Wednesday, April 11, 2007

The Question(s) of Ethics

This paper was presented at a statewide youth leadership conference to
young people, ages 13 to 18. During the workshop, the students divided
into groups and worked on a number of very challenging ethical questions
not included here. The response was very good; the topic always timely.
I have lived more than a half century. I still do not know all the answers to life. In fact, I'm still wrestling with many of the questions. But I do know this: You will never find contentment and fulfillment in your life until you figure out who you really are. What makes you distinctively you in your own eyes? What makes you different from other people you know? What makes you special? What is there about you which people like, or accept, or would want to imitate? What is there about you that you think people may not like? Are you changing how you think about things as you get older? Do you think you're different now than you were, say, ten years ago? Does who you are becoming matter to you at this point in your life? Are you going down the path that you know is right for you? Do you think one can take a different path anytime he wants to? Are you satisfied with the risks you are taking? Are you unhappy with yourself? Do you like the way you look? Would you like to be like someone else? Are you unhappy with your fears? Do any of these questions really matter to you right now?
You may not think so; but trust me--they do. Or they will. I have been asked to talk to you about ethics and why it is important to have ethics. And I can also assure you that everyone has ethics. We have no choice about that. The choice we do have is what our ethics are going to be. What they are going to be to ourselves and to those whom we come in contact with. We will all live some kind of ethical life. The question each of us has to decide is what ethic we will personally choose to live by.
So, if you can accept the idea that you cannot be truly happy without knowing yourself, then it stands to reason that the sooner you get on with this task of finding out about yourself, the earlier you will find happiness.
But it is also not so easy to know oneself. To know who we really are, we have to know what we stand for as a man and as a human being. This doesn't mean what religion we prescribe to, or what politics we favor, or whether we are part of the most popular crowd in school. Or even if we have not yet found what it is that makes us special, or in what area we might excel. What matters is what we do and how we think and how we respond to our life when the chips are down.
What do you do when faced with a dilemma in your life? How do you personally react to issues regarding your own freedom, or the freedom of others? What rights are important to you? Do you believe everyone should have the same rights as you? Whom do you admire the most? Whom would you like to be like? What inspires you about them? Have you ever hated anyone? If so, why? And for how long? What has been the greatest accomplishment in your life? Are there things you hope to do better? For what in your life do you feel the most grateful? Why? How much do feel you are in control of the course of your life? When did you last yell at someone? Why? Did you regret it later? Is it easy for you to accept help when you need it? From someone other than a parent, or family member? Will you ask for help when you need it? What are your most compulsive habits? Do you regularly struggle to break them? What is most important to you in life? What do you wish to strive for? Do you feel your childhood was happier than most other peoples? What from your childhood has proved most beneficial? What has proved most difficult? Have you ever considered suicide? Or known someone who has? What is so important to you that without it, life would seem not worth living? If your friends could bluntly and honestly tell you what they really thought of you, would you want them to?
These are all serious questions. They are the questions about who we really are; questions about our values, our beliefs--questions about our life. And in our life, the big questions; the ethics-based questions, will relate to sex, integrity, generosity, pride, morals, honesty, justice, power, principles, trust, money, friendship, responsibility, accountability--and even death. These are the issues which will define us, and how we relate to other people. They are all important. They are all essential to our ultimate success and fulfillment.
As a young person just beginning your journey into adulthood it is not too early to begin thinking about the issues of ethics you may have already encountered. Here are a few more questions that may have already surfaced in your life. Think about how you would answer them for yourself. If you decided to do something and your friends strongly advised you not to, would you do it anyway? Do you frequently find yourself--just to be cool--saying things you don't really mean? Why do you do this? Is it sometimes right to be a little bit dishonest? Would you be willing to commit perjury for a close friend? For instance, might you testify that he was driving carefully when he ran over a pedestrian even though he had been joking and not paying attention? If you were having difficulty on an important test and could safely cheat by looking at someone elses paper, would you do so? At a party, your friends start belittling someone you all know. If you felt their criticisms were unjustified, would you defend the person? Would you rather play a game with someone who is more or less talented than you? Would it matter who was watching?
You see, these are all questions about who we really are; about our values, and how we are seen by others. It may be that we can get by wearing a mask that we think others expect us to wear. It may be that we can be a little dishonest, have mostly conditional relationships, take advantage of some people some of the time, put ourselves above others who might be less fortunate, or handicapped, or from some other ethnic background. It may be that we can go through life just being average, and meeting everyone elses average expectations of us.
But never forget that you are building your own life. You are perfecting a stone that will one day be placed in the Temple of God. What you do, the actions you take, the choices you make, the paths you choose, the life you will live . . . is yours alone.
And it will effect others until the end of time.
Ethics is about deciding for yourself what kind of human being you will choose to become.

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