Ethics in an Unethical World

Universities love to talk about ethics and, as a college professor and one who has spent many years in school working on my degrees, I have sat through my fair share of lectures on ethics. Truth be told, I have given my fair share of lectures on ethics, but it is easy to talk: living and doing business ethically in an unethical world is another story altogether.

The problem with academics’ views on ethics is that it is always one-sided. They teach what it means to be ethical (kind of), but they don’t teach how to cope with life in an unethical world. Unfortunately, we quickly learn that the real world is filled with people who get ahead by forsaking ethics. Of course, it is kind of odd that we teach ethics in one breath and survival of the fittest in the next, but that is just a side thought.

How do we live as a positive example, when every-which-way we turn, the people that win do so by betraying, lying, and cheating their way to the top? With all the talk about ethics, do we really value them? After all, we keep electing corrupt politicians; we do business with large corporations who treat people like numbers; and we pay for things we want today, by indebting our futures to Visa and Mastercard. We excuse all of this by simply saying that that is the way the world works. Why bother teaching ethics at all?

Inherently we all want to live in a better world.  We want to hope in the best of people, but a couple of college courses on ethical behavior will not create a utopia. What we really need to understand is how to deal with an unethical world. How do we cope, how do we stand out, and how do we succeed, with fairness and justice at heart?

As a small business owner and as a  Christian, I am often struck by Jesus’s words in Matthew 5:39, where Jesus teaches us to not resist evil but if we are slapped, He tells us to turn the other cheek. How do you run a successful business while following this advice? Looking at the bigger picture, I believe that this is Jesus’ teaching on ethics. He is telling us that we cannot control the ethics of others – all we can do is worry about how we respond. It may seem weak to respond to injustice by turning the other cheek, but I think that what Jesus means is that we are not to waste our time worrying about how other people are acting. Instead, Jesus understands that it is much more productive to focus on the things that we can control. The way we act, and the way that we treat others…these are the things that matter because these are the things that we can change.

The bottom line is that we can fight until we are blue in the face, chasing after every injustice, or we can make a real difference by giving people an alternative. Ultimately, we have two options: we can sit on the sidelines and point at evil (unethical behavior) or we can stand up and call everyone over to us, where we can create a better environment, a more positive experience, and give those who desire to live unethically no fuel, as their customers, constituents, or members rush to the better alternative that we have built.

By turning the other cheek, we are not laying down and accepting evil in the world. Instead, we are turning our faces away from those who would do harm. We are saying, “You don’t matter. You can’t hurt us because we have a better way.” As humans, we only have so much energy and I have learned that the best use of energy is not fighting for things I cannot change but instead looking for ways to improve what I can control. Living ethically in an unethical world is not about learning how to fight fire with fire; it is about learning how to stand as an example of a better way. It is about giving people a new option.

The free market is a great place to see the benefits of turning the other cheek because it allows us as business owners to positively affect our communities, by not letting evil get us down, by not stooping to its level in retaliation, but by standing strong and providing viable competition to corporations who refuse to do business ethically. Honestly, that is one of the reasons that I love business so much. If I don’t like the way that a business operates, I can create a better business, not with the purpose of crushing the competition out of anger, but for the much more uplifting cause of giving people a sound alternative. That is really what running an ethical business is all about. Taking something that we see as broken, wrong, or unjust and creating a better way. That is how justice is truly won.