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Good ethics: the way to success

[Times art: Teresanne Cossetta]


© St. Petersburg Times, published November 9, 2000

Editor's note: Welcome to the St. Petersburg Times' Newspaper in Education page! This year's series is about something we all love and wish we had more of: money. Throughout the school year in this space you will find fun and informational stories about how to earn, keep and save money. Developed by the Florida Council on Economic Education, the series explores such topics as personal finance, business etiquette and ethics, making decisions, managing your time and money and more, all geared toward you, not just your parents! We hope you enjoy this economic adventure.

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You are working at a clothing store. Your best friend in the whole world walks up with a pair of expensive shorts and places them next to the register. "These are the cheap ones, the ones on sale," your friend says with a wink.

What do you do? You can ring them up as the cheap pair, making your friend happy. Besides, this is a big store, it has all kinds of money, and who would ever know, anyway?

On the other hand, you can smile, ring up the correct amount, and just act dumb. You know deep in your heart that stealing is wrong. Still, you are afraid of disappointing your friend. Your friend will get really angry, probably tease you in front of your other friends and maybe not talk to you for a long time.

You are in an ethical dilemma, and you are not alone.

Ethical dilemmas and being 'good'

Every day all of us face ethical dilemmas. Ethics has to do with our conduct and character. Some people call character the collection of our daily habits, the things we do without thinking. But ethics really has to do with making behavior choices. In any situation, we have to decide what is the best action to take. We must ask ourselves, "What is the right thing to do?" How we make that decision determines what kind of person we are.

Fortunately, we are not the first people in history to have to face these kinds of decisions. Since the beginnings of human history, people far smarter than we are have struggled with questions such as, "What is the right thing to do?" Over the centuries they have come up with some simple tests to help us make ethical decisions.

The first step in any ethical decision is looking at the outcome of your decision: "What are the possible things that could happen as a result of my actions?" While this seems easy, many people do not even understand when they are making ethical decisions. Their habits, the ways they act automatically without thinking, are not very ethical. They take money they find on the ground without thinking about who lost it. They cut into line without regard to others who have been standing there longer. These are the people who say whatever they need to say to avoid trouble or get what they want without regard to truth or honesty. In other words, they are not good people.

Strangely, if you were to ask these very same people if they were "good" people, they would probably say, "Yes." Nearly every person sees himself or herself as a "good" person because these people do not realize they are making countless decisions each day. If you ask these people why they are "good," they typically say things like, "Well, I don't kill people." Not killing people does not make anyone a "good" person; it only means they aren't killers.

Do you really feel better when someone tells you a lie to know that at least they have not killed you? When someone steals your wallet or purse, do you think they are a good person because they did not murder you as well? Of course not.

"Good" is something that you DO, not something you avoid doing. Being good involves making the right decisions. The tests described here come from the Institute for Global Ethics (

[Times art: Teresanne Cossetta]

Tests for good decisions

The first test for a right decision is known as the "utilitarian" test, which is usually remembered by the phrase, "the most good for the most people."

Consider your choices in a situation. Which one would do the most good, or the least harm, to the most people? In the present situation, if you sold the expensive shorts to your friend at the cheaper price, certainly your friend comes out ahead, and if your friend really appreciates your efforts, perhaps something nice will happen to you as well.

But that is just two of you. What about all the other people who will have to pay for the money you gave away? When theft occurs, the cost is passed on to other customers in the form of higher prices. It is passed on to you in the form of lower wages. It is clear, in this example, the number of people who are hurt by your selling at the lower price vastly outnumber the people who are helped.

The second test is the "self-defeating" test. Ask yourself what would happen if everyone did what you did. Is that the kind of world you would want to live in? Would you want to live in a world where the price you paid for goods depended on knowing the seller? Would you want to be a store owner in a society where the clerks never charged the correct prices? Would you want to live in a culture where everyone was expected to cheat or steal from one another? In this case, the answer is simple. Selling your friend the expensive shorts at the cheap price is not the kind of behavior you would want everyone else to practice.

The third, and most powerful test, is the "golden rule" test. Would we want others to treat us the way we are treating them? By selling the shorts for the lower price, we are taking money from our employer. The business bought those shorts with the expectation of making a certain amount of money in the sale. You sell for less, and you steal the money from the business. Would you want it to steal from you? How would you feel if any other employee of the business could steal money from your paycheck to help win favor with her friends? It is clear from this test that selling the shorts for less is not the right thing to do.

What about fear of punishment?

Now here is a very serious point. At no time, in any test, was the question asked, "What happens if I get caught?" Many people feel that the reason not to steal or cheat or act unethically is to avoid being punished. They do what they consider the "right" thing because they fear getting in trouble. This is not being "good." If you do something because you fear getting punished, you are not a good person, only someone afraid of punishment.

Good comes from inside you, it is part of you, it is your character. You make decisions because it is the right thing to do. No one is "good" to avoid punishment.

[Times art: Teresanne Cossetta]
What does ethical behavior look like?

So what does ethical behavior in a business look like? In the Pinellas County school system, we have decided that the character traits we value the most are respect, responsibility and honesty. When we apply the tests described above, we are using these traits to make decisions. It helps make the right decisions even clearer.

When a friend asks you to steal from your employer, is that friend really showing you respect? Is that friend saying you are the kind of person people can count on to steal? Your friend is not saying, "Help me, I have no clothes." The friend is saying, "I want the best and most high status clothes, but I don't want to pay for them, and I know you will be a partner with me in stealing them."

Is this respect? Is this the best for the largest number of people? If everyone treated people like this, would it be the world you want to live in? Is this the way you want other people to treat you?

In this example, responsibility and honesty are even clearer. It is your responsibility, and you are paid for it, to ring up purchases accurately. How can helping your friend steal be honest? If you keep these ideas in mind, the decision in the example is easy. It is never right to steal, even to please a friend, but making a decision is much harder than actually carrying the decision out.

Punished for being good?

One of the sad facts of modern society is that people, and especially young adults, are someetimes punished for being good. Your friend may bring all sorts of social pressure on you to punish you for not selling the shorts for the lower price. People may laugh at you for protecting your employer. There are many other similar situations you may have faced where making the right decision got you into trouble. Why do it, then?

Building your character is like building any other skill. There is a lot of hard work, there is sacrifice -- and there are huge rewards. No one can play the guitar without a lot of practice. No one can play sports without a lot of practice. Certainly no one can be ethical, a "good" person, without practice.

The reward for being an ethical person in business is success. Ethical employees who respect the customers, the other employees and the boss, take responsibility for their actions, and are honest and trustworthy are the employees who advance. These are the people who become supervisors, get the raises, move on to better jobs and end up running their own businesses. People who develop good character are building their futures.

Those people who try to tempt you into unethical or even illegal behavior are only thinking of today. People who take the time and effort to build a good character are building for the future. So in the end, good character is a decision you make about yourself and your future. Do you want to be successful? Do you want to be respected? Do you want to meet your higher life goals? Then you need to put the effort into building yourself into a good person.

Building the successful person you want to be

Being a good person is not easy, but it is simple. Think about the outcomes of your behavior. Test your decisions, using the three tests. Practice the traits of respect, responsibility and honesty. When you reach adulthood, you will be the successful person, the person others in the community admire and respect.

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George Sherman, behavioral specialist at Walsingham Elementary School in Largo, has taught in Pinellas County schools since 1986. He serves on a University of South Florida/Pinellas County schools task force developing ethics curriculums for grades K-12.

About the Florida Council on Economic Education

Money Stuff was developed by the Florida Council on Economic Education and project director Fonda Anderson. The council is a statewide non-profit organization founded in 1975 to educate K-12 teachers and students about the free enterprise system and to instill in them an appreciation for a market economy. For more information on the council's programs for teachers and students, please call (813) 289-8489.

About Newspaper in Education

The St. Petersburg Times devotes news space to NIE features throughout the year, including this classroom series. The Times' NIE department works with local businesses and individuals to enrich the classroom experience by providing newspapers, supplemental guides and educational services to schools in the Tampa Bay area. To find out how you can become involved in NIE, please call (727) 893-8969 or (800) 333-7505, ext. 8969. For past chapters on finance, check out and click on Money Stuff.

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