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Making Ethical Decisions
by Michael Josephson

2002 edition
ISBN 1-888869-1 3-7

02002 Josephson Institute of Ethics
9841 Airport Blvd., Suite 300

Los Angeles, CA 90045
(31 0) 846-4800 / (31 0) 846-4857, fax

The mission of the nonprofit, nonpartisan JOSEPH
is to improve the ethical quality of society by
changing personal and organizational decision
making and behavior. Nationally active and based in
southern California, the Institute uses presentations,
consulting, community trainings, workshops and
publications to help focus the moral energy of
people who want to do something to make our
society more honest, fair, caring and accountable.

Wes Hanson, editor
with Dan McNeill

Cover and publication design
Wes Hanson

Page 10

claim credit for the work of others. He considers the likely consequences of
his behavior and associations. He recognizes the common complicity in the
triumph of evil when nothing is done to stop it. He leads by example.

Pursuit of Excellence

The pursuit of excellence has an ethical dimension when others rely
upon our knowledge, ability or willingness to perform tasks safely and

Diligence. It is hardly unethical to make mistakes or to be less than
"excellent," but there is a moral obligation to do one's best, to be
diligent, reliable, careful, prepared and informed.

Perseverance. Responsible people finish what they start, overcoming
rather than surrendering to obstacles. They avoid excuses such as,
"That's just the way I am," or "It's not my job," or "It was legal."

Continual Improvement. Responsible people always look for ways
to do their work better.

Self-Restrain t

Responsible people exercise self-control, restraining passions and
appetites (such as lust, hatred, gluttony, greed and fear) for the sake of
longer-term vision and betterjudgment. They delay gratification if neces-
sary and never feel it's necessary to "win at any cost." They realize they
are as they choose to be, every day.


What is fairness? Most would agree it involves issues of equality,
impartiality, proportionality, openness and due process. Most would agree
that it is unfair to handle similar matters inconsistently. Most would agree
that it is unfair to impose punishment that is not commensurate with the
offense. The basic concept seems simple, even intuitive, yet applying it in
daily life can be surprisingly difficult. Fairness is another tricky concept,
probably more subject to legitimate debate and interpretation than any
other ethical value. Disagreeing parties tend to maintain that there is only
one fair position (their own, naturally). But essentially fairness implies
adherence to a balanced standard of justice without reference to one's
own biases or interests.


Process is crucial in settling disputes, both to reach the fairest results and
to minimize complaints. A fair person scrupulously employs open and
impartial processes for gathering and evaluating information necessary
to make decisions. Fair people do not wait for the truth to come to them;
they seek out relevant information and conflicting perspectives before
making important judgments.

Decisions should be made without favoritism or prejudice.


An individual, company or society should correct mistakes, promptly and
voluntarily. It is improper to take advantage of the weakness or ignorance
of others.

If you existed alone in the universe, there would be no need for ethics
and your heart could be a cold, hard stone. Caring is the heart of ethics,
and ethical decision-making. It is scarcely possible to be truly ethical
and yet unconcerned with the welfare of others. That is because ethics is
ultimately about good relations with other people.

It is easier to love "humanity" than to love people. People who con-
sider themselves ethical and yet lack a caring attitude toward individuals
tend to treat others as instruments of their will. They rarely feel an obliga-
tion to be honest, loyal, fair or respectful except insofar as it is prudent
for them to do so, a disposition which itself hints at duplicity and a lack
of integrity. Aperson who really cares feels an emotional response to both
the pain and pleasure of others.

Of course, sometimes we must hurt those we truly care for, and some
decisions, while quite ethical, do cause pain. But one should consciously
cause no more harm than is reasonably necessary to perform one's duties.

The highest form of caring is the honest expression of benevolence, or
altruism. This is not to be confused with strategic charity. Gifts to charities
to advance personal interests are a fraud. That is, they aren't gifts at all.
They're investments or tax write-offs.

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III. Groundwork for Making
Citizenship includes civic virtues and duties that prescribe how we

ought to behave as part of a community. The good citizen knows the laws
and obeys them, yes, but that's not all. She volunteers and stays informed
on the issues of the day, the better to execute her duties and privileges as
a member of a self-governing democratic society. She does more than her
"fair" share to make society work, now and for future generations. Such
a commitment to the public sphere can have many expressions, such as
conserving resources, recycling, using public transportation and cleaning
up litter. The good citizen gives more than she takes.

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Whether or not we realize it at the time, all our words, actions
and attitudes reflect choices. A foundation to good decision-making is
acceptance of two core principles: 1) we all have the power to decide
what we do and what we say and 2) we are morally responsible for the


consequences of our choices.

Sometimes the power to choose is not self-evident. Outside control
and inner emotions can leave one feeling powerless. Especially when
one is young or immature, feelings of joy and depression, anger, fear,
fixstration, grief, anxiety, resentment, jealousy, guilt, loneliness, love and
lust seem to come and go on their own, creating moods that may seem
beyond control. The intensity of our feelings can encourage us to act and
react impulsively as if we had no choice. We may not have the power to
do everything we want to do, but we still have the power to decide what
to do with what we have. And that is power enough.

Often people think the responsibility is avoidable. Young or immature
individuals are notorious for laying the blame for their actions on others:
"You made me lie," "I had to take the car without your permission," "I
had no choice," or "It just happened." We need to teach our children
that even though they may not like their choices they still have choices
- and the responsibility to make them wisely. What is more, the power
and responsibility associated with choice exists even when it is extremely
difficult to be reflective. Anger, fixstration, fear and passion are not
acceptable excuses for bad choices (including bad attitudes).

I Let's look at the components of good choices more closely.

Taking Choices Seriously

We all make thousands of decisions daily. Most of them do not justify
extended forethought. They are simple, repetitive or without significant
consequence. In such cases, it may be safe to just go with our feelings.
It's OK to decide spontaneously what to wear and eat and what to say in
casual conversations. When the issues are not morally complex and the
stakes are small, our normal instincts are sufficient.

O JOSEPHSON INSTITUTE Making Ethical Decisions

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VI. Being the Person
You Wamk 80 Be

'Character is knowing the good,
loving the good and doing the good. "

- Thomas Lickona

"Character is what you are in the dark. "
- Rev. Dwight Moody

Ethical decisions have consequences, and one long-term consequence
is to make you into a person of character. But what is character? It is the
sum of one's distinctive traits, qualities and predilections, and amounts
to one's moral constitution. Everyone has a character of some sort, but
not everyone "has character." Having character is shorthand for having
good character, and that means being a person who is admirable because
of his self-assured, ethical behavior. Character is ethics in action.

"One's character is one's habitual way of behaving," education
scholars Thomas Lickona, Eric Schaps and Catherine Lewis have
written. "We all have patterns of behavior or habits and often we are quite
unaware of them. When Socrates urged us to 'Know thyself,' he clearly
was directing us to come to know our habitual ways of responding to the
world around us."

Character is not the same thing as reputation. Character is what you
are. Reputation is what people say you are. Abraham Lincoln likened
character to a tree and reputation to its shadow.

Conscience is the awareness of a moral aspect to one's conduct; it urges
us to prefer right over wrong. Because not everyone has good character,
not everyone has a reliable conscience. After all, a bad person with no
conscience at all feels just as good as a person with a clear conscience.
Having a bad conscience is not necessarily a bad thing - it's a sign that
one at least knows right from wrong. As Elvis Presley said, "When your
intelligence don't tell you something ain't right, your conscience gives
you a tap on the shoulder and says, 'Hold on.' If you don't listen, you're
a snake." More people would listen to their conscience if they liked what
it had to say.

o JOSEPHSON INSTITUTE Making Ethical Decisions 31

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Where Does Character Come From?

No one is born with good character. It's not hereditary. Yet everyone,
regardless of background, enters the world with the opportunity to become
a person of exemplary character.

Character has to be developed. "We are born with a potential for
good character - and for the dispositions and habits that make up bad or
weak character," writes education scholar Edwin Delattre. "Because we
are born in ignorance of moral ideals, we must be instructed or trained if
we are to achieve a good second nature."

Whether we give in to or overcome the negative messages and
influences we face often depends on whether our parents, teachers, mentors
and friends have exposed us to their own good example and morally
inspiring ideas.

"Building character" refers to the process of instilling within a person
positive, ethical traits based on principles that can be expressed many ways.
For reasons of convenience and ease of recognition, they are summarized
as the Six Pillars of Character: trustworthiness, respect, responsibility,
fairness, caring and citizenship.

On Happiness

Ask struggling adolescents why they get high on drugs or alcohol or
seek sex without intimacy or commitment and they're likely to tell you
they just want to be happy. Ask young professionals why they're so driven
to make money and they'll talk about all the things they'd get if they were
rich, things that will make them happy. Ask adults why they had affairs
or left their families and you'll hear it again: "I just want to be happy."
So, why aren't more people happy?

One problem is unrealistic expectations. Some people think of
happiness as a continuous series of pleasurable emotions, as feeling good
all the time. Others expect a much more intense or lasting feeling of joy
when they achieve a desired goal. As a result, when getting what they want
doesn't produce the feelings they expected they fall into despondency.

There's great danger in confusing a sustainable state of happiness
with fleeting sensations of pleasure and fun. Those who make pleasure-
seeking the focus of their lives soon find themselves needing new and

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different sources ofpleasure. It's like a drug addict who needs continually
higher doses to get high.

Happiness is a kind of emotional resting place of quiet satisfaction with
one's life. It has been said that the art of living a happy life is a balance
between getting what you want and learning to want what you get.

Traditionally, there are four main sources of real happiness: loving
relationships, enjoyable work, service to others and faith.

Let's start with relationships. Are you spending enough time and energy
nurturing this dimension of life? It may be possible to love what you do so
much that you don't need other people, but more often than not, those who
fail to develop and sustain meaningful relationships -with friends, family,
life partners - regret their priorities when they find themselves alone. And
it's not just success-obsessed executives who lament the lost opportunities
of loving and being loved. Ministers, teachers, police officers and politicians
-people who devote their lives to serving others -may be especially apt
to neglect the people they need (and who need them) the most.

Is your work likely to make you happy? Of course, not everyone has
the luxury of having a job they love. Unfortunately, these kinds of jobs
don't often pay well and, after all, a job is how one makes a living. Still,
many people put up with boring or unpleasant work situations because
they place too much weight on what they earn and where they work and
too little on what they do. If work is not emotionally rewarding you may
want to consider trade-offs as an investment in happiness.

Helen Keller said, "True happiness is not attained through self-
gratification, but through fidelity to a worthy purpose." Albert Schweitzer
said, "One thing I know: the only ones among you who will be really
happy are those who will have sought and found how to serve." These
observations should remind us of the potency of peace of mind and sense
of value one can get from making and following through on ethical

O JOSEPHSON INSTITUTE Making Ethical Decisions 33

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