As we explored in last week’s post, Who Are You? Part 1: How Values Shape Your Morality, in general, who you are is defined by the relationship between how you feel about the things you value (your morality), and how you choose to act on those feelings and values (your ethics). Morality + Ethics = You. This formula gives a basic shape to your identity that can guide you in deciding what choices are, or are not, the best fit for you.
After Part 1, we know that morality is how you prioritize the things you value most as a way to determine your definition of what is “good” or “bad,” “right” or “wrong.” Your ethics, however, is the code of conduct that reflects your nature, the way in which you are predisposed to behave as you express your morality. Basically, human nature tends to fall into one of 4 main ethical patterns: Duty, Utility, Ego and Virtue.
Duty-oriented ethics is when it’s in your nature to bow to an authority greater than yourself. A key factor is that you don’t think for yourself, but prefer to follow a set of rules dictated by a superior authority that you believe is perfect, such as the Bible, the law, military rules, or your club or company handbook. It may even be family tradition or the rules you’ve set for your marriage. Following the rules is what makes you most comfortable and serving a greater cause or authority brings meaning to your life.
Utility-oriented ethics is when it’s in your nature to sacrifice yourself for the sake of the greater good. You’re always willing to go without what you want or need so that others may be happy. You make decisions based on what will bring the most benefit to the greatest number of people, regardless of the consequences to you. It can be as minor as volunteering to stay in the office until closing on a holiday so everyone else can go home early, or as major as giving up everything you own to become a Peace Corps volunteer. Providing for the greater good is what brings you peace of mind.
Ego-oriented ethics is when it’s in your nature to believe that what’s best for you is what’s best, period. You always know you’re right, tend to come up with ways to do things better, and think nothing of stepping on someone else’s toes to get things done your way, not to be mean, but to make sure things are done “right.” Often mislabeled as selfish, Ego-oriented people are merely deeply committed to themselves and include Steve Jobs, Richard Branson, Steven Hawkings, and other people who tend to be the leaders, the innovators, and the ones other people gravitate to because of their fresh ideas and deep sense of confidence.
Virtue-oriented ethics is when it’s in your nature to always want to practice being the best person you can be. You have a clear vision in your head of what virtuous qualities a person needs to have to be the ideal person (such as honesty, loyalty, and a strong work ethic), and always choose the decision that permits you to practice being the best you can be. You make choices that avoid putting you in a position where you would have to compromise your ideals and go for decisions that make you feel good about yourself as a superior person.
Do you recognize any of these 4 categories? Chances are you don’t see yourself as fitting squarely into just one. Getting a clear idea of your ethical nature is a process of trial and error, because your morality can make you choose to do things one way, even when your ethics would have you do something else. It is when circumstances lead you to make a decision or choice that goes against your ethical nature that your troubles begin. It bothers you. Have you ever made a choice that appeared to be the right thing to do under the circumstances, yet it haunted you, depressed you, made you feel trapped or caused you to act out in self-destructive ways? You’re struggling to do “the right thing,” yet it’s not fulfilling. We don’t really know if we’ve made a decision that is true to ourselves until we know how it made us feel afterwards.
What is the best thing for you, the best job, the best partner, the best car, the best lifestyle, cannot be determined by your morality alone. You must also take into account your ethical nature. If it’s your nature to be a duty-oriented person, you might fantasize about joining the military and becoming a Navy Seal. But if your morality, your sense of right or wrong, places a greater value on being there for your spouse and kids than giving your life for your country, you won’t sign up. You’ll stay a civilian to do the right thing. Yet, as much as you love your family, you might find yourself acting out in self-destructive ways, turning to drinking, developing a short temper, or acting out in other ways. You won’t be happy, even though you know you should be because you are doing “the right thing.”
If you’re nature is utility-oriented in that you like people, want to help them, and would never try to manipulate anyone into buying something they didn’t really need or want, you’d make a great teacher, customer service rep or consultant, but a lousy salesperson. Yet, if you morality values a higher pay check so that you have greater financial security and can provide more for your family, you could force yourself into a sales career to make more money, but end up miserable spiritually and emotionally. It doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t choose to make a career in sales. It just means that if you do, and you become financially successful but still feel disconnected from any true sense of satisfaction or happiness inside, the disconnect between your morals and your ethical nature is likely why.
Don’t think naked! If you’re making choices for your life that on the surface reflect your values and morality, yet inside you’re feeling disconnected from your life, numb or unhappy, vaguely angry or angst-ridden, is it possible you have force-fit yourself into a job, a marriage, a life, that matches what you believe is right and good for you or good in the eyes of those around you, but which conflicts with your ethical nature? Curing this disconnect begins with figuring out where the choices of what you are doing have strayed from what it is in your true ethical nature to do, then figuring out how to bring back some balance between the two.