Ethics for the Real World, by Ronald A. Howard and Clinton D. Korver (Hardcover, 2008)|
(You can print this review in landscape mode, if you
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Mark Lamendola, author of over 6,000 articles.
This is perhaps the best book on ethics that I
have ever read. It's practical and well-written. It's instructive,
instead of preachy. The authors don't attempt to guilt-trip you into
being a better person. They don't provide a list of heroes for you to
emulate. They don't provide a list of do's and don'ts, saying you have
to do A, B, and C or you're not ethical.
What this book provides is a way of thinking about
ethics, so that you can examine your own ethical questions and provide
an ethical code that works for you at the time you most need it to. And
that code will work for you because you've done the armchair thinking
about it before being thrust into the pressure cooker of a situation. We
may think faster when under pressure, but seldom do we think clearly. As
the authors put it, you want a response rather than a reaction.
The timing of this book could not be better.
At the time of this book's publication, the nation
is reeling from the effects of a series of dramatic ethical lapses.
These include the original AIG fiasco, the followup AIG fiascos, the
$700 billion pork barrel spending measure that incidentally included an
AIG bailout (which amounted to a $27,000 tax per wage earner), and the
subprime lending crisis. All of which occurred due to poor ethical
We just finished a non-election for President, in
which ballot access games kept the second major party (Libertarian
Party) from being on the ballot in all 50 (or 57, depending on whom you
believe) states while allowing the Demopublican Party to put both of its
candidates on the Texas ballot despite having missed the deadline. The
nation is staggering under an $11 trillion debt on a $13 trillion
economy, yet both Demopublican candidates advocated even larger federal
budgets and more spending--essentially saying they would bring a
gasoline truck to this house fire.
Yet, people actually voted for them. The standard
excuse is, "I chose the lesser of two evils," with no thought to the
fact that the lesser of two evils is still evil. And thus, choosing the
lesser of two evils is not a sound ethical choice. As the saying goes,
it doesn't matter which end of a turd you pick up, your fingers will
And now the "winner" is talking about spending
another $500 billion to stimulate even more debt and even more financial
distress. Meanwhile, the Pentagon burns through $21 million an hour on
an acquisition program that has a 95% failure rate. This non-election
merely perpetuated a system of theft that was a problem when President
Eisenhower commented on it half a century ago.
By any rational measure, this is a colossal
ethical failure on a massive scale.
Against this background emerges an excellent book
on personal ethics. It doesn't point fingers at others, but instead goes
to a place where real and sustainable change can occur. That place is in
the individual. It's in the choices you and I make. We can adopt a
method of thinking that gives us the power to draw bright lines and not
be dragged down slippery slopes.
Are we, as individuals, going to follow "our"
government into the muck? Or are we going to uphold the basic tenets of
fair play that allow a society to be functional? We are now all at that
particular fork in the road. But while the heart says "Yes" to taking
the right path, the head needs help. This book provides that help.
Can you look back with regret on ethical choices
you have made? I certainly can look back on my own ethical failures and
wish I had chosen differently. Why did I do something that I would
regret later? How can I not fall into that trap again? The answers to
these and other questions are in this book.
The authors take a practical, methodical approach.
This isn't a rah-rah book that provides a series of weepy stories to
"motivate" you to higher ethics. Most of us are already motivated. We
don't want to be part of the evil that is so prevalent. We want to make
the world around us a better place wherever we come into contact with
it. We want people to respect us and we want to sleep well at night. And
most of us want to do the right thing simply because it's the right
thing to do. We already have all the motivation we need.
And, of course, there is no lack of opportunity
for making ethical choices. Every temptation is such a choice. And in
today's society, temptation is everywhere. What's missing is the
means. How do you develop an ethical framework that:
- Fits your ideals of right and wrong?
- Is workable and realistic for you?
- Is already there when you face an ethical
- Can change as your views change over time?
- Doesn't allow you to roll small lapses into
larger ones (snowball or slippery slope effect)?
- You can articulate in all circumstances?
This book provides that, and more. What it doesn't
provide is a means of judging others, which is a behavior that tends to
undermine our own individual ethics program. What's ethical for you may
be unethical for someone else, and vice-versa. Looking at another
person's ethics may help you analyze your own, but going in the reverse
direction is dangerous for a long list of reasons. Because it can be
helpful to see how others have developed their own code of ethics, the
authors provide three examples.
There is a
difference between ethical, legal, and moral. The book makes this clear
in the beginning. Many poor ethical choices are not poor moral choices.
Many poor ethical choices are legal, and an illegal choice may be
ethical. Sorting this out and getting the fundamentals right is where
the book begins.
The Introduction does far
more than give you a feel for what's coming in the rest of the book.
It's not just a summary or a few nice words to get things kicked off. It
goes to the core concepts of what the book is about and how to use the
book. This book is about gaining the skill to make the right ethical
decisions. That skill must be learned, and most of us have little
education in this area.
The Introduction is
followed by seven chapters, an epilogue, and two appendices. So while it
departs from the normal ten chapter format of nonfiction works, the
authors could have changed labels a bit to get that format. But there is
logic to their layout, and I like the fact they chose function over
The first three chapters delve into
the problem of knowing where to draw the line. This is where we get into
trouble. Just where are the boundaries of a gray area, and just where is
the line between right and wrong? When tempted, it's natural to engage
in fuzzy thinking to make the wrong choice. For example, we know it's
unethical to lie. But if you could tell a lie to stop a murder, would
you? Most of us would. So, where does this "make an exception" thing
Maybe you don't want to hurt someone's
feelings, so you lie. What does that put in motion? Is lying your only
choice? No, it's not. This is why having an ethical code is so
important. Chapter Four discusses how to draft your own ethical code.
Chapter Five builds on that by explaining the
alternatives to the "do nothing" choice that people often make. The
authors provide several examples. One I wish they would have included is
this one. The US Congress does nothing in the face of overwhelming
evidence that the IRS is a bastion of crime (its employees stole 4300
computers from their own offices in one year alone) and costs the
Treasury more revenue than it raises (compliance costs exceed the actual
taxes by billions of dollars).
Turn a blind
eye to evil, and you may not be an accomplice. But you're an enabler.
Chapters Six and Seven explain how to use your
ethical code to transform your personal life and your work life. I think
for most of us, these are the primary areas of ethical unrest. It's here
where we have the opportunities to most affect our own happiness and to
have the most positive effect on those around us. Concluding the main
text with examination of these two areas is fitting.
While the book is about developing the skills
required for ethical thinking and ethical decision-making, the Epilogue
discusses making a habit out of using those skills. Habits develop
through repeated actions, and actions derive from thoughts. Habits are
the bricks from which we build character, and our character determines
our destiny. The Epilogue provides several gems of practical advice for
developing the right habits.
provides a flow chart you can use to help visualize the ethical
decision-making process. In Appendix B, three people of very different
backgrounds have written out their personal ethical codes.
A section that should probably have been labeled
Appendix C is titled "Our Messages." This provides a chapter by chapter
listing, with page numbers, of each concept. The concepts are always
stated in a short, simple manner. For example, "The biased language
test" is in Chapter Two, on page 45. It's a sort of index, and I think
it's a remarkably useful way to find things.
The entire book is remarkably useful. If you have a
"must read" list, put this book on that list. But don't just stick it on
a shelf after you read it. Use it to help you develop thinking skills
and ethical habits that will give you the peace and happiness that are
so threatened in these tumultuous, ethically-challenged times.