Are You Ethical? The Truth Isn't Exactly Clear

"I'm very, very cautious about making judgments about people's character," Wildes said. "I think there are a lot of good people who make moral mistakes all the time. I don't think making a moral mistake means that you're necessarily a bad person."

Most experts would call those patients' cases ethical lapses, but personal ethics can be even harder to define than obscenity — which U.S. Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart once famously said was difficult to spell out, but, "I know it when I see it." With ethical questions, two different observers can sometimes see two different things.

For example, while some people might put President Clinton's dalliances in office at the height of unethical behavior, another person could see it as virtually nothing.

"It depends upon your personal frame of reference," Ford said. "Personally, I don't care about what a person does in their closed office, as long as it doesn't affect other people."

Cover From Groups, Corporations

People find it easier to cheat what is perceived as a large, faceless entity like a corporation or the government than to cheat a friend or acquaintance, experts say. But even there, perception can make a difference. Take the example of the person who fails to point out when a clerk gives too much change.

"Do they realize that it's generally not the store they're taking from, but the salesperson who has to reconcile their accounts at the end of the day?" Ford asks.

People also find their behavior easier to justify as parts of groups, experts say. Slobodan Milosevic, the deposed Yugoslavian leader on trial for war crimes, last week argued accusations against him were "lies" and that some perceived transgressions may have been simply "an expression of the will of the [Serbian] people."

Likewise, Nazi concentration camp commanders notoriously defended their actions as simply following orders. Lynch mobs in the reconstruction-era South committed atrocities against blacks they might not have been capable of as individuals.

Businesspeople might be willing to break with their personal ethical code on behalf of their companies. Sometimes people can act unethically by seeing only a pair of mutual favors, with both sides benefiting, and forgetting about a third party who might get hurt in the process.

Virtues in Lying?

So is dishonesty unethical? Not always, some argue.

"There may be some situations where it is ethical to be dishonest," says Len Saxe, a social psychologist and research professor at Brandeis University's Heller Graduate School for Social Policy and Management. "The line between dishonesty and honesty is nowhere as clear as we think it is."

Most people would argue it would be ethical for a Jew to have lied about his religious identity to the Nazis to save his life, Saxe said. He added a day-to-day example: "It doesn't have to be Valentine's Day for a husband to tell his wife that he likes the way she looks or likes her cooking, even if he doesn't."

So how do you know when you are acting for the greater good, and when you are simply prone to making excuses to reconcile your self-image after serious ethical lapses?

Wildes says trusted friends and family might be sought out to offer an outside view and constructive criticism on behavior.

Debra Satz, an associate professor of philosophy at Stanford University who studies personal ethics, said people also might gain ethical perspective from groups beyond their normal social circle.

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