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What does it mean to be ethical?

Updated: Jun 6, 2023

The concept of ethics cannot be distilled into a single, simple definition. When I think of ethics, I think of the intersection of what is good, what is right, and what is just, though even these terms are subject to interpretation. While I do not always succeed, I try to take a Virtue Approach, acting in accordance with the person I want to be. The person I want to be is honest, fair, authentic, brave, and willing to admit when she is wrong. She takes risks but does not put others in harm’s way. She values collaboration over competition and service to others over self. Still, she takes care of herself and acknowledges that one cannot pour from an empty vessel. She believes in constant growth and learns from others what it means to be a truly ethical person. As a lover of words, especially other people’s, I will lean on the ethical lessons I’ve learned over time to elucidate my personal ethical philosophy.

“Do all the good you can, by all the means you can, in all the ways you can, in all the places you can, at all the times you can, to all the people you can, as long as ever you can.” Attributed to John Wesley, founder of Methodism, this quotation urges us to consistently show goodness through action whenever possible. Goodness is an active, intentional choice.

“I always wondered why somebody doesn’t do something about that, and then I realized I’m somebody.” Said by actress Lily Tomlin about helping animals without homes, this quotation reminds me that no matter how insignificant or helpless I feel, I am somebody. While my personal actions might not solve a systemic problem, I can always do something to help.

“Do the next right thing.” Yes, this was sung by Princess Anna in Frozen 2, but her message transcends children’s entertainment. Sometimes life can be overwhelming, but all problems can be broken into smaller pieces. Once you’ve taken one right step, take another. Rinse and repeat.

“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” Martin Luther King, Jr. remains a symbol of brave action in the face of painful systemic inequity. Speaking up about injustice is not without consequence. There will be fallout, stonewalling, and even broken relationships. However, allowing injustice is unethical. I aspire to be someone who always bravely speaks up and speaks out to rectify injustice.

“If you tell the truth, you don’t have to remember anything.” Mark Twain is one of my favorite authors. He has a way of getting to the point. While glib, this quotation is a reminder that one lie can become another and another and another, leading to a death spiral of dishonesty. Telling the truth can be hard sometimes, but lies prevent trust and growth.

“A strong leader has the humility to listen, the confidence to challenge, and the wisdom to know when to quit arguing and get on board.” Kim Malone Scott’s Radical Candor helps leaders build a culture that thrives on clear, precise feedback. A humble leader accepts feedback graciously, acknowledging it as the gift it is. A confident leader gives challenging feedback openly and constructively in the interest of improvement. A wise leader accepts when her challenge has been defeated and supports the will of the group.

“I am the master of my fate, I am the captain of my soul.” William Ernest Henley’s wonderful poem “Invictus” closes with these lines. I have these lines tattooed on my arm as a constant reminder that I am solely responsible for the choices I make, the actions I take, and the person I am. I control the impact I have on the world.

“When I stand before God at the end of my life, I would hope that I would not have a single bit of talent left, and could say, ‘I used everything you gave me.’” I close this brief manifesto with a piece of wisdom from Erma Bombeck. We are all gifted with certain talents, and we cannot take them with us when we shuffle off our mortal coil. I strive to use every bit of talent I have to leave a positive impact on the world to the greatest extent possible.

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