Principle No. 2: Make Things Better

Ethics asks us to use our knowledge and skills to positively affect others. But we also must be judicious in how we use our resources to do so

"Fredo, you're nothing to me now. You're not a brother, you're not a friend. I don't want to know you or what you do. I don't want to see you at the hotels. I don't want you near my house. When you see our mother, I want to know a day in advance, so I won't be there. You understand?"

—Michael Corleone, in The Godfather: Part II, after learning that his brother Fredo played a role in an attempt on his life.

Last week I introduced this miniseries covering the five fundamental or "life" principles by providing an overview of the principles and saying a little bit about the first one (see, 1/10/07, "Five Easy Principles?"). To recap, the five Life Principles are:

Do No Harm

• Make Things Better

• Respect Others

• Be Fair

• Be Compassionate

This week we'll look at Life Principle No. 2: Make Things Better. This is where ethics splits off from the law. After all, there are legal as well as ethical implications of intentionally harming others. However, no law requires that we help others or make the world a better place. If, at the end of our lives, we look back and see that we devoted ourselves primarily or exclusively to satisfying our own needs and desires, and we haven't done anything illegal, that's fine. But is a life devoted strictly to "me" a fully rich and satisfying life? Is it an ethical one? Is it the best life we can live?

Of course not. If you're reading this column, though, chances are you already buy into the "make things better" principle. In fact, I suspect that the reason you went into the line of work you did is because you recognize that this is one way, perhaps the best way, for you to use your knowledge and talents to make a positive difference in the lives of others. There are lots of ways—some of them much easier—for you to simply make a buck.

But you took this job because—dare I use such flowery language?—you saw this occupation as a calling. I feel comfortable making this statement, because if you took this job simply to acquire wealth, with no immediate or long-range concern for helping others, you probably aren't interested in reading a column about ethics.

Don't Rank the Life Principles

Now don't get me wrong. I'm not knocking the acquisition of wealth. As we'll see later when we look at Life Principle No. 5, ethics does not require us to be completely self-sacrificing. The question is, though, does focusing simply on gratifying one's own desires lead to happiness? Does this bring out the best in us?

You might say that Life Principle No. 2, Make Things Better, is not as vital as Life Principle No. 1, Do No Harm. That is, it is more important to avoid harming people than it is to help them. Although it is easier to apply Life Principle No. 1 than No. 2, since Do No Harm requires either avoiding action or taking only minimal action, it is a mistake to rank these principles. Both are part of a checklist we should consider when deciding how to act.

One of the main differences, though, between Life Principle Nos. 1 and 2 is that Do No Harm applies to everyone who could be affected by our actions, while No. 2 has to, of necessity, be applied selectively. Even Mother Teresa could not possibly have benefited everyone in the world, though she went much further than most of us.

Whom Should We Benefit?

There is only so much of ourselves we can give without becoming emotionally and financially bankrupt. How should we decide who has a rightful claim on the goods or actions we can bestow upon them?

All things being equal, the closer someone is to us, the stronger our duties are toward him or her. Imagine a series of nine concentric circles, with "A" being the innermost circle, radiating outward:

A) Self

B) Spouse or partner

C) Immediate family (mother, father, children)

D) Distant family (grandparents, aunts and uncles, nephews and nieces, cousins)

E) Oldest and best friends

F) Boss, co-workers, assistants

G) Members of the immediate community

H) Fellow citizens

I) Everyone else

It's unfortunate to miss a friend's birthday, but it is unconscionable to forget our spouse's. It's kind to listen compassionately to a co-worker's complaints about her deadbeat husband over lunch, but it is obligatory to alleviate our children's anxiety about going to school for the first time.

In and Out of Circles

This imaginary diagram is only a guideline for ranking who in our lives deserves our help. It doesn't always hold. Think about how Michael Corleone ultimately responded to being betrayed by his brother: He authorized Fredo's murder. (Of course, Fredo had not exactly ordered his circles appropriately.) While Michael's response was extreme and revealed how much he had deteriorated morally, it also shows how through their actions, people—even blood relatives—can move closer or further away from us.

Ethics asks—even requires—that we use our knowledge and skills to benefit others. In so doing, we enrich our own lives. As we'll see later, however, getting something back isn't the reason to take ethics seriously; it's just a nice consequence of doing so.

Next week we'll look at Life Principle No. 3, Respect Others, and three ways we can apply this principle in everyday life.

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