Making the right decision can come with consequences.
I am humbled by the assignment to define – or even discuss – ethics. Theologians and philosophers, infinitely smarter than me, have struggled with this concept throughout the ages.
Ethics play a foundational role in the law, and the practice of it. Lawyers are bound by a code of ethics which exceeds 100 pages. Countless more pages make up the interpretation and application of these ethical rules.
Permit me to share three examples of what might help define ethics. Each one comes from actual legal matters, two of which have been in the media.
In one case, a nurse at a senior care facility, refused to obtain a required flu shot. Her opposition was apparently based on a genuine belief that not only was a flu shot ineffective, but even more so, it was dangerous. Faced with her refusal – and disobedience – the employer fired the nurse.
Did ethics play a role in this case? Probably not. Did the nurse have strongly held views, perhaps, or perhaps not, legitimate? Clearly, the answer is yes. However, there must be a difference between ethics and beliefs, at least to the extent that not all beliefs (“I believe the Cubs someday will win the World Series”) rise to an ethical level.
What if, for the same reason, the nurse refused to administer a flu shot to a patient? This might be a different case. Now, the nurse's ethical duty to the patient would elevate her personal belief.
In a second case, the owner of a business announced that his company will not comply with Obamacare, even though the company will face horrendous fines when it does so.
Apparently, the opposition is based on religious beliefs and the requirements that certain medical choices, programs and benefits must be offered. Is this position an “ethical” one?
It seems like the answer now comes closer to yes. But, does it reach the mark? The belief in this case is rooted in religion, which itself is rich in ethical commands, and for many of us, is the source of all of them. However, can there be a difference between genuinely held religious beliefs and an ethical decision?
The last example does evidence a component of an ethical decision, and a life led by ethical choices. The component is consequences and the willingness to accept them. Ethical choices demand that we “walk the walk, not just talk the talk.”
Sometimes, we cannot make the choice because of the consequences. Several years ago, I defended our firm's best client in litigation brought in a backward Texas county seat. At the first meeting with counsel, the judge made a racist statement.
The look on my face gave me away. I was repulsed. The judge looked at me and asked “You have a problem with that boy?” Did I have an ethical dilemma? I think I did. If I told the truth, the client would be damaged. This would violate the legal code of ethics. If I gave in and said no, I abandoned my moral/religious/ethical beliefs. I gave in, not risking harm to the client. The consequences of the ethical choice were too significant for me to assume.
What if the consequence only affects us, and no one else? This aspect of consequences is perhaps best seen in civil disobedience. If one believes a law – like racial segregation – is unethical or immoral, an ethical choice is to violate it. However, the choice and the ethical basis of it is compromised if the individual refuses to accept the consequences of the decision.
I still don't know much about ethics, except we all know it when we see it. Making ethical decisions brings consequences, often times leading us to the road less taken. However, a life void of constantly seeking an ethical base seems like a road not worth taking at all.
Jim Jorgensen is a partner in the Valparaiso law firm of Hoeppner Wagner & Evans LLP.