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Book Review of: Ethics {for the Real World}

Creating a Personal Code to Guide Decisions in Work and Life

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Review of 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 want a hardcopy)

Reviewer: 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 choices

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 still stink.

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 choice?
  • 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 form.

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 end?

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.

Appendix A 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.




About these reviews

You may be wondering why the reviews here are any different from the hundreds of "reviews" posted online. Notice the quotation marks?

I've been reviewing books for sites like Amazon for many years now, and it dismays me that Amazon found it necessary to post a minimum word count for reviews. It further dismays me that it's only 20 words. If that's all you have to say about a book, why bother?

And why waste everyone else's time with such drivel? As a reader of such reviews, I feel like I am being told that I do not matter. The flippancy of people who write these terse "reviews" is insulting to the authors also, I would suspect.

This sound bite blathering taking the place of any actual communication is increasingly a problem in our mindless, blog-posting Webosphere. Sadly, Google rewards such pointlessness as "content" so we just get more if this inanity.

My reviews, contrary to current (non) standards, actually tell you about the book. I always got an "A" on a book review I did as a kid (that's how I remember it anyhow, and it's my story so I'm sticking to it). A book review contains certain elements and has a logical structure. It informs the reader about the book.

A book review may also tell the reader whether the reviewer liked it, but revealing a reviewer's personal taste is not necessary for an informative book review.

About your reviewer

  • Books are a passion of mine. I read dozens of them each year, plus I listen to audio books.
  • Most of my "reading diet" consists of nonfiction. I think life is too short to use your limited reading time on material that has little or no substance. That leads into my next point...
  • In 1990, I stopped watching television. I have not missed it. At all.
  • I was first published as a preteen. I wrote an essay, and my teacher submitted it to the local paper.
  • For six years, I worked as an editor for a trade publication. I left that job in 2002, and still do freelance editing and authoring for that publication (and for other publications).
  • No book has emerged from my mind onto the best-seller list. So maybe I'm presumptuous in judging the work of others. Then again, I do more describing than judging in my reviews. And I have so many articles now published that I stopped counting them at 6,000. When did I stop? Probably 20,000 articles ago! (It's been a while).
  • I have an engineering degree and an MBA, among other "quant" degrees. That helps explain my methodical approach toward reviews.
  • You probably don't know anybody who has made a perfect or near perfect score on a test of Standard Written English. I have. So, a credential for whatever it's worth.

About reading style

No, I do not "speed read" through these. That said, I do read at a fast rate. But, in contrast to speed reading, I read everything when I read a book for review.

Speed reading is a specialized type of reading that requires skipping text as you go. Using this technique, I've been able to consistently "max out" a speed reading machine at 2080 words per minute with 80% comprehension. This method is great if you are out to show how fast you can read. But I didn't use it in graduate school and I don't use it now. I think it takes the joy out of reading, and that pleasure is a big part of why I read.

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