you fall the way you lean

Just wanted to share a thought that I garnered from my Public Administration reading and professor centering on ethics. Having gone to law school and minored in philosophy in ugrad, I am familiar with many of the concepts in this chapter. Still, I believe this is applicable to everyone and all aspects of life, especially when put so simply: You Fall The Way You Lean.

Ethics is a tricky area, just ask anyone who has taken the MPRE (test for lawyers on ethics and professional responsibility).  People like to talk about it in this amorphous, philosophical way, and that has its place, but he basic problem is one of physics, not metaphysics.  If I balance my pencil on end, and tilt it slightly to the left, which way will it fall?  To the left.  And if I tilt it to the right, it’ll fall to the right.  That’s basically how your ethical decisions work.

Every day you make little ethical decisions–about how to treat coworkers or employees, about how to drive in traffic, about how hard to work, about what to include in your reports–and these little decisions shape who you are and how you think.  These decisions aggregate and gather so that one day, when you are confronted with an obvious, fully labeled ethical dilemma, the outcome is already determined.  You will fall the way you have been leaning. That’s why the most important thing about ethics is to know yours.

Where do our ethical ideas come from? Sources include our family, friends, surroundings, religion, and television/pop culture to name a few. It’s important to be aware of your sources of ethical ideas, and how to rank them.  It also appears that our moral and ethical ideas develop over time.  A guy named Lawrence Kohlberg appears to have discovered, in a wildly oversimplified summary:

  • When we are very young, our idea of what is wrong is what will get us punished.
  • Later, we develop the notion of reciprocity or fairness–I treat you well so you will treat me well.
  • This is followed by a social stability criterion–I behave myself because I want to live in the sort of society where people behave themselves.
  • Eventually, some people get to the point where they have a truly autonomous ethical sense–they have evaluated all of the possibilities and do what is right for them because it is right for them, considering all of the above factors.
    • Reaching this last stage doesn’t mean you’re more right than everybody else, okay. Nor does it mean that you are exempt from sanctions (social or legal).

I like this analogy: Ever been a member of an orchestra?  When it’s time for the orchestra to tune up, everybody tunes on the oboe.  This is because it is really hard to tune an oboe, so whatever the oboe says is C becomes C for everyone in the orchestra.  If you have any kind of interesting life, you will, at least once, find yourself in an ethical situation where you are the oboe–you are the one who will decide whether a certain action is right or wrong, and everybody will have to tune on you.

Get your ethical ideals straight now, because when the time comes for you to act on a situation, folks might tune in on you and fall in whichever direction you happen to be leaning. Hopefully you don’t take everyone into a big pile of crap.

- With credit to Professor Tony Carrizales


Filed under Grad School, Lessons, School Daze

2 responses to “you fall the way you lean

  1. I did not know that about the oboe.

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