Blogs & Comment

L.I.F.E. lessons: A short guide to ethics

How to go about making ethical decisions, quite generally?

In this blog, I spend a lot of time talking about particular ethical issues in the world of commerce. “What are the limits on honesty in business?” “How should we handle conflicts of interest?” And so on. But one of the questions I get asked most frequently, as a professor and as a consultant, is about how to go about making ethical decisions, quite generally. It’s not an easy question. There have been many, many attempts to sum up our ethical obligations, none of them fully satisfactory. Naturally, you’re never going to find a brief summary — let alone a slogan or single word — that captures everything about how we ought to think about complex issues involving a range of values, virtues, and principles. But it can be useful to think in terms of a brief acronym that serves to jog the memory, to remind us of the major elements that make up our ethical responsibilities.

One way to think of ethics is in terms of what I call “L.I.F.E. Lessons.” Each of the letters in “L.I.F.E.” stands for a word that should play a crucial role in our moral reasoning:

L is for Loyalty. The “L” in “L.I.F.E.” reminds us that loyalty is in many ways the first virtue of organizational life. Loyalty, of course, should never be absolute: being loyal to your company or to your friends doesn’t imply that your company or your friends can do no wrong. Loyalty doesn’t mean being morally agnostic or refusing to take action when you see wrong being done. The focus on loyalty here is just to remind us that in various roles — as employee, as trustee, as leader — you have been entrusted by others to do your job and to do it right. When we voluntarily associate ourselves with particular people and organizations, the default setting is that they deserve our loyalty.

I is for Integrity. The “I” in “L.I.F.E.” reminds us that each of us should aim at integrity. Each of us is responsible for our own actions, and those actions should add up to a clear and consistent pattern of honest and trustworthy behaviour.

F is for Fairness. The “F” in “L.I.F.E.” reminds us of the importance of treating each other fairly. We should treat like cases alike, and give people what they are owed. Fairness is a value that has to do with the fact that we want not just to do good in the world, but to make sure that that good is distributed justly — whatever justice demands in particular cases.

E is for Empathy. Finally, the “E” in “L.I.F.E.” reminds us of the importance of figuring out how other people feel, in ethically-contentious situations, and what their point of view is. We need empathy in order a) to understand the impact that our actions really have on others, as well as b) to understand other people’s reasons, when our ethical judgment differs from theirs.

Again, there’s nothing magical about this way of thinking about ethics. It’s just a mnemonic, a kind of memory-jogger. Acting appropriately requires much more than this, especially on complex organizational contexts involving special role-specific obligations.

But still, I think the idea of “L.I.F.E. Lessons” amounts to a pretty good heuristic. We all know that loyalty, integrity, fairness, and empathy are crucial ingredients to leading an ethically-sound life, but it’s good to be reminded. And if life hasn’t taught you these lessons yet, those around you can only hope that it eventually will.