English writer G.K. Chesterton once said, “The word ‘good’ has many meanings. For example, if a man were to shoot his grandmother at a range of five hundred yards, I should call him a good shot, but not necessarily a good man”. Chesterton makes an interesting point with his anecdote- how do we determine if someone is “good”? If someone is good, are they also, inherently ethical? Ethics are defined in the Merriam-Webster dictionary as “the discipline dealing with what is good and bad and with moral duty and obligation,”.
Ethics are the guiding principles on what is viewed as good or bad. And while ethical principles are generally shared by society as a whole, they can vary in the importance each person assigns to them. What is most important to me, maybe different than what is most important to someone else. The values for which I have the highest regard are the ones that I was raised to hold as important, and the ones that have proved to be important to me personally and professionally in adulthood.
My personal code of ethics is built around honesty, humility, and self-respect. I feel that honesty is what holds you accountable to yourself and others. Internally and externally, most lies lead to or cause more harm than good. Even in the few instances where lying may be for the benefit of someone else, it can still create lots of internal strife. Personally, lying makes me anxious; I hate lying to any of my loved ones.
I consciously choose to always be truthful, even when it has been difficult. Professionally, honesty can set you apart as an employee who can be counted on and trusted. I have found that being open and honest about mistakes I have made at work has not earned me punishments but has instead earned me more trust and respect.
Humility is another value that is equally important to me as honesty. Treating others as equals is important in society. Historically, great troubles arise when a person or group believes they are superior to another. Wars have been fought and heinous genocides have been committed based on inflated sense of self-importance. Being humble combats arrogance and fosters a more open-minded society. Personally, I don’t let praise or recognition affect my attitude. Instead, I always try to find something that I can do better. I aim to learn from my mistakes instead of deflecting blame or becoming disheartened. This allows me to learn from friends, family, coworkers, and experience to become the best version of myself.
Self-respect is valuable because it is the standard I use for how to carry myself, how I treat others, and the treatment that I accept. I aim to give everyone I interact with respect because to me it is the right thing to do. I give the respect I would want in return, but I do not return disrespect shown to me with equal disrespect. The respect I have for myself simply allows me to be assertive and clear in standing up for myself. I can also extend my thoughts on how I treat others and expect to be treated to determine how I expect others to treat others. It allows me to identify when someone else is being wronged or doing wrong. Similarly, society as a whole has a standard for how to treat others. It helps people know when to speak up and intervene for those who may be in need or determine when someone may need to be held accountable for poor treatment, be it at home, at work, in public, or in terms of the law.
The morals mentioned above are what assure me I am a good person. While I am far from perfect, I put more good into the world the world than bad. I’m honest, I hold myself accountable and always try to do the right thing. I have integrity. I don’t pick and choose when to uphold my values. Integrity is such an important part of being ethical because if core values do not hold enough importance to be upheld at all times, it would be impossible to be truly ethical. To have no integrity would be to have no ethics at all. My values are also where I find my happiness. To me, happiness is all derived from feeling good about myself and my life. My morals make me who I am, they make me a person I am proud to be. Feeling good about myself and my personal and professional relationships give me a happy life, in every aspect. I don’t think there is anyone who can live the “good life” without happiness.
If I were to go against my values and disregard my ethics, I am not confident I could be happy. My conscience would be constantly guilty. I could not witness a woman be murdered and do nothing to help her and continue to sleep well at night, as described by Martin Gansberg in the New York Times article “Thirty-Eight Who Saw Murder”. In Plato’s “The Ring of Gyges”, a shepherd finds a ring that makes him invisible when turned inwards he becomes invisible. When turned outwards, he would reappear. Gyges uses this ring for his own personal gain and kills the sitting king to take his kingdom. If I had a ring like Gyges, neither I nor anyone else for that matter would be above using it for personal gain, when facing no accountability. Eventually, things would go too far or unintentional harm would be done and the guilt would eat at me and take its toll on me. I like to think I would know better than to have taken the ring, knowing that it did not belong to me, at all.
G. K. Chesterton was right to highlight the many meanings of the word “good”. With such varied meaning, how are we supposed to know what is “good?” Fortunately, we have morals to help us navigate good vs. bad and right vs. wrong in terms of ethical behavior. A strong moral code, with unwavering integrity, are key to being truly ethical. Honesty, humility, and self-respect are central to my moral code, and in practice, they reassure me daily that I am a good person. The question is, are you?