The Ethical Life

The Ethical LifeLike most teens, I immersed myself in the world of music as a 15-year old. I delved into the previous generation’s classic rock, and enjoyed the contemporary flavors of heavy metal and Top 40 pop as well.

My goal was to gather as much music as possible. The early 1980s was the last era before the advent of the compact disc, and cassettes of my favorite artists filled my room and whatever cars I regularly occupied.

At some point I joined one of those music clubs that offers you a ton of titles for virtually nothing, with the obligation to purchase several more within a certain period of time. This served me well for a while…until I discovered that one could get even more “free” music by convincing his friends to sign up as well.

I had little luck persuading others to send away for their glut of tapes with the promise of buying more at inflated prices. I became more and more obsessed with the desire to accumulate music for as little as my non-existing salary could afford me…and somewhere along the way crossed a boundary.

I decided to fill in the card for my “friend,” ordering my four free cassettes as the reward for my recruiting efforts. The problem was, the friend never ordered the club membership—nor did the friend even exist!
For several months, I watched as my parents’ mailbox was filled with boxes of illicitly obtained cassette tapes. No one knew of my little scheme—not my parents, my friends, nor apparently the management of the music club!

One day I finally had enough of my scheme and stopped ordering new tapes. Perhaps I just grew bored; I don’t remember any particular moment when moral clarity set in. And sometime after my reclaimed innocence I bragged to a girlfriend about what I had done, to which she responded, “You should be shot.”

I’m not sure if execution would have been a fitting punishment for my scandal, but certainly I would have been entitled to some sort of punishment—and I feel fortunate to have been allowed such a severe lapse of judgment without lasting concrete consequences. Perhaps I somewhat offset Tapegate approximately 15 years later when, as a seminary student, I donated hundreds of Christian music CDs to other students who weren’t lucky enough to write for music magazines and get free samples. Others may maintain that I should still be shot or, at least, locked up for a while or made to write a huge check to the music club.

The Ethical LifeAs I look back on those middle teen years, I see this season and others I will not name here as representing a lack of what is at the core of what seems to truly define proper behavior and choices: Ethics.

Ethics is defined as a guidance system to help one make the proper choice. Historically, certain codes of ethics developed as a covenant among peers. Modern codes have been based as well on considerations of the public interest, with regard to trade and commercial relationships. Codes of ethics identity and encourage desirable activities by establishing a high standard against which each may measure his performance.

However, the rules do not go beyond common sense and natural integrity—and I think I was lacking somewhat in both at times during my teen years.

As I’ve gotten older, a little wiser and certainly more responsible, I’ve learned why ethics matters. I’ve learned why people should be interested in ethics, why ethics isn’t just a “downer” subject or the mantra of a teacher’s pet type who stands up and says, “Now do as I do.”

Ethics matters, first, because it is the right thing. Being ethical ultimately helps others in some way and, in turn, helps us to like ourselves better. I feel we are all wired to contribute positively to the life of another. This seems to be an instinct planted in us from birth.

My daughter Alexandra has demonstrated this to me on many occasions. One occurred when she was a toddler, offering to share her Raggedy Ann doll with a baby who was upset. Knowing that Alexandra never wanted to share Raggedy Ann, I realized that my little girl’s ethical soul was starting to break through.

Ethics is also the long-term thing. Embracing ethical behavior helps us not to live in anxiety about getting in trouble some day (waiting for the music club police to come knock on my door some night, for example!). It helps us to build a good reputation that endures. And it helps our lives to have lasting purpose and meaning.

World War II concentration camp survivor Viktor Frankl wrote about this need for lasting purpose in his classic work, Man’s Search for Meaning. Because the present moments of his life in the camp were so dehumanizing and awful beyond description, Dr. Frankl had to embrace a long-term view in order to survive psychologically and physiologically.

He writes, “A person who becomes conscious of the responsibility he bears toward a human being…or to an unfinished work, will never be able to throw away his life. He knows the ‘why’ for his existence, and will be able to bear almost any ‘how’…Life ultimately means taking the responsibility to find the right answer to its problems and to fulfill the tasks which it constantly sets for each individual.”

When our long-term purposes are clear, we can tolerate and transcend our circumstances, however pleasurable or difficult they may be. We can make the right choices, the ethical choices.

Finally, ethics is the profitable thing! Trust leads to more business and opportunity. Cutting corners cannot withstand the test of time—it eventually catches up with us.

Study the captains of industry of the present and previous generations, and often what you will find is an ethical foundation, a wellspring of integrity, a fortress of character. They succeeded often because they were determined to do it in a manner that allowed them to stare into the mirror and feel contentment.

Ethics is not part of success—it is success itself. Business will come and go, along with opportunities, fame, fortune, prestige, and the like. Serving human beings with excellence and integrity will last forever.