Ethical Values: Are These Optional Depending on the Situation?

As Dr. Martin Luther King said, “The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.”

Dr. King’s famous quote is a good litmus test as to whether one’s decisions might change if following one’s core beliefs will cause an individual to lose something of value (e.g., a job, a good salary, a friend, or something else).  The answer might not be as simple as one may think.

The first consideration relates to ‘ethics’, which can be defined as a process used to decide if something is ‘right’ or ‘wrong’.  Ethical values are influenced by family, society, education, relationships (personal/business), core beliefs, personal challenges, and opportunity.  Ethics provide a baseline to determine whether something is appropriate behavior, but may not take into consideration personal beliefs, which may or may not align with the environmental factors that were used to develop one’s ethical beliefs.

The second consideration relates to ‘character’, which can be defined as an individual’s core beliefs that are involved in decisions.  While presented with a choice, personal character affects the way a situation is handled that goes beyond a decision as to whether something is ‘right’ or ‘wrong’.  A choice may be considered ‘right’ based on professional or societal standards, but may still be ‘wrong’ based on one’s character.

For example, an employee may believe that it is not an issue to arrive at work fifteen (15) minutes late every day and not make-up the time as this is the unofficial office policy, which is justified as appropriate behavior.  However, another employee who arrives late to work will always make-up the time because not doing so would reflect poorly on the employee’s character.  This distinction illustrates the difference between an individual who may follow others to engage in unethical behavior versus a leader who will follow their own core beliefs to determine an appropriate action and/or behavior.

An individual’s character should supersede others – sometimes inappropriate – considerations of ethical behavior.  Moreover, character reflects an individual’s true nature and defines the core of an individual, and whether values will be compromised to achieve an end-result.

An individual who only considers the ethical impact of an action or behavior may rationalize this as a social norm and conform.  However, an individual with a high character standard will not consider an outcome of an ethical action or behavior and will do the right thing regardless of potential consequences.

Ethical values provide guidelines for ‘good’ versus ‘bad’ or ‘right’ versus ‘wrong’; however, it’s an individual’s character that defines the things that one will do even if the ethical litmus test on the surface indicates that a choice made is fine.  Ultimately, it’s individual character that is used to examine a situation a step further to determine whether a decision fits within one’s core beliefs — whether it’s popular or not.

​This last consideration defines character, which is not dependent on the situation.

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