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About Ethics

1. Why does ethics matter?
2. Isn’t ethics subjective and relative?
3. Isn’t ethics just about following the rules?
4. Can you really influence people in behaving more ethically?
5. Why should anyone behave ethically if it’s not in their self interest?

1. Why does ethics matter?(back to top)

Ethics is a part of everything we do. There have been many reasons articulated for why it's important. Here are a few key highlights. You are also invited to share your own perspectives and answers to this question.

Ethics matters on a personal level. Most people simply feel better working for an ethical organization. Time and time, surveys verify that employees are more likely to enjoy their work and take pride in their organization, if their organization demonstrates a commitment to the values of fairness, honesty, and integrity.

Ethics matters on a professional level. Many professional groups and associations (including the California Teacher’s Association for example) have long taken a lead in establishing codes of conduct. Professionals recognize that their credibility rests not only on technical competence, but also on public trust.

Ethics matters on an organizational level. Ethics is not only smart business, but good business. Studies continue to show that over the long run ethical organizations perform better than unethical organizations in terms of cost efficiencies and employee and customer satisfaction.

Ethics matters on the societal level. Understandably, the public has high expectations of organizations that receive public monies. An institution like LAUSD is charged with the most important mission of all – that of educating our children. LAUSD must not only perform this mission to the highest standards of integrity, but in addition be perceived by the larger community and society as doing so.

The challenging reality we face in today’s society is that quite often, perception matters just as much, if not more than what is actual practice. So an action being taken might be completely above board, but if it is perceived as otherwise, it can undermine the public’s trust in our work. By ensuring that we are always striving toward ethical practice, we minimize misunderstandings the public may have.

All of us get so busy with our work – it’s not often that we have the luxury to think about why ethics matters and how our own ethical practices affect each other. But the plain fact is that ethics does matter. We see this in the daily news reports about ethics breaches that have brought down institutions and individuals.

Each of us depends on the ethical behavior of our co-workers, our supervisors, and upwards to our highest levels of management. The daily decisions we each make at LAUSD affect all of us and the future of our District. More importantly, it affects future generations since we are models for the children we work with.

Finally, we end with Ethicist Rushworth Kidder who writes that given the power of today's technology: "Ethics is not a luxury or option. It is essential to our survival." Simply put, in our tightly woven system, each individual’s words and conduct impact all of us.

2. Isn’t ethics subjective and relative? (back to top)

This is a common misperception and has a lot to do with people mixing up ethics and values which are not interchangeable terms. Ethics has to do with society’s standards for how a person should behave, whereas values are the inner beliefs and judgments a person holds about what is important. Values overlap with ethics when they have to do with what an individual believes to be right, good and just, but there are many other values that have nothing to do with morality—for example: valuing health, patience, neatness, etc. A person’s values are subjective and will differ based on cultural roots, personal experiences, religions beliefs, etc. In contrast, ethics are not defined individually, but rather by the larger community and society.

Defining ethics in the abstract is a task unto which many philosophers have devoted their lives. For our purposes, we are focused on work place ethics and supporting the societal standards and norms of conduct that guide us in doing what is right as LAUSD officials. These standards are based on universal principles of what constitute appropriate conduct, including for starters—our defined principles of excellence, integrity, and responsibility. Ethical practice also means working to cultivate honesty, respect, compassion, and fairness. These universal principles of ethics help define what behavior and practice is right, good, and appropriate. They also help clarify the distinction between what we may want to do versus what we should do.

Of course, it must be added that ethics is not always cut and dry. The universal guiding principles for ethical practice don’t always dictate a single course of “ethical” action. Rather, ethics is probably better described as a complex decision-making process that requires individuals to draw upon the universal guiding principles, consultation with others, and careful self-reflection to evaluate and decide among competing options—what is the best “ethical” action.

3. Isn’t ethics just about following the rules? (back to top)

No—rules and the law set a minimum standard for what is acceptable behavior. Living by ethical standards inspires us to do more than what the law requires. As a U.S. Supreme Court justice famously said: “Ethics is knowing the difference between what you have a right to do, and what is the right thing to do.”

While rules, codes and laws provide a structure for us to understand a minimum standard of behavior, they rarely if ever anticipate every problem with which we may be faced. So while simply following rules is an important start, it would be inadequate to only do that. Ethical practice requires contemplation and more often than not, it means choosing to do more than rules or the law require, or choosing to do less than what they allow.

4. Can you really influence people in behaving more ethically? (back to top)

There’s a common perception that people are either ethical, or they’re not. But research indicates that it’s not so simple. As stated earlier, ethics is not cut and dry. People are capable of a variety of responses to ethical dilemmas, ranging from what’s legal to illegal, what’s appropriate to inappropriate, and what’s right to what’s wrong. What most often leads people to make a poor ethical choice are ignorance and misperceived pressures.

Building ethical awareness and providing resources to help people with their ethical dilemmas has absolutely been shown to help people in making better ethical choices.

5. Why should anyone behave ethically if it’s not in their self interest? (back to top)

While the rewards of ethical practice may not always be overtly compelling, behaving ethically is in everyone’s self interest. It’s not just because virtue is its own reward (though this is true). Ethics is in everyone’s self interest because society doesn't function well without it. Take the simple example of throwing garbage out wherever you want. It might be convenient, but if everyone did it, we'd end up with a big mess.

As another famous judge said: "Ethics is obedience to the unenforceable." Ethical practice isn't always easy. In fact, that's what character is all about -- having the strength to act on what is the right thing to do even though it's a hard thing to do.

Where a lot of people get stuck is feeling that behaving ethically may not have a clear payoff, whether financially or otherwise. And it’s true that it’s harder to demonstrate a financial benefit of ethical behavior on an individual level, but now that it’s being proven that organizations with a strong ethical culture perform better, this could change. On the flip side, it’s certainly being played out daily in our papers that there are real costs to behaving unethically. If the rewards of respect, esteem, and serenity from conflict and emotional stress are not as compelling, then perhaps the self interest of steering clear of scandal, fines, or even prison seem more compelling. Ultimately, the challenge and reality is that if an individual needs an explicit reward to behave ethically, they are misunderstanding what ethics is about and likely to stray from ethical behavior when the incentives change.

It boils down to this: we ought to do the right thing because it's the right thing to do.

 
LAUSD Ethics Office
333 S. Beaudry Ave., 20th Floor
Los Angeles, CA 90017
Ask Ethics Helpline
T: 213-241-3330
F: 213-241-3319
Last Updated: 2/18/2011