COMMENTARY: Good Ethics Make Better Relationships

While I believe that good things tend to happen to people who consistently choose the high road, the correlation between ethics and success is a loose one at best.

Thus, it’s pretty hard to sincerely promote ethics by appeals to self-interest.

What’s more, when self-interest is the controlling justification for moral behavior, moral reasoning is replaced by a pragmatic cost-benefit analysis that invites rationalizations and condones selfishness.When people are kind, honest, or respectful only when there’s a pay-off, or obey rules only when they think the risk of punishment is too great, ethical behavior is just an investment. Judging by the amount of lying, cheating, and other dishonorable conduct out there, it’s not generally regarded as a good investment. Too often honesty and other virtues impede rather than improve chances for success. For those who are unwilling to pay dues for their integrity, ethics simply costs more than they’re willing to pay. But there is an undervalued benefit of good character, a benefit we can promote in good faith to our kids, students, and employees: people who struggle to be good and decent have better relationships. Traits like honesty, responsibility, compassion, and respectfulness may seem like expensive luxuries, but they’re priceless assets when it comes to building enduring and rewarding relationships with our spouses, children, friends, and co-workers. For most people, good relationships marked by love, respect, and kindness are the best road to happiness. When you think of it, that’s really quite a pay-off.

This is Michael Josephson reminding you that character counts.

Comments 4

  1. The connection between ethics and self interest is not always a loose one. I am reminded of the play “Mother Courage” by Bertold Brecht. Mother Courage is the main character. She is a fortune teller. She tells the fortune of one of her children: “you are not that smart, you had best be totally honest.” By being honest, he is trusted. He meets his downfall when he is entrusted with a great deal of money and tries to run away with it.
    Those of us who are ethical reap the benefits of that, and never steal the money. Most valuable is the fact that we have no regrets about that.
    As a lawyer, I have had a few clients over the years who think that I should be able to advise them as to the improper things that they can get away with. They are disappointed that I do not know from that.

  2. Dear Michael,

    “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength…Love your neighbor as yourself. There is no commandment greater than these.”
    Mark 12:30-31New International Version (NIV)

    There is no inherent tension between self-interest and service. It depends on one’s identity (sense of purpose, mission, and roles in life). If service is one of my values, then by loving others and seeking ways to be helpful, my service is self-fulfilling . Self-interest is not a synonym for selfishness (seeking personal gain to the detriment of others). Very respectfully, Pat

  3. I agree that there is no immediate association between ethical behavior and profit or success. But I prefer to think of it in terms of karma. Things come back around at you. In 61 years on this planet, my experience has been that usually, a good nature and good decisions are rewarded, while the opposite eventually experience the consequences. As an attorney, I’ve witnessed a lot of both. It may take a while; meanwhile it’s frustrating and upsetting to watch the bad guy breaking open the champagne. But eventually his (her) decisions and behavior catch up with her. . . in ways we may not imagine, or wish upon anyone else (e.g. illness). Things come around.

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