Ethical free-association

I was thinking about elections earlier and that led me to think about ethics (something which always seems to come up when discussing politics). It made me think in turn about a quote I once read on ethics and ethical behavior. I couldn’t remember the quote word for word, but I did some digging and here is what I came up with:

Ethical people often choose to do less than the maximally allowable, and more than the minimally acceptable.

I like it because of it’s simple parallelism. It is particularly useful in looking at “what the law allows”. People and politicians often justify their behavior by saying that “it’s legal”. The false assumption is that if something is legal, it is ipso facto ethical. Jury duty is a good example. I know a lot of people who complain about jury duty and try to arrange so that they have t serve the absolute minimally acceptable amount of time. But jury duty is a civic responsibility and it seems to me it is a good opportunity to go beyond the minimally acceptable. (I have performed jury duty 3 times and served on a jury once. For some reason, I have never been called to jury duty in Maryland.)

The real test of our ethics is whether we are willing to do the right thing even when it is not in our self-interest. Do you tell the clerk at the grocery store when you have been under-charged, even though it is not in your self-interest? Do you report all of your tips on your income taxes, even though you could probably get away without reporting them?

As the election approaches, it is a good time to look at our own ethical behavior before we start criticizing the ethical behavior of our representatives. After all, if we can’t be ethical, how can we expect our representatives to be when they are merely a reflection of ourselves?

Published by Jamie Todd Rubin

Jamie Todd Rubin writes fiction and nonfiction for a variety of publications including Analog, Clarkesworld, The Daily Beast, 99U, Daily Science Fiction, Lightspeed, InterGalactic Medicine Show, and several anthologies. He was featured in Lifehacker’s How I Work series. He has been blogging since 2005. By day, he manages software projects and occasionally writes code. He lives in Falls Church, Virginia with his wife and three children. Find him on Twitter at @jamietr.