Markkula Center of Applied Ethics

"E" Is for Everyday Ethics

By Margaret R. McLean

When was the first time you had to choose between right and wrong, between telling the truth or whispering a lie? What was it that first tweaked your sense of fair play--a warm gooey chocolate chip cookie not quite divided in half, being "too little" to try-out for the ball team? When was the first time you cried, "It's not fair!"? It really is hard to imagine a time when we weren't trying to be good--or, at least, trying to avoid being caught in that little lie. It really is hard to imagine a time when we weren't doing ethics. Everyday, we face ethical dilemmas, those moments when we think: Should I? Shouldn't I? Ethics--we can either do it well or do it badly.

There seem to be as many definitions of ethics as there are ethicists. The one that has caught my eye recently is: "Ethics is individuals working together as a community to be at their best." This simple statement acknowledges what we all know to be true about life--that we are in this alone and we are in this together. We are individuals--deciding, choosing, living, dying. But, we are also members of communities--family, neighborhood, church, society. As individuals, we focus on will and choice--I decide what I am going to do. As members of communities, we see that the results of our choices affect others--my decision to lie is wrong because it hurts others as well as myself. Ethics asks us to reflect on what it means to be at our best both in our individual lives and in our relationships. What does it take to be caring and committed people and communities?

Every day, we decide who we are--truthful or dishonest? Every day, our actions have consequences--helpful or hurtful? Every day, we either build up or tear down relationships. We tend to think of ethics as coming into view only in congressional investigations or intensive care units. But, in reality, we practice ethics every day; we work together to be at our best--or our worst-every day. Cloning, assisted suicide, lying to Congress--these catch the headlines. Munching on unpaid-for grapes in the market, cheating on an exam or taxes, telling that little white lie--these catch our lives-every day.

Margaret R. McLean is director of health care and biotechnology ethics at the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics.

Return to The ABC's of Medical Ethics.

Posted August 2006

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