What does it mean to be ethical?

To be ethical is to be moral. And that’s a loaded term.

Morality is about values. What we think is good or bad. It’s judgements we make about ourselves and about others. Generally – if something is good for us – we think it’s good and if it’s bad for us – we think it’s bad.

People with more developed sense of values will extend their concern for benefit or harm to other people. Most often family members or members of our tribe. Humans are tribal animals. The way this works is – if it is good for our tribe, it is good. If it is bad for our tribe it is bad.

This is why people who may be very ethical to members of their peer group don’t see the problem with being unethical to people deemed to be outsiders.  This seems hypocritical and it is. If something done to you is bad but the same thing done to someone else is ok – the thing being done isn’t inherently bad, you are just judging it to be so based on how you personally are impacted. Hence, the accusation of hypocrisy.

But what is really happening when people think and behave this way is that their sense of ethics and morality is not fully developed. They limit their moral reasoning to themselves or their tribe, however that is defined (politically, racially, religiously, etc).

What makes Humanism so important is that it is a reminder that we need to extend our circle of compassion and concern to everyone.  Humanism is an explicit rejection of tribalism.  If it hurts me, then it probably hurts other people and even if I don’t know those people, it’s still wrong.  Instead of being ethical in a hypocritical way, we strive to be more consistent in our application of ethics equally to everyone.  I say strive because our instinctual tribal impulses make that hard to do.

Regardless, if you find yourself reveling in the hardship of others (the other tribe, or political group or whatever), please stop. Remind yourself they are human too and that you should apply the same compassion to them as you do to yourself. To me, that is what it means to be ethical.

If you want to learn more get my book: The Humanist Approach to Happiness: Practical Wisdom  This book will help you better understand how and why to integrate your ethics more fully into your everyday decision making.

If you are looking for professional or personal development programs that will help you actualize these principles in your daily life – consider taking these 2 courses:


Both of these courses will help you rethink how you approach conflict with other people.  Or – if you want a more indepth course of study about applied Humanism – take my course; Living Made Simpler http://humanistlearning.info/livingmadesimpler1/

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