Ethical awareness is growing. Can you feel it? It’s in the air and it’s in the news. Penn State, Congress, Wall Street and Countrywide have all been skewered for big ethical misconduct lately. It’s gotten so bad that after ten minutes of watching the nightly news my blogs and e-zines are practically begging to write themselves. Even in fiction – popular books like the Harry Potter series – do we see the issue of ethics in the following statement: “Soon we must make a choice between what is right and what is easy.” (Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire) So ethics is everywhere, if we choose to recognize the words and actions as ethics.
There we go. The word “Choose” crops up. Isn’t it curious that we are constantly making choices between what is right and what is easy? In conversation with a friend recently we talked about the way we make decisions. It is “normal” for people to look at a situation, determine the options, and then consider what’s easiest vs. the right thing to do. In effect we’re doing a “cost-benefit” analysis for every action or decision. What are the risks? What are the rewards? What’s in it for me? What consequences might I receive or suffer from in the option I choose or the action I take?
Hopefully, somewhere in this cost-benefit analysis is “What’s the right thing to do?” But it doesn’t always get to the top of the pile of questions, nor does it always get selected as the best option. Why? Because we all have different definitions of “right thing to do.” We also have different thresholds of acceptable personal risk, and these two facts color our perception of what is appropriate action to take. If one of the choices is reporting a crime and the risk is that we might lose our job or have our families threatened, we might take the easy choice of ignoring or not reporting the crime.
What troubles me is the question of limits. At what point do we finally feel enough pain to stand up and say Enough! What will it take for people to choose the right thing in spite of the potential risks? And how do we define what the right thing is? I’ve written and spoken on this topic before – it starts with definitions and curiosity instead of finger pointing and judgment. My real concern is how far we’ll allow ourselves to fall before finally placing the right thing to do above the cost-benefit. I’m not saying to disregard the evaluation of potential risks. I think that’s part of the process of understanding what would be the right thing to do! One thing is clear to me, though. Doing nothing is an unacceptable option.