Thursday, October 18, 2007

1 a.m. Ethics

Yesterday I read an excellent article in PRSA Tactics, titled "1 a.m. ethics." The article, written by Susan Walton, a professor in the best public relations program in the world (slightly biased here!), makes some really interesting points about "wrestling with those small, everyday choices that we face."

She begins her article by talking about a job interview she had in which she was asked to describe an experience she'd had when an employer asked her to do something unethical. She replied that she had never been asked to do anything she considered to be unethical. She then adds:

"However...I have often made personal, individual choices to behave ethically. Most often these choices have revolved around my day-to-day work rather than around highly visible or significant events. And, in most cases, the outcome of my choices was not known by anyone other than me."

She calls these choices "1 a.m. ethics."

I think I've often been guily of thinking of ethics only in terms of cases like Enron, Tyco or WorldCom, the very poster children of ethical breaches. When it really comes down to it, however, ethics is a personal matter and rarely involves anyone but yourself. Ethical decisions we make may never be known to anyone but ourselves. "Sometimes we make our our most important ethical decisions at night when the only voice of persuasion is the whisper of our own conscience," Walton writes.

In an advanced media ethics class I took at BYU, we talked about a number of ethical theories, but the one that stood out to me was the principle of virtue ethics. Louis Pojman defined virtue ethics this way:

"Rather than seeing the heart of ethics in actions or duties, virtue ethics centers in the heart of the agent--in his or her character. Virtue ethics emphasizes being a certain type of person" (Ethics: Discovering Right and Wrong, p. 161, emphasis added).

I could not agree more with Pojman's statement. Ethical decision making comes from within. We have to decide now how we will act when faced with any ethical decision. We must live by ethical principles, and by so doing, we will be prepared for any challenge to ethics that may come along.

If we are truly ethical, making that tough decision at 1 a.m. won't be so hard.

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