An Ethics Primer

i picked up a copy of bruce weinstein’s life principles: feeling good by doing good. here’s a summary (and some deeper thoughts) of this ethics primer. in his book, there are five guidelines that he identifies as ethics; a chapter is devoted to each one of them, and within it explains the basic tenets of the eithical guideline, its origins, as well as its societal and personal benefits when it is followed. i was inspired to write about this book moreso when, as i was explaining this book to a friend, realized i had forgotten one of the tenets…leave it to personal feelings of guilt to prompt writing…!

in any case, the book has a 10-question ‘ethics test,’ where you choose one of three responses to a particular situation, then add up the totals from the convenient answer key; the result serves you as a current ethical meter, and advises you on the rest of the book and how much you ought to pay attention to its contents. fortunately for me, i scored a 28 out of 30 on my first go-round, though i suspect that personally i may not live up to such scrutiny at all times; the author himself admits that although he’s earned the ‘ethics guy’ moniker, he also faces ethical dilemmas to which he must apply his own thinking to navigate. in essence: if you score poorly on this test, don’t take it too hard: even the ethics guy can’t walk the high road all the time.

here are some notes on the five ethical statements included in the book.

do no harm. this refers to not just the most obvious notion of harm–physical–but also emotional and psychical. in this chapter, thoughts that immediately come to mind include those regarding government coercion, and how government often acts as the “strongarm” for the average citizen. people often vote for those who proclaim they are ‘tough on crime’ or will give no quarter to drug users and welfare mothers; in essence, people sidestep this ethical dilemma by ‘permitting’ government to exercise their monopoly of force against individuals they’d rather not engage with.

make things better. part of this ethical tenet is an extension of the previous: it’s easy to say hey, i didn’t cause someone harm today…being in the office all day has its perks! but, like the surgeon who successfully excises cancer from their patient, people ought to work towards improving life for themselves and others.

an interesting centerpiece to weinstein’s analysis of this chapter is a “bullseye” diagram he included. at the center of the diagram is YOU, and radiating outward are concentric levels of other individuals to whom one is most often connected. life partner/spouse is the first of the rings; then immediate family; then extended family; followed by close friends; etc. i initially took issue with this, as it at the very least hints to hierarchy in personal relationships, at least in part imposed by society. however, it also can be of great assistance in guiding ones priorities and boundaries…after all, for many people it is always most difficult to say “no” to a request. to whom do we say no, and when?

some of the dilemmas pointed out in this chapter are: cleaning up after oneself in a fast food restaurant; regifting things you don’t want to others; offering forgiveness to both friends and family members.

respect others. when initially describing this book to my friend, i erroneously recounted this ethic as merely “tell the truth,” as it’s the component that seemed the most prominent to me. honesty is, in fact, only part of the ethical tenet outlined in this chapter; keeping promises and respecting privacy/confidentiality being the other two.

dilemmas described and analyzed in this chapter include situations when one may be tempted to drop a commitment made to one friend in favour of another that seems more tempting; adultery; maintaining trust and confidence in others’ personal matters when they’re divulged to you; “flaking out” at the last minute when dealing with one’s friends. weinstein refers in this chapter frequently to peoples’ temptation to ask themselves, “what’s in it for me?” he indicates (and I’m sure we can all relate) that people frequently give in to immediacy and temptations at the expense of others and their respect. white lies fall into this category.

be fair. this is the ethical tenet i completely forgot when describing the book. it describes several forms of “justice” found in society.

distributive justice: dividing, rationing, or otherwise distributing limited resources. one uses distributive justice when dividing candy evenly between all those in a group, because there’s only so much to go around and there’s no one not entitled to an equal share.
retributive justice: punishment for those who violate social mores, procedures, and rules of conduct.
rectificatory justice: addressing those who are untreated fairly; those who do not receive their fair share during the distributive justice event. i remain unconvinced that “rectificatory” is a real word…but the idea of “making things right” is still there.

repaying creditors, reporting dishonesty, and dealing with demanding/selfish customers all make an appearance in this chapter. this is actually the longest and most substantive description of any of the ethical tenets in the book. it’s all the more saddening that i’d initially forgotten to mention it specifically in my first explanation of it.

be loving. the author admits that to “be loving” urges us to clearly above and beyond the normal call of societal duty. he includes, however, a french proverb that resonated with me: “love is the child of freedom, never of domination.” this is actually a strong component of the teachings of alan watts, glenn allport, and others of my favourite authors. essentially: life would be so much better if people cared about someone other than themselves more often. this goes hand in hand with all the other ethics discussed in the book, and in fact knits them together into a total package of ethical behaviour, outlining how, if you behave in an ethical manner, chances are you’re going to be a friendlier, happier person.

not only should one be loving to others, but they should be loving to themselves. it is important to not be a relationship doormat, with a partner who walks all over you. also, one should not hold grudges or harbor bitterness for others due to perceived wrongs or envy.

the source of life principles. this chapter is significant, as it attempts to point out the similarities between all the world’s major religions by identifying all their adherence to these five life principles. fortunately, he doesn’t leave us agnostic atheists out there on our own; he points out there’s not only a self-serving component to these life principles, but also a secular, “common sense” root to all five. in essence, “we get what we give” is the main message of this chapter, irrespective of one’s convictions, religious or otherwise.

challenges of life principles. there may be times when the life principles seem contradictory to uphold simultaneously: a surgeon who is faced with assisting a patient with a procedure that violates the surgeon’s personal religious convictions; giving someone a truthful answer when they ask “does this dress make me look fat?” etc. some situations require that the ethical person rank these ethical guidelines in terms of importance.

also noted in this chapter is the importance of taking time to objectively apply the life principles to ethical decisions, when possible. choosing to “take the high road” is cited frequently in the book, but no more often than in this chapter. weinstein reminds the reader of the moral irrelevance of “mob mentality” and peer pressure, and that one should serve as an example to others by remaining consistent in their ethical behaviour.

this chapter in particular reminded me of a vivid example described in debbie ford’s book the right questions. in it, she asks the reader to imagine that each question or dilemma one faces is like standing in front of a furnace. if a positive choice is made, then more fuel is added to that fire; if a negative or self-abusive choice is made, then instead of fuel ashes are tossed on the fire. though simplistic and a bit too reductive to effectively illustrate all the choices along the spectrum in real life, i frequently think of that image when i come across ethical or personal dilemmas of my own. in ford’s book, as well as weinstein’s, we are reminded that making ethical choices must remain a conscious, deliberate effort; only then will ethical behaviour become a habit. ours is a life shaped by the choices we make, and we would be well to deliberately choose the ethical path.

in closing, life lessons suggests five questions one must ask to effectively and ethically address a situation:

–> will this action harm someone or something? if so, what course of action will allow me to avoid causing harm?
–> will this action make things better for all involved? if not, what might do so?
–> will this action be respectful of others?
–> will this action be fair?
–> will this action be the loving thing to do?

in truth, i wrote this review to remind myself of these questions. as to the reader: your mileage may vary (but find and read the book when you can, then i won’t be stuck with the blame).

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