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The Column - Maria Simpson

The Column

  • Writer's pictureMaria Simpson Ph.D.

It's the Little Things

Ethics seem to be in the press more frequently than usual lately. I had to take an ethics training a while ago, and the most interesting thing I learned was about how unethical behavior develops. Unless the circumstances are unusual or even dire, we don’t simply decide to be unethical. Instead, we take actions like doing small favors, which might not be particularly harmful or even noticeable. They strengthen a relationship or make us feel as if we are doing something nice for someone even if we have a few small reservations. Eventually though, we find ourselves wondering how we got to where we are, especially if we’re about to damage our reputations or lose important relationships, not to mention maybe going to jail if the small favors have become too big. Ethics is a code of moral standards for members of a group that defines how they treat each other. For doctors, it’s “First, do no harm.” To me it’s pretty simple: the golden rule. Treat others as you want to be treated. Be respectful and kind. Be honest. If ethical behavior is so clear, how do we get ourselves to the point where we feel trapped into doing something we don’t want to do? Alas, little by little. It’s mostly peer pressure called the nudge. The nudge is a subtle form of persuasion based on fear of being excluded from a group that’s important to us or feeling guilty for not doing a favor. (“Everyone else is doing it. No one will notice.”) Maybe even fear of not being loved. (“If you really loved me . . .”) The first small decision to maintain an ethical guideline might seem almost silly, but it’s why in one organization I could accept a mug or a tee-shirt if it sold for under $25 but not the sweatshirt which sold for $37. Accepting a sweatshirt would have been the first unethical step. The person who offered the sweatshirt was miffed, but that was the rule. I realized, though, that following the rule protected me from accusations of bias. Rules are great excuses for refusing to do something you don’t want to do. (“Sorry, not allowed.”) Being unethical is a steep and slippery slope, and no one wants to lose a reputation by being untrustworthy. That’s why we’re stunned when we hear about attorneys who steal their clients’ settlement funds. And honestly, it’s also because it’s just too hard to be absolutely ethical absolutely every single time for absolutely everything, and because we can be criticized when we try. What’s the point of saying something that’s honest but not necessary knowing it will hurt someone’s feelings or damage their self-confidence? But then, is it ethical to be so honest that it hurts others for absolutely no reason? In these cases Ken Cloke’s advice to present information with “honesty in the content and empathy in the delivery” is the best possible approach. And remember the ethical code you live by. If it sends a warning sign, you may be taking that first slippery step. Pay attention to the red flags, the doubt that isn’t resolved by superficial logic or threats to relationships. Get rid of the butterflies in your stomach. Butterflies are prettier when they grace your garden. Have an absolutely wonderful and peaceful week.

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