COMMENTARY 772.2: Ethics — Easier Said Than Done

As a full-time ethicist – can you believe there even is such a thing? – I spend lots of time talking and writing about right and wrong. One thing I’ve learned is that in the last analysis, consistently doing the right thing is easier said than done.

For one thing, it’s not always easy knowing what’s right. We want to believe that ethics is simple and that everything we needed to know we learned in kindergarten, but if that’s so, I must have been absent that day. There are many situations where ethical values clash and there’s no clear or simple right thing to do.

But even if we always knew what was right, consistently doing it isn’t easy. Sometimes we just can’t get everything we want by being honest and following all the rules. Ethics limits our options and can be a competitive disadvantage. So, when there’s a gap between what we want to do (our desires) and what we should do (our ethical duties) we often rationalize or compromise. Thus, even basically good people lie occasionally, cheat just a little, and justify moral shortcuts. No one is perfect. It’s human nature.

But it’s also human nature to strive for moral perfection and to care about our character. That’s the part of our nature we need to strengthen. A healthy and realistic goal is not to be perfect but to be constantly getting better. And one doesn’t have to be sick to get better.

Yes, it often takes moral will power to do the right thing when it costs more than we want to pay, but that’s what character is all about. For all our cynicism about the growing hole in our moral ozone, there are lots of good people who resist temptations every day.

Sure there’s a price, but there’s also a big pay-off. You’ll improve the quality of your life and set an example for your children.

This is Michael Josephson reminding you that character counts.

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