Adventures in Ethics and Science


Ronald A. Howard and Clinton D. Korver (with Bill Birchard), Ethics for the Real World: Creating a Personal Code to Guide Decisions in Work and Life. Harvard Business Press, 2008.

I fully embrace the idea that ethics should not just be a subject of esoteric inquiry in philosophy departments but rather a central feature of our lives as we live them.

Yet how exactly that’s supposed to happen in a world where lots of people have been able to avoid ethics classes altogether presents a bit of a puzzle. Sure, we are presented with lessons about ethics outside the classroom, by family, friends, novelists and news commentators. But does a pile of maxims and sound-bites give us a coherent sense of ethics? Does it give us enough internal guidance to live lives we can be happy about?

In Ethics for the Real World, Ronald A. Howard and Clinton D. Korver offer a guide to living an ethical life without committing to a year’s worth of meta-ethics coursework. Drawing on vivid examples, some ripped from the headlines and others from the most mundane encounters in our everyday lives, they suggest that unethical behavior boils down to variations on the themes of deceiving, stealing, and harming. Moreover, they argue that people do not behave unethically because they are caught up in intractable ethical dilemmas, but because they are lazy and decide to make “little compromises” rather than doing what they know is right.

Howard and Korver describe the numerous ways that being “almost” ethical can make our lives more difficult, and contrast these outcomes with the better ones we might achieve by putting in just a little more thought on the front-end and making actually ethical decisions. Indeed, they cast the difference between doing the right thing and falling short of that as primarily a matter of clear decision-making rather than effort in executing the decision. Given this view, they set out to provide the reader with tools to make better decisions.

The biggest tool, as Howard and Korver see it, is a personal code, so their chapters guide the reader through the process of developing one. The idea here is that knowing what you stand for (and stand against) can provide an inner guidance system against which to check your potential courses of action. Doing the right thing, then, shifts from requiring you to consult rules and make calculations about what is required and permitted to requiring that you know who you are (or want to be) — and how various thing you could do in a situation might impact your character.

Of course, the first step to developing such a personal code is self-examination. Howard and Korver ask the reader to consider the familial, religious, cultural, and even workplace messages about ethics, and to reflect upon which of these we accept and which we reject. They also walk the reader through the basic intuitions of utilitarian and Kantian approaches to ethics, successfully avoiding much of the technical minutiae in which professional philosophers tend to wallow. In developing your personal stands on deception, theft, and harm, they also push you to identify your own “ethical style” as primarily action based (roughly Kantian) or consequence based (roughly utilitarian). Most importantly, they describe (and illustrate abundantly with their examples) ways to approach decision making with your personal code, from clarifying what is at stake in the decision before you, to brainstorming alternative options, to evaluating which of these options is the best ethical fit with your personal code. As they describe it, living a life guided by your personal code is not only do-able, but also potentially transformative of your relationships with others.

While this is an appealing and inspiring guide to ethics for everyday folk, I have some quibbles with Howard and Korver’s treatment of certain issues. For example, I’m not convinced by the approach of deciding whether your own ethical compass is more utilitarian or Kantian. Part of the reason formal ethics courses tend to examine both of these ethical theories is that each gets at some strong intuitions we have about what is at the heart of behaving well or badly towards ourselves and others — and each approach encounters “hard cases” suggesting boundary conditions where the other ethical framework yields better results. Styling oneself as using just one of these approaches may amount to removing a tool from your ethical toolbox — a tool with uses beyond merely finding a loophole in one’s commitments.

I’m also nervous about what comes across as an assertion that moral dilemmas just don’t exist in real life. It’s probably true that most unethical behavior isn’t a consequence of a no-win situation so much as a weakness of will, a compromise of your values, the terribly human habit of making an exception of yourself. But none of that is a guarantee against a situation in which your values seem to pull equally strongly in different directions. In the face of such a case, how does your personal code help you to navigate an ethical dilemma? Howard and Korver never quite answer this question.

There’s a related worry I have about the general strategy Howard and Korver are advocating here. Making ethics a matter of your own personal code may make it harder to acknowledge the legitimate interests of other parties whose codes may be relevantly different from your own. True, Howard and Korver make consideration of others central to the reflections leading the reader to formulate a personal code, but the clash of ethical views is not a merely hypothetical occurrence. The news provides ample examples of health care providers and pharmacists, for example, whose personal codes with respect to reproductive freedom and health or end-of-life decisions are at odds with the personal codes of their patients or clients. Following one’s own code — especially if one has the power to do so — might amount to interfering with someone else’s ability to follow his or her own code, a fact that I think merits further consideration.

I am not fully persuaded that never violating one’s own code is always the highest moral good. Nor am I sure how to move individuals beyond the stage of forming personal codes to the project of engaging with others in their communities (whether these are professional communities, families, or larger societies) to build a common understanding of shared values. Ultimately, given the centrality of interactions with other humans to our lives, I think we ignore the “community codes” question at our peril.

Nonetheless, to the extent that this book is an accessible invitation to ethical living, it seems a very good place to start. I’d much rather live in a world full of people at least trying to be accountable to their own individual values than in a world of people who have opted out of ethics altogether.


  1. #1 bob koepp
    July 10, 2008

    Janet – Please elaborate a bit about how following one’s own code might amount to interfering with the ability of others to follow their own codes. The examples you allude to are cases where following one’s own code involves a refusal to provide assistance to others where your code prohibits what theirs permits. But, generally, in both ethics and the law there is a recognized difference between refusing to assist and interfering.

  2. #2 Janet D. Stemwedel
    July 10, 2008

    Ethicists don’t all agree that there’s a relevant (ethical) difference between actively doing X and allowing X to happen. And, at least in everyday contexts, there are some refusals to assist that are practically indistinguishable from active interference.

    Consider a pharmacist who, on account of her personal code, would consider it unethical to dispense emergency contraception. Consider a client in need of emergency contraception (maybe because her personal code requires that she not have a child she’s not in a position to care for properly). The pharmacist *could* explain to the client that she herself will not dispense emergency contraception, thus acting within her personal code. But does the pharmacist refer the client to another pharmacist who *will* dispense emergency contraception, or would that be rendering active assistance? If the pharmacist doesn’t make such a referral and the client is unable to find a willing pharmacist (that she can get to — in some parts of the country, such willing pharmacists may be quite geographically dispersed), then the client may end up unable to do the right thing (as she understands it) in the finite window of time during which emergency contraception is effective.

    From the client’s point of view, the pharmacist can erect an insurmountable roadblock to pursuing the necessary actions to live up to her code. Technically, the pharmacist can say, “But I didn’t *do* anything.” Practically, it’s not clear that this is a distinction that should hold any kind of water. If the control tower omits to warn the pilot of the mountain looming ahead, the control tower didn’t*do* anything, but the plane still crashes.

  3. #3 thoughtcounts Z
    July 10, 2008

    Making ethics a matter of your own personal code may make it harder to acknowledge the legitimate interests of other parties whose codes may be relevantly different from your own.

    You raise a good point here. I also think, though, that the opposite might be a concern too — that readers may overacknowledge other parties’ codes, characterizing moral dilemmas as just a matter of opinion. If ethics is explained as something that you get to decide for yourself by relying on your personal intuition, it might present the picture that everything is relative. That is one perspective that some people advocate, but I’d be wary of dismissing out of hand the notion that there are certain rules about moral permissibility that apply to everyone, regardless of their opinion on the matter (or even what their community’s code happens to say).

    This sounds like a generally good book, though. It’s great to get people thinking about philosophy as something that’s relevant to our everyday lives.

  4. #4 bob koepp
    July 10, 2008

    Janet – I don’t think the issue is a question of doing vs allowing, or commission vs omission. But it’s true that refusals to assist can have the same effect as active interference. That doesn’t settle any ethical questions, however, it simply highlights what is problematic about the situation.

    Regarding the example of emergency contraception, I think the FDA may be more culpable than medievally inclined pharmacists for roadblocks to its easy availability. As far as I’m concerned, emergency contraception should be available right next to the condoms at the convenience store around the corner. Why isn’t it?

  5. #5 J-Dog
    July 11, 2008

    In my world, the pharmacist that refuses to dispense contraception is in the unemployment line. Period. End of story.

    Can’t stand the heat, get out of the kitchen and all that. Sermms to be it’s not a question of ethics, it’s a question of smart vs stupid.

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