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By | May 25, 2012

Dear Toolkit,

With all the sound and fury going on about our national moral crisis, do you have any words of wisdom and encouragement on the subject of business ethics?

Hopeful in Hawaii

Dear Hopeful,

Glad to hear someone out there still has some faith in the immortality of morality in these troubled times. I don't know why business ethics should be a subset of general, run-of-the-mill ethics, but I'm willing to make a stab at defining how one's ethics can impact one's business.

The way I see it, a business person needs several fundamental ingredients to succeed. These might include skills specific to the trade he or she is in, sufficient capital, a willingness to apply a generous amount of elbow grease, and a whole lot of luck. But even given all of the above, if the ingredient of integrity is absent, true success will elude the enterprise—for what kind of a business can survive without a good reputation? And what is reputation, after all, but ethics and integrity?

To be sure, much morality is imposed externally these days. Laws and regulations tend to make individuals, corporations, and even countries more virtuous than they might otherwise be. Good intentions are fine, but a little external incentive never hurts to get the job done. Yet the true hope for the future of ethics in society stems from the fact that the vast majority of folks have an internal moral compass and would do the right thing even without extraordinary external pressure.

And while these times may indeed appear to be troubled, they are no more so than times gone by. Consider the virtual caste system declaimed by Aristotle, the rampant corruption of the late Roman Empire, the blood and guts of the Middle Ages, not to mention the exploitation of colonialism in more recent times. Our current society may have just as many crooks, but at least most of us have indoor plumbing and an ample supply of food, so some progress toward civilization has been made. And it's a lot easier to be ethical when you're comfortable and well fed, isn't it? So there's hope that we'll continue to do better than our forefathers and foremothers on the ethical front.

If you'd like to see a wonderful example of how the ethical dilemmas of ancient times apply even today, take a look at Cicero's very pithy essay On Duties. Pay particular attention to Book III, Sections xii through xv. Here Cicero tells what we ought to do when what is right and ethical conflicts with what seems advantageous.

Cicero sent his son off to school in Athens, where Junior proved to be a less-than-stellar pupil. Word got back to Rome about excessive partying and lack of attention to scholarship, and Dad was inspired to write a long letter to his offspring on the subject of doing one's duty. Cicero's examples of problems in doing one's duty are as contemporary as any of the business ethics cases you read about in your daily news. Manipulating earnings and stock values a la Enron! Covering up a defect in a product or property a la Firestone and Vioxx! Same race, different rats!

So keep the faith and remain hopeful. Mankind has been struggling with ethical challenges fairly successfully for the two millennia since that wise old Roman fired off a letter to his kid. And as long as the struggle to do the right thing continues, civilization will continue to improve—despite our temporary epidemic of sex, lies and media hype.

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