News reports bring us plenty of examples of poor professional ethics being practiced in business, entertainment, and government but, in terms of personal ethics as applied to everyday choices that we do not read about, what percentage of people lie, cheat, steal, cut corners, or take advantage of others?
Some studies show more than 50% would cheat on their marital partner if they knew they would not get caught, and well over 1,000,000 people cheat on their taxes annually. Ethical transgressions some would consider small by comparison, such as accidentally denting a car door in a parking lot and not leaving your contact information, or cutting someone off on the freeway, are just as important in living an ethical life. That is because if we fail to make the correct ethical decisions and harm others in the little things, we often can rationalize that harm with the big things. For instance, no corporate president walks into their board and asks for a show of hands about scamming the consumer. He or she makes immoral decisions and then, like us with the little stuff, rationalize so the choice seems fine--even good.
We often can look for information or knowledge that helps us rationalize making a wrong choice, but if we follow the Golden Rule consistently and treat others the way we want to be treated, the ethical decision is clear.
Ethics are best understood when they are personalized. People often become conflicted in situations demanding an ethical decision. What helps the most? Personalize the choice. For example, if you dent a stranger's car door in some parking lot, do not think of that person as a stranger. Instead, ask yourself, "What if this was my best friend's or my sister's car?"--or what if you returned to your own car and saw it scratched, with no note left behind. Don't you wish the perpetrator had identified their responsibility to you?
The ability to practice "right" when it involves those we know, and "wrong" against those we don't, means our ethics only protect those we already care for. If that is true, no stranger should ever do a...