L.I.F.E. Lessons (A Short Guide to Ethics)

In this blog, I spend a lot of time talking about particular ethical issues in the world of commerce. “What are the limits on honesty in business?” “How should we handle conflicts of interest?” And so on. But one of the questions I get asked most frequently, as a professor and as a consultant, is about how to go about making ethical decisions, quite generally. It’s not an easy question. There have been many, many attempts to sum up our ethical obligations, none of them fully satisfactory. Naturally, you’re never going to find a brief summary — let alone a slogan or single word — that captures everything about how we ought to think about complex issues involving a range of values, virtues, and principles. But it can be useful to think in terms of a brief acronym that serves to jog the memory, to remind us of the major elements that make up our ethical responsibilities.

One way to think of ethics is in terms of what I call “L.I.F.E. Lessons.” Each of the letters in “L.I.F.E.” stands for a word that should play a crucial role in our moral reasoning:

L is for Loyalty. The “L” in “L.I.F.E.” reminds us that loyalty is in many ways the first virtue of organizational life. Loyalty, of course, should never be absolute: being loyal to your company or to your friends doesn’t imply that your company or your friends can do no wrong. Loyalty doesn’t mean being morally agnostic or refusing to take action when you see wrong being done. The focus on loyalty here is just to remind us that in various roles — as employee, as trustee, as leader — you have been entrusted by others to do your job and to do it right. When we voluntarily associate ourselves with particular people and organizations, the default setting is that they deserve our loyalty.

I is for Integrity. The “I” in “L.I.F.E.” reminds us that each of us should aim at integrity. Each of us is responsible for our own actions, and those actions should add up to a clear and consistent pattern of honest and trustworthy behaviour.

F is for Fairness. The “F” in “L.I.F.E.” reminds us of the importance of treating each other fairly. We should treat like cases alike, and give people what they are owed. Fairness is a value that has to do with the fact that we want not just to do good in the world, but to make sure that that good is distributed justly — whatever justice demands in particular cases.

E is for Empathy. Finally, the “E” in “L.I.F.E.” reminds us of the importance of figuring out how other people feel, in ethically-contentious situations, and what their point of view is. We need empathy in order a) to understand the impact that our actions really have on others, as well as b) to understand other people’s reasons, when our ethical judgment differs from theirs.

Again, there’s nothing magical about this way of thinking about ethics. It’s just a mnemonic, a kind of memory-jogger. Acting appropriately requires much more than this, especially on complex organizational contexts involving special role-specific obligations.

But still, I think the idea of “L.I.F.E. Lessons” amounts to a pretty good heuristic. We all know that loyalty, integrity, fairness, and empathy are crucial ingredients to leading an ethically-sound life, but it’s good to be reminded. And if life hasn’t taught you these lessons yet, those around you can only hope that it eventually will.

5 comments so far

  1. Paul Chippendale on

    This is an old but seminal article: http://bit.ly/g2uX7n It provides a different take on loyalty (in particular, see table 5.1 page 5). These days loyalty is to shared causes rather than to entities.

    • Chris MacDonald on

      Can you clarify? That chart gives only brief mention of loyalty — a single word.


  2. Paul Chippendale on

    BTW I enjoy your blog. It gets me thinking. Like where you use a series of “don’ts” in the explanation of loyalty, it has me wondering if I would have worded it differently given this: http://bit.ly/hkvABr

    • Chris MacDonald on

      Thanks. Note that I only use negatives to make it clear — and this is crucial in a blog about business — that people need to be careful about over-interpreting what loyalty requires. A lot of bad things have been done in the name of loyalty, so it’s a virtue that needs qualification.


  3. Martha on

    L.I.F.E this is a useful tool. Why am I so afraid to say when something isn’t right, and possible may even violate federal and state laws. I’m even afraid to report it to a governing agency because I’m afraid they are already aware of the issues. I worked for a large medical group that I believed cared about it’s employees. One of my co-workers went to human resources and made a complaint. She was fired shortly after that. My dos would occasionally ask me to go to manager meetings in her place. A lot of discussion was on how to get rid of nuisance employes. My mom had Alzheimers, One day I came home from work, and she had fallen. I knew she broke her hip. She rapidly declined, and I asked my work for a FMLA. They turned own me. Made everything hard. I knew I was protected by the federal act, so there was nothing they could do. I quit before my FMLA was up. I can’t work for an org. that says it’s all bout pt care, but didn’t give a s%*t about me, or my families care. I think this is when I started to really distrust Org. and an process they put into place for grievances. I think they are placed to give them a heads up somethings coming down the pike, and they want a jump on the problem. Is this possible, or am I getting paranoid. Maybe I need a psychiatrist. Can you give me a referral…lol

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