I’ve talked about a few books that reference moral behavior, either directly or through the complete absence of morality. I suggested the amoral books be read with a view towards understanding other people’s behavior.
But, if we want to develop our own ethical behavior, where can we turn? Fortunately, there is a great book for this, too.
The subtitle of Ethics for the Real World by Ronald Howard & Clinton Korver says it all: Creating a Personal Code to Guide Decisions in Work and Life. It is a guide for developing your own personal code of ethics.
They start by defining the 4 areas of ethical temptation: lying, deceiving, stealing, and physical harm. All ethical ideas and behaviors can be reduced to these 4 areas, and one’s ethical code must address each of them. They go on to discuss ethical touchstones (other ethical and honor codes), explain how to build your own code by answering a few key questions, and give examples from some of their students’ work.
The chapter I found most interesting was Chapter 2: Draw Distinctions. In it, they insist we must make distinctions among legal, prudential, and ethical situations. Legal are those things defined by law as right or wrong. Prudential are things that are in your best interest, and ethical are simply right vs wrong. Ethical dilemmas, they argue, are almost non-existent. An ethical dilemma would be a conflict between two of our ethics. In reality, what we call ethical dilemmas are usually conflicts between our prudential interests and our ethical codes.
This book is essential reading if you want to develop your own ethical code. If you define a personal ethical code, you’ll have a touchstone by which you can measure your own behavior.
It is also uncomfortable reading if, like me, you realize that maybe you don’t always act as ethically as you would like to. White lies, exaggerated excuses for being late, or not returning to the store when you get home and realize they undercharged you for those bananas, things most people have done at some point in their lives. Though we might not want to admit it, this is not ethical behavior, as convenient or prudential as it might have been at the time . By defining a code, we can train ourselves to live more in line with our ethical ideals, and recognize when we are led into temptation.
(Side note: if you are interested in personal ethics, I also recommend the New York Times Magazine podcast, The Ethicists.)