Ethical Decision-Making

Fred Smith urges us to consider the true meaning of ethical living.

By Fred Smith

Countless stories of moral and ethical failure fill our newspapers. Outrageous executive compensation packages offend all of us. In light of this we are driven to consider the question: What is the basis of your ethical system? Are you using a scriptural or a secular base?

J.C. Penney, the respected merchant, said, "I shall not be judged by the Heavenly Father according to what I do nor by the material success I achieve. I shall be judged by the honesty of my purpose and by the spirit with which I pursue life's duties." He felt that his work was his worship because he had a scriptural base for his ethics.

Do our ethics promote our self-respect? I was asked by an executive of a multi-billion dollar corporation, "How do you know when you've got your self-respect?" The only answer I could give was the one that I actually use: when I wake up in the middle of the night and try to talk to the little boy who lives inside me who knows right and wrong, black and white and he tells me to get lost, I know that I've lost my self-respect. He was physically shaken, jumped out of his chair and said, "Hell, you done plowed up a snake." I was surprised at his reaction but his indictment for fraud in the next year explained it.

Solzhenitsyn upon hearing that the Dean of Canterbury who was friendly to communism had said, "Better red than dead," replied thoughtfully, "Better dead than a scoundrel."

Does our ethical base accent our responsibility or our rights? The Puritans were strong on responsibility and rather weak on rights, except as those rights helped on fulfill their responsibilities. I have noticed that any individual, group or society that accents its rights is constantly in conflict with others. Responsibilities have a way of overlapping and forming a bond; rights are always clashing together.

I have had a lot of experience negotiating with unions and I found that when we talked about our rights we fought, but when we talked about our responsibilities we made progress. Those who accent their rights eventually become paranoid, and once they become paranoid they live in constant conflict. Their philosophy becomes one of the end's justifying the means. This is immoral. Immoral actions do not flow from moral ethics.

What is the effect of your ethical base on the development of your character?

Recently I was talking to a middle-aged business executive who has made fast progress up the ladder, but has developed that inner uneasiness that sometimes comes with quick success. He said, "Fred, I'm really not happy with who I am becoming. I'm not a better husband, a better father, a better citizen, or even a better person. I'm successful, but I'm becoming phony." Until our death we are in the process of becoming.

A Harvard professor recently on his retirement wrote a paper "What I'm going to be when I grow up." I liked the idea so much that I decided to write one myself, for I haven't grown up yet, either. I like Robert Frost's line, "And miles to go before I sleep."

In my business experience most failures have been character failures. Yet in my 45 years I have never had anyone come to me and confess that they had a weak character. They've told me they weren't so smart, they've told me they didn't have experience. They have told me many inadequacies they've had, but I've never had one yet to tell me he had a weak character. Yet most of the major failures have been character failures. Unfortunately, we cannot buttress character failure.

We can hire consultants to bring experience, but there are no consultants who bring packaged character. Character is an inside job, and it is largely determined by the succession of choices, desires, habits, and beliefs we inculcate and personify.

Ask yourself these questions and then consider: Am I happy with who I am becoming? Is my ethical base built on a firm foundation? Am I constructing on rock or on sand? When the winds blow, as inevitably they will, how well will I stand?