The Ethics of Ethics

I have contemplated the question, “Why should we be ethical?” It bothered me. Would you ask, “Why should we breathe?” No. So, what should the question be? To be truthful, I am not sure.

Anne Frank believed that all people were good at heart. That has also always bothered me. Was she wrong? Could she be right?

I know that when I first became a mother, I read books and articles about how to parent. Some experts suggested leaving an infant to cry, in the crib, so the child learn to terrorize parents at bedtime. I couldn’t do that. To me, the lesson learned at that incredibly young age was that you were, ultimately, alone. That was not the lesson I wished to teach. In the end, my husband and I raised our children the way we had been raised because we had both enjoyed our childhood.
I grew up feeling safe with my family. My family behaved in an ethical manner. They were honest and compassionate. That’s how I was raised. To behave differently would make me horribly uncomfortable- like wearing my pants backwards. They actually did what a lot of child experts claim you shouldn’t do… it was a child-centered home. It was clear that my parents’ goal was to give us the best they could. They gave us the gift of themselves and, in doing so, gave us the gift of ourselves.

I believe that it is in our nature to be trusting, loving, and ethical. We are taught to be different. When our parents and the world betray us, we learn to take care of ourselves. The essence of ethical behavior and decisions is that the behavior and decisions are based on what is right as opposed to what suits us. If we are safe within ourselves and feel loved, then ethical behavior is not an issue. It is just a natural part of life.

I am 60 years old. I now know that behaving in this way can be very costly because the world does not reward ethical behavior. In fact, it often punishes the honest. It certainly appears to reward the dishonest. So, why continue to be ethical?
Actually, it is because I am terribly selfish and self serving. I like being loved. I like being respected. I revel in the adoration of my husband. I glow when he looks at me with love and trust and passion after almost 40 years of marriage. I feel good when my children trust me and turn to me for guidance. I couldn’t bear to see that change.

The problem is, how can you get people to understand that those gifts are worth far more than anything you can acquire by unethical behavior? The answer is, you probably can’t. The decision, ultimately, has to be made by the individual. In my case, it was easy because I was raised in an atmosphere of trust and love. For those who were not, it is very difficult.

I have tried to help people in my life. I have discovered that it is an uphill battle because they can’t feel my love and hope for them. No matter how much I love, no matter how much I give, if they can’t feel it, it is of limited value. But I keep trying. Why?

It is because I want the world to be right some day. My private world is still full of love and trust, so I feel safe. If I want the world to be that way for everybody some day, I have to serve that cause by trying to help people and make the world a better place.

In the end, we are best served by behaving ethically. If I find money today and return it to the rightful owner, I have a better chance of having what I lose returned to me some day. No, it won’t happen in my lifetime. I will return the item and, probably, lose mine but, when I die, I will not be ashamed of myself.

And I guess that’s the real question. What is worth living for? I have dedicated my life to the one instant that I believe all of us eventually face. I think it is possible that there is a moment when we know that we are about to die. There are no more appointments to keep or excuses to make. There is no tomorrow to make things right. It is that moment for which I live. I want to be able to face it without fear and shame. I want my soul to be as clean as it can be. It is the only thing that is truly mine and the only gift I have to give.

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