To understand the nature of ethics, let us consider the following scenario. Take a typical morning where you wake up to begin your weekday. You wash, brush your teeth, have breakfast, listen to or read the news, then set off for work. You probably gave little thought about any of these actions, if you thought about them at all. For example, you walked from your bed without thinking about which foot to put in front of the other or whether to turn right or left on your way. You didn’t have to make up your mind as to which brand of toothpaste to use; you grabbed what was there. Nor did you think of whether to brush up-and-down or sideways. Perhaps you gave some thought to whether you would have coffee or tea, but probably none as to whether you would put your food on a plate or in a bowl. While there is a plethora of sources for daily news, yours, in all likelihood, came from the same source today as the day before.
Even before you leave the house, you have taken many actions, although few were decisions. They were routines, habits, unthinking responses to the environment. Habits are behaviors that are done on a subconscious level. Some of your behavior was once a choice: this beverage, that brand of toothpaste. The choices reflect personal preferences. Other habits emerge from your upbringing and your culture. You never decided that eating with utensils was better than chopsticks or hands.
In many ways, many of our decisions are unreflective, nearly unconscious and pre-packaged. (In his book, Thinking, Fast and Slow, Nobel Prize winning economist Daniel Kahneman calls this kind of thinking System 1.) No matter. Most have little impact on other people and therefore are not in the realm of ethics. And if your habits satisfy your needs and meet your desires, then they are fine. Some of what you routinely do, though, had a moral dimension, which you may or may not have recognized at the time you first expressed your preference. Does the toothpaste manufacturer provide adequate wages to its workers; did the farmers who picked the beans for your coffee receive a fair wage; does the means of transportation you take to work harm the environment?
Let’s take a look at where your actions are judged as being good or bad. In places governed by strong social customs, someone is good because a social norm is followed. For example, a good wife takes care of household chores properly; a good farmer properly tends to the field; and a good silversmith makes beautiful jewelry. A good person performs sacrifices to the ancestors and fulfills religious and social requirements. Similarly, a good child carefully observes what it means to be a good adult and undergoes traditional rites of passage into adulthood. A good person, then, carries out the roles laid out by the group, the tribe, the religious tradition, and the laws.
In many places, the word “good” mainly refers to the fulfillment of roles and set duties. Little discretion is permitted. In fact, that which deviates from the norm is what is meant by “bad.” Good is conforming to social conventions. The word is still used in this sense today. For example, a good child listens. A good pilot is one who knows how to fly a plane well. It is what you probably mean when you say “good dog”; that is, the dog did what you told it to do. Even inanimate objects can be “good”; a good car is one that does what you expect of it.
But children aren’t dogs, adults are more than their roles, and a good pilot may be a very bad person. So, too, a good businessperson is more than one who simply follows the rules. What distinguishes the moral sense of good from other meanings of the word is that ethics implies judgment. Ethics is more than conformity and compliance. When there is a conflict between self-interest and the common good or when there is a conflict between two or more moral values, there must be judgment. Without informed judgment there is no ethics.
Some are tempted to say, “Tell me what to do and I’ll do it. Don’t bother me with all this thinking.” While thinking can be a burden, (also explained by Kahneman; he calls System 2, the reasoning part of the brain ‘lazy’) avoiding ethical choices can be even more of a burden. If you follow social convention but the conventions themselves are morally questionable, you make the world a worse place. If you can’t distinguish between self-interest and the common good, you will either unwittingly harm yourself or others.
The nature of the choices we make in our daily habits are often individual and minor and have little to do with business ethics, but they are continuous with the rest of your decisions. Of course, you might object that choosing toothpaste isn’t the same as choosing the moral thing. True enough. Which toothpaste to put on your brush is largely a personal and somewhat trivial matter.
But thinking about morality exists on a continuum, and when you understand the nature of ethics in your daily routines, you are better able to conceptualize the ethical problems you face in your personal or work life.