A Trait Distinctively Human
Jodie owns an estate-sales business. He is helping a woman sort and sell her deceased sister’s household items. Poking around an old fireplace, he finds a couple of old tackle boxes. When he looks inside one of them, he cannot believe his eyes. Wrapped in foil are rolls of $100 bills—a total of $82,000 in cash! Jodie is alone in the room. What should he do? Quietly take the box or tell his client that he found the money?
JODIE’S dilemma highlights one of the characteristics that set us apart from brute beasts. The World Book Encyclopedia states: “One of humanity’s special traits is to ask thoughtful questions about what we should or should not do.” A hungry dog finding a piece of meat on a picnic table would hardly ponder whether it should eat the morsel. Jodie, though, has the capacity for weighing the morality of his decision. If he keeps the cash, he is stealing, but it is unlikely that he will be caught. The money does not belong to him; yet, his client has no idea that it exists. Besides, most people in Jodie’s community would think him foolish if he gave the cash to his client.
What would you do in Jodie’s situation? The way you answer that question will depend on the code of ethics that you have chosen to live by.
What Is Meant by Ethics?
“Ethics” has been described as “the study of questions about what is morally right and wrong.” (Collins Cobuild English Dictionary) Author Eric J. Easton says: “‘Ethics’ and ‘morality’ have the same root meaning. The first is Greek (ethikos) and the second Latin (moralis) in origin, and both refer to the authority of custom and tradition.”
For a long time, religion has generally dictated the ethical standards by which people live. God’s Word, the Bible, has been an influential force in many societies. However, a growing number of people worldwide have rejected the various religious standards as impractical and the Bible’s moral code as outdated. What has filled the void? The book Ethics in Business Life notes that “secular reason has . . . vanquished the authority which previously belonged to religion.” Instead of turning to religious sources, many seek the guidance of secular experts in ethical studies. Bioethicist Paul McNeill says: “I think ethicists are the secular priests. . . . People now speak in terms of ethics where they might once have spoken in terms of religion.”
When you face difficult decisions, how do you discern right from wrong? Are your ethical standards determined by God or by you?