The Ethics of New Year's Resolutions

Instead of setting yourself up for failure, why not treat yourself according to the same principles that guide your behavior toward others?

This is the time of year when we make lists of all of the things we want to change about ourselves. Some of the common ones are:

•Kicking an addiction

•Losing weight

•Attending religious services more often

•Being kinder to people

Let's face it: We don't accomplish most of our resolutions because most of the goals we set for ourselves are too ambitious. When we fail to achieve our objectives, we end up feeling bad about ourselves, and we return with a vengeance to the very behaviors we have vowed to stop.

In Ask the Ethics Guy!, we'll be exploring a variety of ethical responsibilities we have to others, especially our co-workers, the boss, and those who work for us. We'll also look at the five major ethical principles that apply in all of our professional and personal relationships. These are:

•Do No Harm

•Make Things Better

•Respect Others

•Be Fair

•Be Compassionate

What often gets overlooked in discussions about ethics is the duty we have to ourselves. After all, the five ethical principles described above concern not only how we treat other people, but also how we treat ourselves. If it is wrong to talk to a colleague disrespectfully, it is also wrong to talk to ourselves this way. Just as we should not harm others, we should refrain from harming ourselves.

This is where the folly of New Year's resolutions comes in. By setting the bar too high, we are setting ourselves up for disappointment, and this isn't being fair to ourselves. This is not to suggest that we ought not strive to improve our conduct and character—after all, this idea is the very foundation of ethics—but rather, that we ought to set goals we're likely to accomplish.

Accentuate the Positive

In fact, all New Year's resolutions can be boiled down to one simple directive: Be kinder to yourself. Once you commit to treating yourself the way you'd like others to treat you, all of the other goals become a lot easier to achieve. (Of course, some of us treat ourselves much better than we treat others; the challenge in ethics is to find a balance between self-abnegation and self-absorption.)

If losing weight is your goal, why not let yourself off the hook and stop the negative self-talk about your size? You may find it becomes a lot easier to lose the weight and keep it off.

I speak from experience here: In August, I joined a popular weight-loss program, and I've been amazed to see the pounds come off, even though I indulge occasionally in what are sometimes labeled "forbidden foods." The trick, I've learned, is not to deprive myself of something I want to eat, but rather to recognize that the slab of carrot cake I want for dessert comes with a price: I'll have to jog a little bit longer the next day, or do without something else I may desire.

In other words, it's not through self-denial that I'm able to accomplish the goal of weight loss, but rather by treating myself with kindness. I'm finding that the more weight I lose, the better I feel about myself, and the more I'm able to accomplish the other things I want to do.

In 2007, why don't we vow to go a little bit easier on ourselves? We may be pleasantly surprised by what happens in our lives as a result.

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, and your question may be answered in his weekly column on

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.