Thanks to my work, I have recently met a very nice gentleman, who turned out to be a professor of bioethics. Our conversation then veered away from issues directly linked to the purpose of his visit (presentation of a development project with African Universities) and we began talking about the importance of teaching, studying, thinking about and recongising the importance of ethics in our work and generally, in our daily life.
He asked me a few simple questions: How do you know what’s right and what’s wrong? Where do you draw your right or wrong references from? Can you always tell one from the other ?
Right and wrong – we often think they are self evident, and often they feel like that. We all learn them at our mother’s knee. They guide our way through our lives and difficult decisions. And when you think about it, we face “ethical” decisions every day in every area of our lives.
And although there is some guidance around us, we should stop and think. Most of us follow the rules of the society we live in – the laws. The law should be an expression of right and wrong, right ? But laws are as imperfect as the humans who made them. They can’t cover all the cases we are bound to encounter. The question is more complex: not everything that is unethical is illegal and not everything that is illegal is unethical.
If I have caught your attention, let me just describe a few examples just to get you thinking harder. Are these right or wrong?:
- Slacking off work – for example taking really long lunch hours or spending hours on facebook or chatting on your phone instead of writing that report… I have even heard about people in corporate settings who go to the only place where they are not tracked – the toilets for an afternoon nap or to read a book during office hours. Each of us has done some slacking off work at one point, although it is clearly unethical.
- Taking the bus or metro without paying. Clearly against the transporter’s rules and unethical as any freeloading. Would you go to a dinner with friends in a restaurant and refuse to share the bill ?
- Lying, because we all do that… That report you are waiting for? I have sent it to you, the e-mail must have gotten lost… or no honey, this skirt does not make you look fat… no pumpkin, there is no more chocolate, here, have a banana. Can you think of a situation when lying would be morally acceptable? If in a dictatorship, the police showed up at your house and asked if you were hiding rebels (who would actually be hiding in your house) would you lie ? And would that still be wrong ?
- Taxes and the social contract – as demonstrated by the umpteenth scandal linked to tax evasion (Panama Papers), there is – at least in many European countries, but not only it seems – an increasingly bad will on the part of those who earn good money to part with even a portion of it in the form of tax, even though they benefit greatly from the services the State provides. In some cases and states, it not only is the new norm, but those not compliant to this norm are ridiculed. When I worked a freelancer and scrupulously paid all the taxes I owed, I remember vividly my entrepreneur friends laughing at my naivete and wondering why I wanted to “sponsor the State”. My ethical judgment did not allow me, as it clearly did them, to withdraw from the social contract and keep benefiting from the services the state provides without contributing my share to its upkeep.
- Downloading illegally from the internet – another ethical issue we all face daily, sometimes without realising is the consumption of illegally downloaded music, videos or books or sharing these against applicable intellectual property protection rules. Think about that next time you try to get access to US netflix offer while in Bombay…
- Jaywalking or passing on a red light. Clearly illegal. And unethical, as you are putting others at risk. But what about in the middle of the night in an isolated spot in the countryside, where you clearly see that there is no one around. Is it still unethical?
- At work, the ethical issues are also omnipresent. Do you obey your boss even though you know that his ideas are wrong and could damage the company/project? Do you voice your disagreement when someone takes credit for someone else’s work/bright idea?
- In our family lives, the ethical dilemmas are even more numerous – what is the right thing to do: stay at home with your child until he goes to school (or do you go further and homeschool him/her)? Or you put him/her in daycare and go back to work to ensure a better material life? how do you care for your grandma with Alzheimers, do you do it youself or do you rely on an institution? What about your grandmother who does not want to be resuscitated if she has a stroke? Do you comply with her wishes?
- And what is the right thing to do when your child gets in trouble and he is in the wrong ? do you always side with him whatever the situation because that’s what parents do or do you try to be “fair”? What should parents of criminals, murderers or terrorists do?
- Buying fair trade or organic products, caring about animal welfare, vegetarianism, recycling, driving a diesel, giving or not giving to charity or the beggar in the street… the list of the ethical conundrums we face every day is potentially endless…
We each of us emerge from our childhood and young adulthood with some ideas about right and wrong, sometimes these are beaten into us, sometimes gently nurtured. However, our ethical thinking is honed when we are faced with unprecedented situations in our lives. And we have to accept, that sometimes, the answer we obtain is not clear cut, can be influenced by the social context, our knowledge, our culture and religion and by the pressures we face. Sometimes, we can’t reach a satisfactory answer and then have to live with the uncertainty.
If you still find this discussion interesting, I have listed below a selection of reading and other resources that have helped me think about ethics in different ways:
- Justice – the online course by lauded Harvard professor Michael Sandel has been a major eye-opening experience for me and a great inspiration to thinking more about life’s decisions and what is “fair”.
- “The Mother” – a play by Karel Capek – a Czech author otherwise known for the play R.U.R. which used the word robot for the first time… in the play, the idea of pacifism is explored as well as its limits.
- Alexander McCall Smith in his “Isabel Dalhousie novels” (The Sunday Philosophy Club)- a charming and inspiring peek in the mind of a gentle and kind Edinburgh philosopher Isabel Dalhousie, editor of the “Review of Applied Ethics”
- For those interested in WWII and the related ethical questions, the books to read are Death is my Trade by Robert Merle or Eichmann in Jerusalem by Hannah Arendt. they explore the ethical responsibility attached to “obeing an order”.
- Check out any article on “patenting life”, intellectual property rules and exceptions (such as access to medicines for developing countries), or discussions on euthanasia for ethics and IPR.
- Or you can google some classic ethical (also called moral) dilemmas that are used in psychology classes. To meditate.
- or just read some Dilbert online :-).
My wonderful guest left my office that day with an interesting remark: “I am positively surprised that sitting in a (Brussels) office, you still manage to think about ethics.” Thank you. My pleasure.