Good People, Bad Ethics
Bill Cottringer

“In my college ethics class, someone stole my textbook and I thought that was rather ironic.” ~The author.

In the section on ethics which I teach in criminal justice classes, I define ethical behavior as, “The ideal standard of what is right, which all people should aspire towards, but which cannot be legislated and with which life and human nature sometime interfere.” This definition fits a quote one of my students borrowed from Albert Einstein—"That relativity is for physics not ethics.” Situational ethics pose a special problem, but we will save that for another article.

In my first professional job as a social worker in a maximum-security prison in Kentucky, I was confronted with my first ethical dilemma. Fortunately, I was adequately warned about this potential problem during my initial training about the criminal culture, which I was totally unfamiliar with at the time. The choice before me was to do a favor for an inmate for payment—sneaking or “kiting” a contraband letter out of the prison in exchange for some form of payment.

Being forewarned that this would likely lead to the inmate getting his hooks into me for more serious illegal demands, I quickly gave the correct ethical answer, “No.” But I also humorously added, “If you still want me to do this then make a deposit of one million dollars in my bank account (I was rather naïve in 1969 and didn’t know about off-shore banking as a safer means to do this). This bit of strategic humor gave me the needed credibility to be successful in prison work, without fear of retaliation or further unethical requests.

A little later, when I switched careers to be a psychologist at a rural mental health center in southern Illinois, I was confronted with a section in the code of ethics. This one was much more difficult to be successful in carrying out the right ethical act. The ethical standard was to treat all patients equally and give them my best effort in our therapy sessions, with attention, understanding, empathy and help. The last part of my opening definition of ethical behavior—sometimes life and human nature get in the way—is what keeps most counselors, teachers, coaches, therapists, medical practitioners and others in the helping professions from reaching this high road ethical behavior. For most, it is an unrealistic ideal, running contrary to human nature.

For example, human beings tend to like or dislike others to the degree which their characteristics, abilities and values match up, in avoiding the necessity of having to deal with any annoying or disruptive differences. I would be less than honest if I said I didn’t favor some of my patients over others, despite an admirable effort to avoid doing that. I always have and probably always will, prefer to help others who want to be helped and who make an honest effort to improve vs. others who seek out counseling and psychotherapy just to prove to themselves and others, that they are emotionally ill beyond repair. And I will likely remain prejudiced against dishonest and lazy people who refuse to use the skills they were born with to get to where they really want to be in life and where they were most likely meant to be.

And then of course there is the reality of the one-third principle that most helpers—teachers, counselors and even the rest of society follow unconsciously. This principle divides all people into thirds—a top third, as the ones who will get it all by themselves without much help from others; the bottom third which have the most difficulty getting it, even with the most help; and the middle third, where the most progress is achieved with the least effort but practically deserving the most. Or the optimists, pessimists and realists; Republics, Democrats and Independents; and strict law-abiders, law-violating criminals and the rest of us.

Last night I watched a recorded episode of “Bull,” in which Michael Weatherly (the former NCIS agent who moved into the TV role of a trial scientist), proposed a very creative solution to a virtually unsolvable ethical-legal dilemma the judge had before her court. The dilemma involved a white couple who ended up with a black baby due to an error in the IVF process, being sued for custody of the infant by a childless black couple responsible for fatherhood by the biological father sperm donor. The Judge’s only way out of this impossible situation, was to award joint custody, which neither couple agreed to, or to appoint a professional child worker to assess which living environment was best for the child.

The professional evaluator ended up with a draw on loving parents and living environments, slightly favoring the black couple for their better financial resources to give the child a more comfortable life. But this would result in the white couple being stripped of their child and left to be devastated and heartbroken. However, Dr. Bull discovered that the black mother-to-be had ovarian cancer and couldn’t have children, whereas the white mother of the infant was the one who delivered the full-term conception from the black biological father’s donated sperm.

Bull’s solution to this unique dilemma was even more unique. He boldly proposed—and it was accepted by all parties, including the judge—that the white couple keep their black child and the white mother go through the IVF procedure again with the black biological father’s sperm donation and then the childless black couple would have their child without ripping the black child away from the white couple. And the families could keep the two siblings close growing up, to maneuver the bi-racial challenges ahead.

It is the impossible, double avoidance, either-or choices that can keep the right ethical behavior at a distance. But seeing these situations as either-or choices is a choice itself, where the best solution might need to be created from other alternatives such as the creative one above. In the meantime, here is a suggested model to strengthen the chances of making the right ethical decisions to act ethically:

1. Always follow the law, first.
2. Be aware when you have an ethical dilemma.
3. Gather the facts necessary to make the best decision.
4. Identify competing values (see the loyalty example below).
5. Analyze the obvious options and think outside the box to find alternatives.
6. Make the decision.
7. Act accordingly
8. Reflect to continually improve.

Not long ago I attended the annual convention of a security organization I belong to—The American Society for Industrial Security (ASIS). I was leading a session on my Total Quality Communication (TQC) system but was actually more interesting in another session dealing with a practical ethical dilemma that was just surfacing in the security business. The session participants were a Law professor from a major university, two leading security practitioners from Fortune 100 companies, and a top TV personality moderator. The ethical dilemma was this: “Would you violate an international law that prohibited hostage recue attempts if you and your boss were overseas on business and your boss was taken hostage?”

The value of loyalty by the two practitioners quickly trumped following the law as expected, by the law professor. I always get the same results when I pose a slight variation of this dilemma to criminal justice students. I convey this scenario for their proposed solutions: “If your wife was dying of a fatal disease, you were poor and the local drug store had an experimental drug available, but which was way too expensive, would you break into the drug store and steal the drug to save your wife?” Only one thoughtful student ever avoided making the either-or unethical decision because of the inherent loyalty imperative.

Her creative win-win solution was to ask for a discount from the pharmacist, work off the debt on the weekends, start a community drive to collect a fund to help payment, actively encourage all her friends and neighbors to use the drug store for all their medical needs, and to do several radio and newspaper interviews about her situation and the help the pharmacy gave her. This student got a deserved “A” grade for the class.

One concluding ethical decision-making difficulty remains open for discussion. Arriving at the right ethical decision is dependent upon which moral authority you use to determine right from wrong. Here are the main ones available and using a combination of more than one, may yield the best results:

• The Golden rule of “Do unto others as you would have done unto you”
• The Utilitarian Principle of doing what results in the greatest good for the greatest majority.
• Follow your inner compass, Jiminy Crickets’ conscience, or gut instinct.
• Do what favors fairness and justice.
• Follow the path that your head, heart and intuition agree upon.
• Practice what the Bible or other religious authority or moral rule teaches.
• Think about what action will be easiest to do, bring about the best overall consequences, and have the least harmful side effects.

“Ethics is the activity of man directed to secure the inner perfection of his own personality.” ~Albert Schweitzer.

Author's Bio: 

William Cottringer, Ph.D. is Executive Vice President of Puget Sound Security in Bellevue, WA, along with being a Sport Psychologist, Business Success Coach, Photographer and Writer living on the scenic Snoqualmie River and mountains of North Bend. He is author of several business and self-development books, including, Re-Braining for 2000 (MJR Publishing); The Prosperity Zone (Authorlink Press); You Can Have Your Cheese & Eat It Too (Executive Excellence); The Bow-Wow Secrets (Wisdom Tree); Do What Matters Most and “P” Point Management (Atlantic Book Publishers); Reality Repair, (Global Vision Press), Reality Repair Rx (Publish America); Thoughts on Happiness; Pearls of Wisdom: A Dog’s Tale (Covenant Books, Inc.) Coming soon: A Cliché a day will keep the Vet Away (Another Dog’s Tale). Bill can be reached for comments or questions at (425) 652-8067 or