What New Year’s resolutions will people like Lewis “Scooter” Libby make with regard to ethics? What about his colleagues in Washington, D.C.? State government? Local government? Businesses? Educational institutions? Churches? Families?
As the year 2006 awaits, we all need to reassess the ethics by which we live. When I taught philosophy at Illinois Central College, the discussions on ethics and values always were animated. We all carry a philosophy of life derived from some source or another. Putting the life philosophy into practice is the work of values and ethics. They’re tested when we have to make decisions and choices. We decide most of the time without pondering our ethical position, mostly because it’s ingrained in us.
From time to time, it’s important to evaluate our value system and reflect on our ethical standards—as individuals and as businesses or institutions that employ individuals. So where do we start?
First, we need to reflect on our life philosophy. Most, if not all, organizations originate with individuals, and the business reflects their life philosophy. Sometimes there’s a negative approach: “We’re not going to be like that business.” Often, however, the approach is positive: “Here’s what we stand for. Here’s the value we add to our employees, our investors, our customers, and our community.” Is it time for you or your company to re-evaluate your life philosophy?
There are five essential life philosophy approaches: transcendent (divine or dictatorial direction), immanent (direction from within and from one’s being), determinism (direction from one’s genetic code), utilitarian (direction from the pragmatic and the greatest good for the greatest number), and hedonist (direction from personal pleasure or desire). Sometimes people blend life philosophies—again, often without knowing. That very well may be the dominant view in Washington—utilitarianism (what helps the many as we define it) blended with hedonism (whatever we can get out of the situation). In another arena, religious conservatives in the United States focus on the transcendent in political life and blend it with determinism and utilitarianism so that God’s plan (as they understand it) can be imposed not only in their own lives, but in every life.
So, life philosophy can have very practical outcomes at work and in personal life. From there, it’s vital to reflect on values. One excellent source of value reflection is Edward DeBono’s book, Six Value Medals. DeBono helps employees and their managers assess their value systems to see if they’re compatible with the value system of the workplace or organization. Values ultimately are the system by which we operate and how we put our life philosophy to work.
The next step is to develop ethical standards—how life philosophy and values play out in the ongoing decisions that have to be made. As we know, some of those decisions can be very difficult. People need to be given a certain degree of latitude and freedom in decision-making—but also a way to ask whether the decisions are in line with the values and philosophy the business or institution represents. The sad truth is that many of us in America are very pragmatic—so we say, “Well, let’s do whatever works.” Or, as someone like Scooter Libby might say, “Let’s do what it takes to warn others to toe the line.”
When do we reflect on our life philosophy, values, and ethical approaches? Usually, we have to be thrown into a crisis. We’re accused of violating the law. We have a child who gets into trouble. A parent dies. We have a board that’s angry with a decision we’ve made. The stress response kicks in. We do what we feel we have to do in the situation—but after a time, we start to think about the meaning of the situation. Then we have a choice: react, resist, or reflect.
We can choose to reflect on the eve of a new year. Often, when we make New Year’s resolutions, we’re ambitious and eager to change or modify ourselves or to prepare for a major step in life. Then, after a short time, we forget, become preoccupied, react to situations, or justify why we aren’t changing. At some point, however, businesses or individuals need to move through a deep reflection to determine the ongoing principles that will sustain us through change or crisis. Better to anticipate than react—and better to think deeply rather than do whatever will keep us out of trouble. IBI