What is the most ethically justified way to move forward in this situation?
What does it mean for me to be a good person (and how does this touch on the choice I make)?
What is a good, meaningful life (and how does the situation relate to living such a life)?
Of course, we cannot settle all or even any of these questions quickly. But we shape our views about these questions in the small steps we take as we encounter life every day. The conversations we have and the tools we use to help us make decisions must make room for these three questions.
Living with integrity really matters. Integrity is about having our behaviour match up with what we say is important in life – walking our talk. How well our walk aligns with our talk impacts our peace of mind and our ability to live full lives.
Most of us know when our integrity is compromised because our state of mind is disturbed. We have peace of mind when what is happening in our lives aligns with what matters to us in life.
Our state of mind is disturbed when we are confused about what should matter and/or when what does matter isn’t happening for us.
Having a meaningful life comes from having a deep understanding of what should matter in life and making choices that bring these things into our worlds everyday.
This is a journey that involves interpretation. It is the exercise of understanding and negotiating the multiple overlapping yet diverse historical and contemporary traditions and systems of values and beliefs that we encounter in the world every day.
To paraphrase Socrates, examining life is what makes it worth living.
Figuring out our talk requires being able to reflect on our own views and being able to work through questions with others.
We need to be able focus on ourselves, listen to our hearts, look at the way we are living our lives, and think through what should matter most.
We also need to partner with others because, in large part, we develop an understanding of what should matter through conversations with other people.
We share our ideas, hear the ideas of others, and arrive at our viewpoints through this bumping and balancing.
Our relationships with others can and do change us. We enter into a relationship with one view of the world, exchange ideas, and leave differently than we came.
Understanding what should matter comes with experience and evolves over time.
As we go through life we have new experiences, meet new people, and find ourselves in new situations. The understanding we have of what should matter most is not always sufficient for responding to these different situations. Sometimes we realize that things we dismissed or that we hadn’t thought of yet actually should matter more than our previous commitments.
Sometimes we gain a deeper understanding of how something that we know should matter actually looks in the new context.
So, as time passes, we get older and have more encounters with the world, our views of what should matter (hopefully!) broaden and deepen. Living with integrity in the new state now looks different than it did the day before.
This negotiation often happens implicitly and in an unsystematic way, which can lead to operating with inconsistent beliefs. Ethics is the process of making this negotiation explicit and doing it intentionally, both with those we choose to and those we are forced to partner with.
Being in the type of relationship with others where we are able to puzzle through what should matter as we face new experiences requires that we can trust these others to care about what matters to us.
If we believe that the others in our lives don’t or won’t care about what we are trying to work through or the journey we are on to do this working through, we are not going to feel secure enough to talk to them. We will be safer this way, but deprived of the opportunity of growing by exchanging ideas.
Building trust in our relationships is best done by creating relationships where we treat each other with respect. Respecting someone means:
1) Regardless of whether or not you agree with their words or deeds, treating them with kindness, as if they had as much or more power in the relationship than you do (even if they don’t).
2) Really listening to them: opening your heart and mind to try to understand and feel their standpoint without judgment.
3) Engaging their ideas and trying to collaborate with them: sharing your beliefs and the reasons for them, and working together to develop a broader perspective from which to act.
Treating others with respect is crucial, both because people are owed this simply by being people, and because it is necessary for creating trust so that others will be willing to partner with us.
Respect requires being able to listen to others without judgment. And this, in turn, requires humility – the understanding that no matter how strongly we believe and feel we are right, it remains possible that there are things we haven’t thought about and other justified approaches to the problem.
Humility also comes from recognizing that we are all trying to figure out how to live a good life. We all have perspectives that are shaped by our experiences and also limited by the experiences we have. It accepts that you have seen the world through a different set of experiences and so have a view that I don’t have and can learn from.
To figure out what our talk should be, we have to be able to recognize the values that are implicit in our actions. We also need to be able to name the tension between values that we face in the decisions we make every day.
We have to be willing to name the difficulties we are experiencing and face the tough work required to figure out what should matter most. We may not be able to solve all of life’s challenges – but without naming them, we can’t even begin to work through them.
So our integrity is always at stake when we make decisions. And to figure out what our talk should be as we make a decision, it is most helpful to be able to do this with others, in relationships where we can trust that our partners will treat us with respect – because this will help us to make decisions with the best considered understanding of what should matter most.
Making decisions well requires the ability to do self-reflection well and it requires creating trusting partnerships.
Any decision we make, action we take, or attitude we have is based on our understanding of what we know to be true about the world and what matters in life. Our perspective on any decision, action or attitude will be based on:
1) this factual understanding,
2) this understanding of what matters, and
3) the feelings we are experiencing.
Ethics analysis is about examining these three dimensions to arrive at a justified understanding of what really is true, what really should matter, and how we should act.
Our skills of self-reflection involve being able to distinguish these dimensions and make sense of each.
Our conversations with our partners need to distinguish and make room for examining these different dimensions.
a) are based on an inclusive and respectful deliberative process that involves all interested parties in a balanced way
b) include a thorough review to identify the best available information about the situation (what I will call facts)
c) incorporate a careful, systematic and well-rounded consideration of what should matter most in the situation to everyone involved (values), with particular attention to the values of those to whom a fiduciary duty is owed, and keeping in mind the broader value commitments of society.
While we may not be able to figure out the right answer to life’s questions in short amounts of time, we can realistically achieve the best decision, all things considered.
The idea is that we should aspire to use critical thinking skills to do the best we can when making decisions, even if we may in later come to believe that we should have made a different decision.
Sometimes we need to think through and/or make decisions alone. This can be because we have no one else to partner with, because we don’t trust anyone enough to partner with them, or because we just need to work things out for ourselves.
The website has a number of tools designed for such use – please see the Clinicians and Ethics for Everyone sections.
Ideally, we are able to make decisions in teams. The team could be a professional group, a group of volunteers, or a family. The website also has a number of resources to help with how to set teams up so they can be places of trust. The website also has a number of resources to guide teams through the process of making good decisions. To view these resources, please visit the Leaders sections.