of these truths and then create our own personal ethics system, a code we will be proud of and help us always try to make the “right” decision.