Like No One Is Watching

Acting ethically when others don’t always do so.

Posted Oct 27, 2015

Pixabay
Source: Pixabay

Integrity is doing the right thing, even when no one is watching.” ― C.S. Lewis

“Ethical” is one of the words we can take for granted. Just because it means something to me, doesn’t mean it is the same for you.

It could mean being honest, being truthful, being a “good” person. Maybe it means knowing “right from wrong”... In business classes, students are asked to confront the idea of ethics in business. Parents tell you not to lie, not to steal and to “do good things." But what if you're in a business situation with a job you desperately need and your boss — who could fire you — asks you to tell a white lie on behalf of him/her or the business? Is it unethical to keep your job? Some will say most definitely yes, and some will say no. Ethics are not as clear-cut as we’d like to believe them to be.

We think we know the difference between good and bad, and a great majority of people do their best to act in accordance with what they think is morally right. And to blur lines further, there are standards that we hold for ourselves and for others. Without fully realizing it, we tend to judge other people a lot more harshly than we do ourselves. According to Michael R. Cunningham, a professor of psychology at the University of Louisville, such discrimination stems from the difference in perception of self as compared to other: “We evaluate other people based upon their behavior; we evaluate ourselves based upon our intentions.” Hence, it’s easier for us to overlook our own lapses of judgement than the questionable behavior of other people.

While we attribute the unethical behavior of other people to their “badness,” oftentimes we rationalize our own actions in order to find justification for the choices that we make. “I was simply following orders,” “Everyone else was doing it,” “It’s not illegal, so it’s not wrong,” and “No one cares about what I do, I’m just one person,” are some of the most popular excuses we find for ourselves. It’s easy to cut yourself some slack when everyone else around you — including celebrities, politicians, professional athletes and large corporations — seems to be bending or breaking ethical rules. It’s hard to stick to ethical standards when it seems that few others are doing so.

While we’d like to believe ourselves to be “good” people — kind and altruistic — it’s not that easy when life’s challenges are in front of us. It’s not that you are a bad person if you make bad choices; in fact:

  • Doing the right thing is often neither easy nor pleasant.
  • The right thing to do is not always obvious and unambiguous.
  • The “right thing” is generally a subjective notion, dependent on the circumstances, people involved, social norms, available facts etc.
  • Doing the right thing may entail contradicting the accepted beliefs of the majority.
  • Standing up for the right thing may have negative personal financial and social consequences.
  • Doing the right thing may require acknowledging one’s own faults and mistakes.
  • A sense of personal responsibility weakens when we don’t see anyone else taking responsibility for their actions.
  • Relinquishing control is a convenient way to make sure that whatever happens is not our fault.

The culture we live in seems to have rapidly deteriorating standards of how we treat others: “Get out of my lane, you slow driver!” “Who cares if pedestrians have the right of way?” “It’s just a little bit of skimming off the top.” “I can’t be nice to someone who isn’t nice to me!” There are lots of ways the voices in our head send us off the rails and into potentially unethical territory. If you would like to get your own personal compass back on track and feel good about making good choices, here are five tips to consider:

  1. Activate your “right vs. wrong” radar. What really matters to you? What criteria do you use to determine what is right versus wrong? If you aren’t sure anymore, before you act in a chosen manner, you must first conduct an internal mini survey. Ask yourself whether you would do the same thing if there was a camera filming you. Would you, or someone you care deeply about, be proud of you for what you are about to do? What would you think of your actions if you were watching yourself from outside your body? Or if someone else was doing what you are about to do? How would you judge someone else’s behavior?
  2. Listen to your self-talk. Do you search for excuses for yourself? Do you try to rationalize your questionable decisions? Do you set different standards for your behavior? If your self-talk sounds anything like “I don’t think it’s a good idea but everyone else is okay with it, so I’ll play along” or “That person acted unethically because he’s morally corrupt but I acted the same way because I had good reason,” your personal ethics might be waning a bit. To help yourself through challenging times, try adopting a new positive mantra like “I am going to do this because it’s the right thing to do for me and my standards,” and then make a conscious effort to adhere to it in order to avoid making ethical mistakes.
  3. Know what matters to you. Sometimes doing the right thing may bring about criticism from other people, including those whose perspective matters to you. However, you need to remember that no one else lives your life, walks in your shoes or has the same reactions to your situations — be it colleagues, friends or family members. At the end of the day, the only person who must deal with your conscience is you alone.
  4. Know your limits. To set a goal to be more ethical and aligned with your beliefs is important, but you are human and you will fail at times. Sometimes you will act against your own moral code — maybe unaware, maybe even despite your best intentions. Usually we are able to feel when something is not right; the nagging feeling of regret or guilt is a good signal of bad decisions. Admit your mistakes and accept the responsibility for your choices. In trying to cover for your embarrassment, to recover a lost favor or status, don’t let one questionable decision lead to another, or one unethical decision lead to a complete breach of your integrity. People sometimes make ethical mistakes, but it doesn’t mean they are horrible people.
  5. Question everything. Don’t accept something as true only because you have been told that it is. The more you know, the better-informed decisions you will be able to make. Two people can look at the same situation and one can find it ethically sound, whereas the other — debatable at best. Judge everything for yourself and according to your own principles and morals. Question your own judgement, too. More often than not, our opinions and decisions are affected by the many biases that we subconsciously hold, and therefore must be re-evaluated for ethical soundness.