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A Guide to Doing the Right Thing

How often do we ask ourselves, "What is the right thing to do?" and wonder if we are forcing our sense of what is right on other people? Nationally-known ethicist Bruce Weinstein offers five principles everyone can use in ethical decision-making. Included: Tips for helping students learn to analyze ethical issues.

Dr. Bruce Weinstein, also
known as The Ethics Guy.

Your friend is wearing an unflattering outfit and asks your honest opinion. You see another adult taking money from a school activity fund. A teacher tells you he "boosted" his students' high-stakes tests' scores because his kids needed to show a certain level of improvement or he would face sanctions.

Every day, people confront situations -- ethical dilemmas of sorts -- that prompt them to ask themselves, "What should I do?" or "What is the right thing to do?" before acting. Ethical decision-making becomes easier if you follow certain life principles, writes author and nationally-known ethicist Dr. Bruce Weinstein in his book .

Dr. Weinstein suggests everyone use these five principles to guide them in ethical decision-making:

  • Do no harm
  • Make things better
  • Respect others
  • Be fair
  • Be loving

By putting these ideas into practice, readers can learn to make better decisions that affect their relationships, their careers, and their overall quality of life, according to Dr. Weinstein. Teachers are in a position to help students understand how often they face ethical decisions and learn the best way to address them.

Known as The Ethics Guy , Dr. Weinstein's skills are in high demand. In one two-day period, he appeared on MSNBC to discuss the dropping of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima, Japan, near the end of World War II; and on CBS and Fox News to talk about the Martha Stewart case. He also appears regularly on CNN, and his syndicated column, "Ask the Ethics Guy," is distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune.

Dr. Weinstein recently talked with Education World about the Life Principles and helping children learn to make decisions ethically.

"When we do the right thing, as opposed to the easy thing, we not only enhance the lives of others; we enhance our own lives," says Dr. Bruce Weinstein, also known as The Ethics Guy.

Education World: What is the difference between ethics and morality?

Dr. Bruce Weinstein: Historically there was no difference, because the word from which we get "morality" was the Latin translation of the Greek word from which we get "ethics." If you ask five of your friends to define these terms, you will get five different definitions of each. Because both terms broadly refer to "doing the right thing," because there is so much confusion about what exactly constitutes morality and ethics, and because one term grew out of the other, we ought to use them synonymously.

The meaningful distinction is not between ethics and morality, but between ethics and the law. That is, something can be ethical but not legal, and vice versa. For example, slavery was legal, but that didn't make it right. Women didn't get the legal right to vote until 1920, but that doesn't mean that in 1919 they had no moral right to vote. When Rosa Parks refused to the move to the back of the bus in Montgomery, Alabama, one afternoon in 1955, she broke the law but did the right thing. Yes, we should take the law into account in our decision-making, but for any law we can and should ask, "Is it right? Is it fair? Is it just?" The ultimate standard for deciding how we should conduct ourselves is ethics, not the law.

I don't mean to suggest that we all become anarchists, but rather to acknowledge that laws change, laws vary from state to state, and some laws don't exist that should (hence the saying, "There oughta be a law.") When we ask ourselves, "What should I do?" what we're really asking is, "What is the right thing to do?" not merely, "What does the law require of me?"

EW:What are some ways to engage kids in ethical thinking?

Weinstein: The first step is to help students understand that any time we ask, "What should I do?" and the rights or wellbeing of another person are at stake, we are asking an ethical question. In other words, ethical issues are everywhere! The quiz format is a great way to break the ice and create a lively debate about right and wrong conduct.

EW: How can teachers use your book in the classroom?

Weinstein: The ethics quiz is the most obvious place to start, and teachers might want to create their own quiz, using the one from my book, as a template. Where it might get tricky, however, is in the analysis section, since it does take a degree of skill and experience to apply the five ethical or "life" principles to the kinds of scenarios one would present in a quiz. I don't mean this sound haughty, but rather to underscore the fact that one develops expertise in ethics just as one does in teaching, journalism, science, or any other field. To this end, I am happy to come to a school and facilitate a discussion with students and staff alike on ethical issues in everyday life.

EW:How can teachers -- if you think it is their role -- explain to students who see people making bad choices all the time the value of doing the right thing?

Weinstein: When we do the right thing, as opposed to the easy thing, we not only enhance the lives of others; we enhance our own lives. If a student sees a peer cheating on a test and does nothing -- the easy thing to do -- the student knows -- or should know -- that he or she is letting an injustice occur and must thus bear some responsibility for the outcome. If the class is being graded on a curve, for example, the observer of wrongdoing is to some degree guilty for the fact that the cheater has hurt all of the students. Only by taking action -- ideally, notifying the teacher -- can this injustice be dealt with appropriately. There is a sense of satisfaction that flows from doing the right thing, even if one has to find the courage for this to happen. Perhaps it is through discovering that we have the mettle to rise to the challenge that makes us feel good.

Ultimately, it is up to us to decide what kind of life we want to live. We can take the low road and think primarily or exclusively about our own needs and desires. We can steal when no one is looking, cheat whenever we are able, lie when it is convenient, or break promises when something better comes along. We can resolve conflict with force rather than persuasion, because in the short run at least, it is always possible to conquer with violence, but peaceable solutions take time and effort.

Or we can reacquaint ourselves with the five ethical concepts I discuss in my book, Life Principles. If we were lucky, these principles were taught to us by loving parents and concerned teachers as we grew up. In every interaction we can take a moment to think about how our words and deeds may affect other people, particularly the people we care the most about, and make our choices accordingly. We can realize that, yes, we are better off by living a moral life, but the main reason to do so is not for the personal gain but simply because it is the right thing to do.

Whether you believe that the Life Principles are worth following because they form the core of your religious tradition, or because a society that is not founded in principles of respect and fairness is a society that is not worth living in, I hope that you will want to reaffirm your commitment to avoiding harm, making things better, respecting others, being fair, and incorporating love into your life. Life is a precious gift, and the Life Principles are the best way to express gratitude for that gift.

EW: How do you respond to people who say you are making value judgments?

Weinstein: Of course I'm making value judgments; that's what ethics is all about. Criticizing an ethicist for making moral judgments would be like taking to task a movie reviewer who makes aesthetic judgments about the latest films. Having said that, I am less interested in finding fault with people than in helping others understand what is going on when they are faced with an ethical problem and how they might arrive at a satisfactory solution. In other words, my role is more akin to "helper" than "critic."

EW: Why do you think more people are questioning themselves about what is the right thing to do?

Weinstein: I'm not sure that I agree with the premise of the question, and I can't imagine how we could even arrive at the truth. What is indisputable, however, is that there is much more media attention regarding ethical issues in business, government, health care, science, law, and education. In part, this is because there are more media outlets than ever before (24-hour cable news networks and the Internet, to name the most prominent ones). Scandals in government, going back at least as far as Watergate, have given rise to a distrust of those in authority and a more significant role of journalists in monitoring the conduct of the powerful and influential. Are people less ethical than they used to be? I'm not convinced that this is the case. Are we more aware of unethical conduct? Yes.

I'd like to share an excerpt from President Abraham Lincoln's First Inaugural Address, which he gave on Monday, March 4, 1861:

"We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature."

It is time to let the better angels of our nature soar. Chances are they will come back to us and make our lives richer than we can possibly imagine.

This e-interview with Dr. Bruce Weinstein is part of the Education World Wire Side Chat series. Click here to see other articles in the series.



Ellen R. Delisio
Education World®
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