I remember my first class in “Ethics” at the University of North Dakota. The professor wanted to introduce us to the subject. His definition was short and sweet. He said, “Ethics is determining what is right and what is wrong.”

To put it simply, ethics represents the moral code that guides a person’s choices and behaviors throughout their life. The idea of a moral code extends beyond the individual to include what is determined to be right, and wrong, for a community or society at large.

Ethics is concerned with rights, responsibilities, use of language, what it means to live an ethical life, and how people make moral decisions. We may think of moralizing as an intellectual exercise, but more frequently it’s an attempt to make sense of our gut instincts and reactions. It’s a subjective concept, and many people have strong and stubborn beliefs about what’s right and wrong that can place them in direct contrast to the moral beliefs of others. Yet even though morals may vary from person to person, religion to religion, and culture to culture, many have been found to be universal, stemming from basic human emotions.

According to Dr. Stephen Behnke American Psychological Association Ethics Director, “Ethics” and “ethical” are words that people use in different ways. For some, to say that a psychologist has behaved “unethically” means that the psychologist has violated a rule of conduct, perhaps a licensing board regulation or a standard in the APA Ethics Code. This way of thinking about ethics focuses on the unethical, the absence of what is ethical, a breach in the minimum standards of our profession’s behavior. The “Code of Conduct” aspect of the Ethical Principles of Psychologists and Code of Conduct sets forth 89 such standards, a violation of which constitutes “unethical” behavior.[1]

Deborah Smith, a Monitor staff member shares some interesting points on how to keep from being called unethical. One of them is, “Understanding what constitutes a multiple relationship.” For instance, if you are a real estate agent, is it ethical to volunteer at one of you children’s functions if you know there may be buyers there? Or, can you buy a car from one dealer and not others because he is one of you clients? Can you tell an employee to drive you to the airport? The question is, whose needs are you most interested in, yours or the other person?

Another point is, can you be trusted to protect confidentiality? When you are asked to provide information on people you know personally to employers, spouses, school administrators, insurance companies and others do you comply without asking their permission? While such requests may be well-intentioned, you need to carefully balance the disclosure with your ethical obligations to protect their confidentiality. In addition, if someone asks you about an individual, they want to harm who harmed you, do you give them the information?

Then we have, respecting people’s autonomy. For instance, if you never tell your child, or a friend, or a neighbor that you just planted flower bulbs in your back yard that are covered with dirt, is it ethical to confront them and accuse them of damaging your flowers when you never told them about the bulbs to begin with? Or, you don’t want anyone coming into the house through the front door, but you did not put up a sign that says, “Please do not enter here. Use the back door.” Should these violators of your unwritten law be punished or told they are not welcome?

Then the next one is, know your responsibilities before telling someone else they are failing in carrying out theirs. Any area or responsibility assigned to you makes you a supervisor. That means you should continually assess the competence of those you are in charge of to make sure they are doing their job appropriately. Such supervision should cover everything the person was told to do, how to do it, and report any problems that come up keeping them from finishing their task. Sometimes parents stop raising their children when they hit their teens, and there are others still trying to raise them long after they are married and gone.

Then there is this: Write it down, keep track, know what the timeline is. Many relationships have been fractured when someone says, “You didn’t tell me that.” Or “You just told me today, not last week like you’re saying.” Sometimes I wish I had a “bodycam” like the police do so I could rewind and prove my assertion. But they are not to be used for that purpose. But you can keep a daily journal and write down when you make certain statements or give particular instructions.

Another is “Practice only where you have expertise.” The problem is that, many times, we are not aware that there’s something we don’t know? If you don’t know where the boundaries are on your area of responsibility or breadth of your knowledge, you must know there are certain guidelines to keep you in bounds. You may be well-intentioned, but not realize you’re going beyond the boundaries of your competence.

And finally, stick to the evidence. When you give your expert opinion or conduct an assessment or offer advice, base your evaluation only on the facts available. For example, don’t take sides in believing one person over the other just because they are part of your extended family. We must be always mindful about what we know, what we don’t know, and what our sources of information are or have been.[2]

But what does God’s Word have to say? King David told the Lord, “Let what is good and what is right keep me safe, because I wait for You.” (Psalm 25:21). King Solomon states that “The Lord detests the use of dishonest scales, but he delights in accurate weights.” (Proverbs 11:1). In other words, always remain fair and balanced. He also states, “Don’t be happy when someone you don’t like has troubles. Don’t be glad when they fall.” (Proverbs 24:17).

The Apostle Peter says that all of us “Should live together in peace. Try to understand each other. Love each other like brothers and sisters. Be kind and tolerant.” (1 Peter 3:8) And the Apostle Paul tell us to “Watch what we say. Don’t let biased words come from our mouth. Say what is good for all concerned. Our words should help others grow as Christians.” (Ephesians 4:29). And the Apostle told the Philippians, “Don’t look out only for your own interests, but take an interest in others, too.” (Philippians 2:4).

To sum it all up, we can agree that ethics is doing what’s right even if we are in the wrong. There could have been other people besides you that the Holy Spirit called to the altar before Jesus to receive forgiveness and eternal life. But He chose you. Not because you were better than anyone else, but because His love has no bias or discrimination.[3] Since He treated us that way, what excuse do we have for not treating others the same? – Dr. Robert R Seyda

[1] Ethics Rounds, July/August 2005, Vol 36, No. 7

[2] Monitor, January 2003, Vol. 34, No. 1

[3] Romans 5:8

About drbob76

Retired missionary, pastor, seminary professor, Board Certified Chaplain and American Cancer Society Hope Lodge Director.
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