Thinking ethically means placing virtue as a guiding ideal in your calculations. This is a necessarily general definition, as there are different ways of assessing both what values are virtuous and how to determine whether actions are consistent with those virtues. There are also a variety of different reasons for...
Thinking ethically means placing virtue as a guiding ideal in your calculations. This is a necessarily general definition, as there are different ways of assessing both what values are virtuous and how to determine whether actions are consistent with those virtues. There are also a variety of different reasons for acting ethically. Those who are ethical on moral or religious grounds seek to avoid actions viewed as sins. Stoics regard ethical behavior as critical to contentment and peace of mind. Consequentialists and deontologists dispute whether the results of actions matter more than actions themselves—do the ends justify the means? Utilitarians like Jeremy Bentham were more concerned with promoting overall happiness—that which is good for the group is ethical. In the 21st century, we have seen environmental costs enter the ethical conversation. For example, many view actions that increase carbon pollution as unethical.
One general principle of ethical thought is the separation of calculations of self-interest from the consideration of virtue. The "Golden Rule" is a pragmatic way to view this principle: if it isn't fair when someone acts toward you in a certain way, then that action is probably unethical, no matter who does it. A related principle is to avoid conflicts of interest in which a public trust is at odds with your own self interest. For even the most virtuous, a conflict of interest is problematic, like trying to play a poker hand for a friend who has left the room while playing your own at the same time.
Thinking and acting ethically does not, however, equate with selfishness but rather means simply that you don't place your self-interest above the rights of others or the good of society. Ethical businesspeople are able to be successful by aligning their self-interest with virtuous action. For example, American industrialists during WWII earned billions in government contracts by creating tanks, airplanes and other armaments. For industry leaders, making B-52s instead of cars was both profitable and a patriotic duty. For "Rosie the Riveter," working long hours in the factor was her contribution to the war effort, but she also enjoyed higher pay than peacetime.
Moreover, there are risks and potential economic penalties for unethical behavior. In real terms, acting irresponsibly with money will damage your credit history. While imperfect, credit scores are a method to quantify the degree to which people and organizations honor their obligations. Reputation serves a similar role in social, economic, and political contexts. Businesses that take advantage of customers fail to develop brand loyalty and must constantly find new customers. Those individuals who treat friends unethically by lying or failing to keep confidences find themselves ostracized. Politicians who enrich themselves ahead of the public interest lose public support and risk losing office and even legal penalty.
Even in situations where you run no personal risk, acting unethically can undermine fundamental institutions of society. For example, an unethical person can view a slip and fall or a minor car accident as an opportunity to reap a financial windfall in the form of an insurance or lawsuit settlement regardless of whether or not they are injured. These kinds of abuses drive up insurance costs for everyone. A baseball team that wins a World Series through some form of cheating undermines public faith in Major League Baseball in general. The consequence for the whole league is lost money in the form of ticket sales, advertising revenue, and merchandise.