Say you’re the widowed parent of three children. You’ve been jobless for almost a year. Six months ago you started looking outside your field, dropping your expectations and salary requirements. You’re deep in debt, have no medical coverage and are overdue on the rent. You’ve been trying to keep up a cheerful attitude for your children, who don’t know the extent of the family’s woes.
Now a good job has come up. You are told it’s between you and another person, but you must swear in writing that you’ve never taken illegal drugs. Trouble is, you used to smoke a little marijuana now and then. You’ve never taken any other illegal drug and you don’t use marijuana anymore either — but that hasn’t changed your opinion that it is absurd and hypocritical that marijuana is illegal while alcohol and nicotine — which every year kill millions and cost society billions — aren’t. Do you lie on the application?
Most of our decisions aren’t such dilemmas. But the stakes can be high even in mundane matters, for everything we do and say represents a choice. How we decide determines the shape of our lives.
Making decisions that are ethical requires the ability to make distinctions between competing choices. This booklet seeks to provide a blueprint. In various editions, it has long served as the basic primer of the Josephson Institute of Ethics, a nonprofit training and consulting organization based in Los Angeles, California, and active nationwide. The Institute advocates principled decision-making based on six common values called the “Six Pillars of Character”: trustworthiness, respect, responsibility, fairness, caring and good citizenship. The Six Pillars are the basis of ethically defensible decisions and the foundation of well-lived lives.
No one can simply read about ethics and become ethical, of course. People often have to make decisions under economic, professional and social pressure. Rationalization and laziness are constant temptations. But making ethical decisions is worth it if you want a better life and a better world. Keep in mind that whether for good or ill, change is always just a decision away.
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