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Setting Your Moral Compass to North - Why Talking about Ethics is not enough

Just mentioning the word ethics conjures up a number of thoughts on ethical and moral failings. While the late 20th and early 21st century is marked by an increase in discussions and scholarly debate on the subject, there appears to be an equally marked increase in moral failings. At times you cannot even so much as turn on the television or pick up a newspaper without some news on the ethical failings of an individual or organization. Why is it that we seem to know so much about ethics and yet continue to fail at adhering to such codes of conduct? Could it be that we are less moral than we once were or do moral failings only appear more prevalent simply because there is an increase in awareness through education, training and discussions?

Aristotle once suggested that we are all moral creatures and that our collective existence will condemn us to make choices of what we ought to do morally. Yet, finding north on our moral compass continues to be a challenge. The position of north on our moral compass precludes such good and positive things as truth, honesty and fairness or any other principle we may link to a positive ethical behavior. Such absolutes are meant to guide us to the proper path we would like to be morally in life. It is implied that each person carries within them core values that define what is both good and bad. We cannot live without these core principles because we can and are often tempted or influenced by life’s unseen pressures. These pressures affect how we approach moral decisions and without a strong sense of moral north we may ignore our internal alarms and act in such a way that is unethical. The stronger the sense or moral north we carry the easier it would be for us to recognize when we are doing something that we shouldn’t be doing.

Despite the fact that individuals can recognize when they’re doing something ethically wrong, organizations still find the need for formal awareness mechanisms such as codes of ethics, whistle-blower hot lines, compliance offices and a myriad of  reporting outlets that all assume that someone knows the difference between right and wrong. Perplexing is this dichotomy that we can still know right from wrong and still not always succeeds in maintaining our moral north. For example, a 2002 study by the Josephine Institute of Ethics noted that 76 percent of MBA graduates reported a willingness to commit an act of fraud to enhance the profits of their organization. It is astounding that such a high percentage of educated individuals would express a desire to do wrong despite the call to do right? How is it that we can get so far off course despite our ability to know better?

Perhaps the answer is locked in the matter of motivation. Some believe that ethical motivation is focused on an individual’s self-interest which will over-ride our ability to act morally. What this alleges is that no matter how many ethical mechanisms an organization has in place or how well a person knows the difference between right and wrong, there is still no guarantee that an individual will adhere to good moral principles. Despite the hundreds of morality tests that have been developed; countless articles that have been published; thousands of ethical standards developed by organizations; and countless individuals trained in ethics and values, we still have moral failings every day. What we find is that no one is immune from moral failings and many organizations must continue the practice of prudent business planning that assesses their vulnerability to ethical issues and their ability to take proactive steps to overcome a failure when it happens.

Knowing how to set your compass to moral north is not enough. Constant vigilance is also needed to stay the course. As did the navigators of old, we must check our internal compass on a regular basis against the moral maps of our community or organization to ensure that we are on course. The presence of personal and organizational codes of ethics is helpful to stay the course toward moral north. Periodic assessments conducted both personally and organizational wide aide in identifying potential deficits along life’s moral pathway. Yet none of this is effective without the ever vigilant presence of an absolute transparent mechanism of accountability. An individual who is left unchecked can stray off course and into the pits of moral failings. There must be a constant commitment to adherence and enforcement of moral standards coupled with our need to check and adjust our moral compass. Joanne Ciulla in her book Ethics, the Heart of Leadership reminds us that Ethics is primarily a community, collective enterprise, not a solitary one. The best possible way to set and maintain your moral compass to north is through an adherence to a defined set of core codes of conduct and an absolute pursuit of accountability and a commitment to adjustments on a regular basis. Ethical north is about constant change and commitment.

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