"Ethics Guy" Bruce Weinstein: The Right Stuff

Author and syndicated columnist "The Ethics Guy" talks about the everyday nature of ethical decisions and why we stray.

January 1, 2006

With the pace of our world today, it’s easy to take shortcuts. How do we know when we’re confronting an ethical dilemma?

WEINSTEIN: As I discuss in my book, “Life Principles: Feeling Good by Doing Good” (Emmis Books, 2005), when our decision is likely to affect the rights or welfare of another person, we’re asking an ethical question. At stake are such responsibilities as maintaining good relationships with colleagues, protecting others from harm, being fair, avoiding theft, and being true to ourselves. When ethical issues are discussed in the media, they’re often of the “life or death” variety. However, it’s a serious mistake to limit ethics to such extreme matters.

Are there right and wrong answers to ethical questions?

WEINSTEIN: Yes. The answers don’t vary according to who’s asking the question, where we live, or even our religion. When we’re faced with an ethical problem, it’s simply not the case that one response is just as good as another.

What well-known living person would you consider a model of ethical behavior?

WEINSTEIN: Former President Jimmy Carter. Since leaving the White House, he has exerted considerable effort in building homes for the disenfranchised, ensuring fair elections, and inspiring others by example.

Are people obliged to report unethical behavior, such as by a fellow real estate practitioner, if it doesn’t involve them directly?

WEINSTEIN: Yes. A maxim attributed to the political philosopher Edmund Burke says, “All that is necessary for evil to flourish is for good [people] to do nothing.” If we know of wrongful conduct—particularly that which may cause significant harm to others—and we fail to get involved, we are to some degree accountable for the consequences of that misconduct.

What’s the difference between ethics and law?

WEINSTEIN: An action can be ethical but not legal, and vice versa. When Rosa Parks refused to the move to the back of the bus in Montgomery, Ala., that day in 1955, she broke the law but did the right thing. Earlier, slavery was legal, but that didn’t make it right. Ethics is the ultimate standard for deciding how we should conduct ourselves.

What gets in the way of doing the right thing?

WEINSTEIN: Three things. First, fear. When we see people doing something they shouldn’t, we often do nothing because we’re afraid of damaging our relationship with the wrongdoers. Second, guilt. Health-care providers know all too well that when they’re providing care for a patient at the end of life, a family member will often demand that everything possible be done to keep the patient alive, even if the patient had requested that life-sustaining treatment be withheld. It’s guilt, not concern for the individual or his or her wishes, that often motivates the demand to “do everything possible” in these situations. Finally, self-interest. Sometimes we take the low road simply because we’d rather indulge ourselves. When a clerk accidentally gives us $20 too much in change, we know we should give it back. But if there are things we’d like to buy, we might keep it. As the rash of business scandals has shown us, unethical conduct can come back to haunt us. But the bottom-line reason we should do the right thing is simply because it’s the right thing to do. —Chuck Paustian

For more on Weinstein, visit www.theethicsguy.com.

Chuck Paustian is a former REALTOR® Magazine senior editor.