More on Ethics

While traveling not too long ago, I saw a great piece on ethics, and wished I’d kept the silly magazine (I couldn’t remember which one) because it was just a really good summation of how to live the ethical life. While wandering around the Web with Google tonight, I found it (scroll down a bit, to after the bits on Prohibition and Laughable Laws); in summary, the author advocates a life around five basic points:

  1. Do no harm
  2. Make things better
  3. Respect others
  4. Be fair
  5. Be loving

Seems pretty simple, no? The problems occur, of course, in the interpretation and execution. For example, how exactly do we define “better”, when we seek to make things better? Had I the power, I would create a world where all people are free to practice whatever religious beliefs they hold, but clearly if those religious beliefs involve human sacrifice, then it’s of dubious belief that my actions made the world “better”. (Of course, said practitioners would probably disagree.)

It’s also pretty hard to actually follow through on these on a daily basis. The author, Bruce Weinstein, makes this pretty clear in this example:

For example, how often do we really keep “do no harm” in mind during our daily interactions with people? If a clerk at the grocery store is nasty to us, don’t we return the nastiness and tell ourselves, “Serves them right?”  We may, but if we do, we harm the other person. In so doing, we harm our own soul—and this is one of the reasons why we shouldn’t return nastiness with more of the same.

Ouch. Guilty as charged.

There’s a quiz attached to the article, and I highly suggest anyone who cares about their own ethical behavior take it; some of the questions are pretty clear-cut (at least to me), but some of them fall into that category of “Well, I know what I should say I would do, but…“, and some of them are just downright surprising.

Personally, I think these five points are points that every developer should also advocate and life their life by, since, quite honestly, I think we as an industry do a pretty poor job on all five points. Clearly we violate #1 when we’re not careful with security measures in the code; too many programmers (and projects) fail to realize that “better” in #2 is from the customers’ perspective, not our own; too many programmers look down on anyone who’s not technical in some way, or even those who disagree with them, thus violating #3; too many consultants I’ve met (thankfully none I can call “friends”) will take any excuse to overbill a client (#4); and so on, and so on, and so on.

Maybe I’m getting negative in my old age, but it just seems to me that there’s too much shouting and posturing going on (cough Fleury cough) and not enough focus on the people to whom we are ultimately beholden: our customers. Do what’s right for them, even if it’s not the easy thing to do, even when they don’t think they need it (such as the incapcitated friend in the quiz), and you can never go wrong.