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Improving our ethical climate.

Improving Our Ethical Climate: Part I

In the Vulgate Bible, there is the story of Judith, a young woman who sexually seduced the enemy general in order to save Israel from his invading army. Was she a partiot or an adulterer? A Florida man assisted his pain-ridden, terminally-ill wife to end her life. Was his behavior an act of love or murder? The local grocer places the more attractive strawberries at the top of the package. Is he being practical or deceptive?

In each of these situations, there are extenuating circumstances that make a simple yes or now answer very difficult. They leave us with far-reaching, discomforting questions about what is right, what is wrong, and how we are to determine right from wrong.

Even more disturbing is the almost constant barrage of events parading across the media headlines which show an icy contempt for the rules we try to live our lives by. Officials at a nuclear weapons facility admit concealment of potentially hazardous situations. The chief financial officer at a church-supported university admits to having hidden, with the president's knowledge, millions of dollars of debilitating debt. Still others have behaved as though there were no rules. Names like Ivan Boesky, Dennis Levine, Gary Hart, and Jim Bakker have become symbols of what appears to be a basic ethical malaise in our society. We have no difficulty in deciding that the things these people did are wrong. What bothers us is, "Why?"

As a discipline, ethics deals with questions of right and wrong, good and bad, and with moral duty and obligation. It is concerned with behavior that is judged by moral rather than judicial standards. It is self-imposed; it goes beyond obedience to externally imposed laws and regulations. Any human behavior that is subject to considerations of choice between good and bad, right and wrong, constitutes the domain of ethics.

Principles of moral conduct apply only to humans, not to the behavior of animals or the functions of machines. Ethics is, moreover, an individual matter. Groups and organizations are incapable of action; they are made up of individuals who act for them. Ethics must also be a part of our everyday lives, at home and at work, or it is nothing at all. The husband who is unfaithful to his wife--as much as the business person who cheats on a partner--creates conditions which make a mutually satisfying relationship impossible. Without honesty, there is no basis for a relationship.

Ethics is both proscriptive and prescriptive. It is not enough to merely refrain from doing wrong when there is a need to do good. In some situations, we can avoid doing wrong by doing nothing; in others, to do nothing is to do wrong.

Although there are opinions to the contrary, there is only one ethics, one morality--that of individual behavior in which the same rules apply to everyone. Admittedly, we are prone to look for and accept extenuating circumstances; we want to temper justice with mercy. We find it hard, for example, to punish the poor widow who steals bread for her starving children. We also tend to believe that it is more heinous for, say, the president of an organization to do wrong than it is for a low-level employee. But before we can accept extenuating circumstances, there has to be an offense. And the offense is the same for everyone: rich and poor, prince and pauper, the mighty and the weak.

In Part II in the next issue, Russ Holloman, a professor of organizational behavior at Augusta College in Augusta, Georgia, addresses the question of why we should be concerned about ethical behavior.
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Title Annotation:part 1
Author:Holloman, Russ
Publication:Industrial Management
Article Type:column
Date:Jul 1, 1991
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