This page will contain a brief summary of the book called Ethics {for the real world} by Ronald A. Howard and Clinton D. Korver. Other philosophical texts can be abstract and delve deeply into the reasons why we should not lie, cheat, steal, or harm, but ultimately many ethical systems agree on what we should do in daily life. This book skips all the underlying philosophical abstraction and directly addresses what people can do to examine their ethical beliefs, explore the implications of those beliefs, develop their own code of ethics, and develop practices that help people to do what is right. It is a readable and pragmatic examination of ethics that any literate person can understand and benefit from. It is also filled with real-world examples that are relevant to business and personal life. The approach to ethics in this book is neither utilitarian nor consequentialist, but it contains practical suggestions that should be useful to all.

Chapter 1: Almost Ethical Edit

The opening of the book is a real-world example of some psychiatrists with prestigious credentials who published an article about a drug but failed to disclose their relationship with drug companies[1]. Using that example as a background Howard and Korver (H&k) listed some of the pragmatic consequences of unethical behavior. Besides the obvious effects of being caught committing an ethical violation, unethical behavior can alter the way we interact with others because of the deceit, avoidance of certain topics, and the cascade of additional deceit (p. 12-13).

Prohibitions against lying, stealing, and harming are central to ethical behavior (p. 13).

Stealing is often in the form of "minor" theft such as downloading copyrighted material. We justify this to ourselves by using other words for it like mooching, and pinching (p. 21). Some specific examples include buying a TV from a store that allows returns up to 90 days after the purchase and colluding with your roommates each roommate can take turns purchasing and returning a TV. Dishonest billing practices are another type of deception.

Harm is one of the other main principles of ethics. The first example is of a rancher in Columbia who sent his foreman to pay the rebels who were demanding "protection money" (extortion), but he gave the foreman only half the requested amount resulting in the foreman being killed. The moral is that the principle of harm pertains not only to directly harming people but also to exposing others to risk (p. 23).

Ethical desensitization is when people are exposed to conditions that change the way people perceive ethical situations. Many of the examples were related to war-time regimes that legitimized killing or used systems of authority to enforce compliance (p. 26-27). H&K ask how we know what our response would be in these situations. They suggested that 'we must examine our ethics and understand why we [humans] have these insensitivities' so that we do not make the same mistakes (p. 28).

Chapter 2: Draw Distinctions Edit

An example of a person who infiltrated the Nazi military to see if rumors about mass killings were true found himself purchasing materials used in gas chambers. He made some effort to reduce the harm done by the operation but continued to cause harm while "falling for the lesser-of-two-evils thinking" (p, 32). After the war he was put in jail where he died (possibly from suicide; p. 33).

The main distinctions that are useful in evaluating ethical problems are: prudential, legal, and ethical (where prudential actions are those that pertain to maintaining our health, safety, or overall well-being; p. 34-35). There are also distinctions of positive versus negative ethics (causing something good or causing something bad); action-based versus consequence-based ethics; and ethical reasoning versus rationalization (p. 34). Negative ethics are those that prohibit certain actions and positive ethics are those that prescribe the good things that we should do (p. 39). H&K classify Kantian ethics (and deontology) as action-based ethics and consequentialism as consequence-based ethics (p. 40-41). Rationalization is when we do something for one set of reasons (or causes) and then later invent a justification for it. Rationalization is dangerous because it can lead us to "fool ourselves into thinking something is justified when it isn't" (p. 43).

H&K present some "tests" (better described as guidelines) that individuals can use to reveal their arguments as rationalizations:

  1. Other-shoe test (consider how others would feel)
  2. Front-page test (consider how we would feel if our actions were printed on the front page of a newspaper)
  3. Biased language (replace value-laden language with value-neutral language and see if the argument holds)
  4. Role-model test (would we want a role model for our children to do what we are doing)
  5. Loved-one test (what if the other person was a loved one)
  6. Mother's test (what would mom think) (p. 45-46)

Chapter 3: Consult the Touchstones Edit

This chapter includes a brief review of the ethical principles from various religions and cultures. Many of the ethical principles are repeated across traditions, but many of the principles are prudential (such as recommendations to avoid intoxicating drugs; p. 53-54).

Some notable people work diligently according to their ethical beliefs. The examples included Mother Teresa and the Dalai Lama. The review is a prompt for the reader to identify our commitment to aspirations or positive ethics (as opposed to the negative ethics such as the 10 Commandments; p. 56).

Although ethical principles might sound clear, problems arise when rules conflict. H&K listed eight variations of the Golden Rule (p. 57). The reader is asked to explore the list and resolve a more concise understanding of what the Golden Rule really means (p. 58).

Ethical principles can come from cultural traditions or authors. Some examples from Shakespeare are listed (p. 58-59). Institutions also publish ethical guidelines that can be useful to review and consider. Examples include ethical guidelines from Shakespeare, Benjamin Franklin, universities, military academies, Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts, The UN Declaration of Human Rights, codes from professional organizations, and more (p. 61-65).

At the end of the chapter, the reader is asked to identify about 6 principles that seem important and identify some principles that two ethical role models would deem important (p. 69).

Chapter 4: Draft Your Code Edit

This chapter guides the reader through a process of constructing an ethical code that begins with a continuation of the work in the previous chapter. Page 75 contains a detailed list of possible exceptions to the general principles of lying/deception, stealing, and harming that the reader should consider.

H&K recommend identifying and removing most (or all) prudential principles from the list (see page 106 for a further discussion of prudential principles in consequentialist analysis). They suggested that positive ethics (like treating others with respect) can be difficult because they "know no bounds" (p. 80). They gave some examples of the vagueness of seemingly laudable positive ethics, but noted that some retain positive ethics pertaining to charity and compassion (p. 80). Positive ethics often do not help to distinguish right from wrong (p. 86).

Another step in the process is to identify the lines between ethical and unethical and sharpen those lines (p. 82-84). Some review their personal code and structure a hierarchy of which principles are most important (p. 84-85).

The final review process includes steps for checking for loaded language, framing standards in terms of what others might think or say, making overly lofty statements, and more. There are also some example codes in the back of the book.

Chapter 5: Choose Action Edit

The chapter beings with a real-world example of a drug test that endangered the lives of six people due to hasty decision-making. H&K offered three simple guidelines that the reader can use to ensure that the ethical decision-making process is activated: clarify the ethical issue," "create alternatives," and "evaluate the alternatives" (p. 92). Those items are described in detail in the subsequent 13 pages or so.

The next section addresses a consequentialist approach to ethics. H&K say that consequentialism requires more than just a review of the ethical decision-points and must include consideration of prudential and legal ones too (p. 106). The setting for the discussion is Google's consideration of complying with China's demands to move servers to China and censor them (p. 106-111). The decision points and notes on consequences are mapped, and H&K frame the decision as a weighing between prudential benefits (utility) and ethical costs (p. 108). H&K also note that some decision points are inherently complicated. For example, the time frame for considering the consequences of the action, our prediction of consequences is imprecise (uncertainty), and the difficulty of determining the point at which prudential benefit (utility) outweighs ethical cost[2] (p. 108).

Chapter 6: Transform Life Edit

This chapter begins with the story of somebody who was a leader in the Nazi party but took steps to oppose the atrocities by the German military in China. The story served as an example of what it can take to avoid ethical violations.

H&K warn the reader that avoiding membership in groups can be among the best decisions because once we are in it can be difficult to escape (p. 115). A decision made by the group leader can lead to divisions in society, and the events can happen so quickly that we find ourselves in ethically challenging situations (p. 115-116).

H&K suggest that increased skill in ethical decision-making can help to extricate people from persistent ethical problems (such as belonging to an ethically-challenged group) and instead focus on "transforming ourselves" (p. 116). The list three guidelines and then describe them in detail: "finding the whole truth," "framing issues as relationships," and "raising the reciprocity bar." (p. 116). The item for relationships is a reminder to consider how our actions affect our relationships with other people over the long-run. The reference to reciprocity is a reminder to examine ethical alternatives not only by how we would like to be treated but also by considering how we would like loved-ones to be treated.

Sections in the chapter apply the three principles above (and some additional ones) to moving away from lies (and deception) and toward truth, approaching promises and secrets, reconsidering acts of theft, and rethinking harm. Only the deception section is discussed here. One insight for avoiding deception is that we must "realize why we are tempted to deceive" (p. 120) before we can successfully change our deception to full truth. The examples suggest that this insight is necessary because a full understanding of our temptation to deceive helps us to frame an honest and constructive response that the recipient will be better able to understand. In being truthful, there is no need to be caustic. A good rule of thumb here is to say only what is true, kind, and useful. This insight is combined with the principle of focusing on relationships. The examples in the book demonstrate how effective communication can include explaining our situation to the other person and describing our concerns about maintaining the relationship. Another suggestion to test for deception is to write the text of a conversation on the left column of a piece of paper and the private thoughts on the other side. A difference in content between the columns could indicate deception (p. 121).

Transforming Work Edit

This chapter begins with another real-world example in which the chief operating officer (COO) of a new company was asked by venture capitalists to not tell the employees of a cash crises so that the workforce would not quit or start looking for jobs. This might seem like a necessary business decision to some, but the COO made a policy of explaining the risks of the venture to employees and explaining how the company would deal with cash shortages (i.e., top managers would go without pay first and after a couple months regular employees would go without pay). There were cash shortages but only one person (perhaps unprepared for the cash shortages) quit.

Because of pressures to conform to expectations in the work place, choice of employment is important. H&K list some ideas for choosing a profession and understanding the ethical culture at the organization. Some companies focus on mere compliance with the law, but this might not be an adequate ethical stance depending on how the business is run (p. 135-136). The chapter also includes sections on transforming lies (and deception) to truth in the workplace, avoiding broken promises at work, dealing with secrets and minimizing harm.

An epilogue emphasizes the importance of forming habits that reinforce our ethical code.

References Edit

  1. Howard, R. A. & Korver, C. D. (2008). Ethics for the real world: Creating a personal code to guide decisions in work and life. Boston, MA: Harvard Business Press.
  2. The analysis here does not use the language typically found in utilitarians, which would focus exclusively on utility as opposed to counting "ethical cost" separately.