Three Ethical Tests

One of my earliest childhood memories comes from when I was about three years old. My parents took my brothers and me to visit the grave site of my grandmother, who I never met.

I recall being in the massive cemetery just outside of Cleveland, Ohio; the same final resting place of not only my father’s mother, but also both President Garfield and John D. Rockefeller. Nevertheless, at the ripe age of three, respecting and remembering the dead was just not on my mind at the time. What was on my mind was all of these fabulous headstones and the thought of climbing all over them; like most three-year-old boys, I was more chimpanzee and less human when it came to climbing.

Upon being unleashed, away I went, under the not-so-close supervision of two older brothers, both of whom were younger than 10 at the time. We had a heck of a time. That is until our parents sat us down and explained the whole thing about dead people being just two yards beneath our feet and that by climbing all over these headstones, we were showing disrespect to both the dead and the families who buried them there.

At some point, I remember putting together the notion in my head that if these tombs are their last remaining shrines on Earth, and dead people go to Heaven, and in Heaven we can also find God, and God has supreme command over right and wrong, then I’m probably not sitting too high on God’s list of good kids for that given day. Behold, the dawn of morality had risen over the mind of a young Todd Rogers!

As of late, I have been involved in and sit sideline to several discussions on ethics here on ERE. It’s been a topic of much consideration and I thought it might be a good idea to give this notion a front-row seat, if at least for only one day.

Without question, there are some people reading these words right now and are ready to declare, “Todd Rogers has no business writing an article on ethics, he’s admitted to posting bogus resumes on a job board just to see what’s going on in the market!”

But it’s things such as this that make me unquestionably qualified to write on just such a subject. Practices such as that fall in to that gray-area, and if you go through life staying either black or white on your ethical considerations, then you never get to flex the cognitive muscles which control such deliberations.

If you click on my bio, you’ll discover that while in college, I majored in philosophy. That pretty much means in terms of job qualifications, I’m trained at just about nothing, with a few exceptions. If it involves critically reading, delicately writing, publicly presenting, or sitting around and discussing while not getting paid, then I’m your number one draft pick.

Otherwise, I have to go to law school, get a PhD, or become a recruiter. I took five classes on ethics. Not only did I do the reading, write the papers, and get high marks, but I also found something that truly has meaning to me. I kept most of the books, and much to the dismay of my wife, I still read them and ask her tough and yet silly questions on matter of ethics.

Let’s be clear on this topic: most of the best-known ethicists in history (Socrates, Kant, Mills, Rawls) never made it on to the Forbes list. They mostly did ok in today’s dollars, but cash was not high on the list of priorities.

Walking the Line

So, what’s my prescription for walking the line while not straying off too far in either direction? Before I get in to that, let me say that ethics, like favorite foods, favorite colors, favorite anything, has a component of subjectivity. You’re never going to satisfy 100% of the people impacted by decisions on these matters, so don’t bother trying.

Look at any given topic of political debate for instance. Take the hottest scorcher of them all: abortion. Both sides agree on exactly one thing: the other side is wrong. Beyond that, you’re never going to reconcile the dichotomy.

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Sure, you’ll get some middle-of-the-road types. They travel by all sorts of labels, some right and some wrong: fence sitters, eclectics, those in suspense of judgment, moderates. Yet if you try to come up with a system that is all-encompassing and makes 100% of the people 100% happy 100% of the time, then you better move to Hollywood because it only happens in the movies.

Now, it’s pretty common that in articles like this one you’ll get something that reads: “18 ways to become a better recruiter,” or “The top-10 checklist of the hotshot million-dollar biller.” I believe the best way to list steps for success is to keep them at or below three. Anything beyond that and you’re forced to print it out and pin it up next to your PC along side all the other positive-thinking strategies for living well.

With three or fewer, you can usually read it, retain it, recall it, and apply it all without ever walking over to the printer. So, here are my three:

  1. Adopt a Principle. If you’re getting the feeling that you might be straying in to the fray of evil, ask yourself a few questions. Is there a principle that is underpinning what I am doing? If the answer is yes, which typically it is, then ask yourself whether you would will it upon anyone else in your situation, or whether you would feel comfortable enacting a law that everyone else would have to follow. (This is from Immanuel Kant. It’s called the categorical imperative). If the answer is yes, then you’re probably doing OK.
  2. Ideal Form. With any given activity, think of it in its ideal form. What I mean by that is imagine yourself executing any activity or decision. In doing so, try to critically evaluate your thought process and reasoning. Then, imagine that same activity or decision in comparison to its perfect form. A good tool is to ask whether you would brag about it at a high-school reunion, or would you hide it at a reunion? If you’re proud of it, chances are that the activity is closely matching the ideal, and thus, it’s probably on its way to being ethical. This is a very rough version of Plato. He was not too clear on his ethics. But it works for me. I think of the ideal of anything, and then I try to aspire to be like it, knowing in advance that I can never achieve it, but in doing so, I will at least come pretty close to it.
  3. Divine Command. When all else fails, use what is called divine command. It asks one simple question. Even if you’re an atheist, you can use it. Would God like or dislike what I am doing? It’s a personal matter, to be sure. Of all the ethical theories, this is the one that gets poked at the most. It has all sorts of problems, the list of which is too long to print here. I’m one of those holidays, funerals, and weddings type of church attendee. I prefer the Sunday political talk shows for perspective, I guess. But if I’m really plagued by an issue, when all else fails, I think about whether God would approve. Say what you want about it, but it seems to work for me and a lot of other people. Of course, this is not without its problems. We see evidence of this every night on the news.

Whenever I encounter an exchange and someone invokes the “that’s not ethical” objection, you can be sure I’m the first one to ask why that something isn’t ethical. All too often, when I do that, I’m quickly met with an accusation that by even asking suggests that I too am ethically corrupt.

I implore to the ERE readers that if someone plays the ethical card on you, it is your duty to ask that person why. To not do so will cause atrophy in your ethical reasoning capabilities. Typically, I have found that it is the person who tries to plant the ethical stake in the ground is most often the one who has not a clue what ethics are or how to properly apply them. People in this group most often simply say something such as, “It’s unethical simply because it is, and that is that.”

It’s the classic stone-wall tactic that essentially disengages that person from the dialogue. Too often you will hear something such as, “Well, I don’t know about this or that, but what I do know is that it is wrong.”

When I was three years old, my feeble mind didn’t have the capacity to know that climbing on people’s grave stones was not a good thing to do. After my folks explained it to me, I logically reasoned my way through an argument which for years, for nearly a decade, convinced me that I might be going south in the afterlife.

The key piece of that concluding statement is I logically reasoned my way. You should try that one too. And do yourself the favor of not trying to rely on people who would have you do otherwise. I’m 32 years older now and two things are for sure: I’m always asking myself challenging questions when confronted with difficult situations, and I don’t climb on headstones.

Todd Rogers is the sole partner with The Alva Bradley Company, LLC, a professional services firm in Fishers, Indiana. Prior to founding ABC, LLC, Todd worked in sales for Monster.com. He has a total of eight years experience in the recruiting industry, which by his own account feels more like 80 years. He also served five years in the U.S. Marines, and has a B.A. in philosophy from Kent State University in Ohio.

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