In 1982, Chicago, Illinois, seven people died from potassium cyanide poisoning after taking Tylenol. The first death was on September 29th. On October 5, Tylenol voluntarily recalled 31 million bottles of their product at a cost in excess of $100 million.
In 1994 on April 15, the C.E.O.’s of seven major tobacco companies testified before a Congressional committee to their belief that cigarettes were not addictive. The next month, Attorney General Mike Moore of Mississippi filed the first state lawsuit against the industry.
What is the difference between these two scenarios? To a large extent it is a question of ethics. In this instance, business ethics. But the same issues present themselves in professional ethics, political ethics, personal ethics and the list could go on. Why do some people stop at a stop sign at two o’clock in the morning when there is no traffic and others cruise through?
C.S. Lewis defined integrity as “doing the right thing even when no one is watching.” Integrity is another term for personal ethics.
It is not that complicated. You do not have to wade through Meditations by Marcus Aurelius, or Beyond Good and Evil by Fredrich Nietzsche, or Beyond Religion by the Dalai Lama, though those trips might prove very interesting.
We were all, for the most part, provided five senses; sight, smell, hearing, feeling and taste. Applying those five senses, and usually only one of them, can steer us in the right ethical direction.
Sight: If the issue is whether an action is truly ethical ask how it would look on the front page of the Oklahoman? If you are in politics and make the wrong choice, it probably will.
Smell: Does it pass the smell test? The Latin term is “non omne quod licet honestum est”, or not all that is legal is honest; not all that is permitted is honorable. If it is not honorable, it will not pass the smell test.
Hearing: Would you want your mother to hear about it? Or, your neighbors, or the folks at your place of worship. It they would react negatively, perhaps you should not be doing it.
Feeling: When a course of action is considered, how does it feel? If your instincts are good, an unethical course will not feel good. Trust that judgment.
Taste: If the thought of it leaves a bad taste in your mouth, you are making an ethical judgment. Do not swallow it.
In Rotary we have a Four Way Test. It does not deal with the law, it deals with truthfulness, fairness, goodwill, friendship, and beneficence.
We should all be proud to belong to an organization that not only does good things but believes and practices strong ethical principles. I know I am.