A Code of Ethics Is Not Enough

December 16th, 2010
Jim Thomas

Codes of Ethics are becoming more and more conspicuous—in the corporate world, among licensed professionals and private concerns of every stripe. The so-called “Renaissance of Ethics” results from the past decade’s stream of high-profile scandals, ethical fiascoes, unchecked greed, sleaze, and moral indifference. The development is positive one, by any standard.

Simultaneously, more and more Americans believe Integrity continues to decline in the nation’s everyday life. The call for greater integrity resonates far and wide. Do Codes of Ethics address it? Are Ethics and Integrity interchangeable? One and the same?

The practical, workable answer is ‘No.” There are distinctions. Knowing them will prove invaluable in framing both Codes of Ethics and an Integrity Credo for the profession, trade, industry, calling, group, or organization.

Training in “ethics” focuses primarily on compliance. It reinforces “following the rules.” In the main, ethical behavior implies steering clear of forbidden conduct. For example, adhering to regulatory and legal-legislative mandates. We look to ethical standards for magnification of “The Thou Shall Nots,” hardcore duties for all and from every point of view.

The virtue of integrity advances a step beyond and above those ethical standards that are prohibitive in nature,. It exemplifies conduct that deepens relationships, conduct that enhances the value of good works, products, and services. Integrity entails:

  • Placing a premium on trust, respect, and reputation;
  • Keeping one’s word in matters great and small;
  • Delivering as promised, when promised, in the manner promised;
  • Doing the right thing, at the right time, for the right reasons;
  • Holding fast to sound convictions even when it is inconvenient and unprofitable.

In essence, integrity is about making choices. One must adopt a given course and discard the others. The First Great Virtue makes no demand for the superior choice; it does demand avoidance of bad choices. We need not look far these days to see the wreckage of people and organizations, who at the inevitable hour made the wrong choices.

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