We continue with our exploration of the five fundamental ethical or "life" principles that provide the foundation for doing the right thing. When followed consistently, these principles bring out the best in us and in others. As I'm taking great pains to emphasize, however, the reason to take ethics seriously is simply because it's the right thing to do. Professional and personal gains are a nice consequence of ethical behavior, but they aren't the justification.
To recap, the five life principles are:
• Do No Harm
• Make Things Better
• Respect Others
• Be Fair
• Be Compassionate
In this column and the next one, we'll look at principle No. 3: Respect Others. There are three important ways to we fulfill our ethical obligation to treat others with respect:
• Protecting Confidentiality
• Telling the Truth
• Keeping Our Promises
There's a lot to be said about each, so this week we'll focus on the first two.
What keeps a relationship alive? Why do your customers remain your customers? How do you explain the fact that your dearest friends have stayed by your side over the years? There are many possible answers to these questions, but they are all rooted in a simple moral concept: trust. When others trust you, they are more likely to continue being your customer, employer, or friend. Without trust, there isn't much possibility of having a meaningful relationship—or any relationship at all.
For example, if your clients couldn't trust you to protect the information contained on their credit cards, they surely wouldn't remain your customers for long. If a friend discovers that you have blabbed a secret he shared with you about a sensitive personal matter, he will question what kind of friend you are. If you muster the courage to disclose to your therapist, minister, or rabbi a deeply held anxiety you have, and you find out that your confidante jokingly shared this information at a cocktail party, your faith in this person would be shattered.
The information that's most important to us (including but not limited to, financial, psychological, or medical information) is an extension of who we are and what we value. When we share that information with someone, we rightly expect him or her to disclose it only to others who have a genuine need to know. Your family physician appropriately tells a specialist about the result of your latest examination, but she shouldn't go home and discuss it with her spouse.
Of course, the duty to protect confidentiality is not absolute. If you tell your therapist that you plan to kill your ex-girlfriend, and you're serious about it, your therapist has a duty to disclose this information to relevant third parties, such as law enforcement. In this case, the duty to protect another's life outweighs the duty to protect confidentiality. These situations are rare, however, and we violate the rule of confidentiality at our peril.
Telling the Truth
Another way that we show respect for others is by telling them the truth. There are several caveats here: We have a duty to tell the truth only to those who have a right to it; and the duty to tell the truth, like the duty to keep confidences, is extremely important—but it is not absolute.
With regard to the first proviso, imagine your boss asking you, "So how is your sex life?" You not only have a right not to provide a truthful response, but you would be entirely justified in telling him that it's none of his business, in whatever colorful or poetic way you wish. On the other hand, if your boss asks you why you botched a certain client's account, then you ought to tell him what happened, even if doing so reveals something about yourself about which you're not particularly proud (e.g., you didn't follow up with the client in the way you should have, or at all).
Regarding caveat No. 2, imagine that a friend asks you if you like the new dress she has just bought, and you think it looks horrible. Telling her the truth would not only would hurt her feelings, it would give her information that she probably doesn't want in the first place. (After all, since she has already bought the dress, does she want to know exactly what you think, or does she want what Oprah might call "validation"? The smart money is on the latter.)
The challenge to living an ethical life is finding ways to honor both the duties to do no harm and to be truthful. Regarding your friend, you could, for example, find something about the dress that you do like, and mention only that ("I really like you in bright colors," or "I love that fabric").
On a more serious note, the courageous people in World War II who lied to the Nazis to protect Jews in hiding were doing the right thing, because they rightly valued protecting human life over the duty to be truthful. As we saw with exceptions to the duty to protect confidentiality, however, this situation is both extreme and rare, and thus in most circumstances, our instinct should be to tell the truth, at least to those who have a rightful claim to it, and to the extent that we can do so without violating the other ethical principles at stake.
Next week, we'll turn our attention to the third element of respecting others: keeping our promises.
Have a professional ethical dilemma? Need help figuring out the right thing to do on the job? Ask the Ethics Guy! Write to Dr. Bruce Weinstein at Bruce@TheEthicsGuy.com, and your question may be answered in this column.