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  • Writer's pictureBill Holmes

What Does “Ethics” Mean to You?

“I count him braver who overcomes his desires than him who conquers his enemies, for the hardest victory is over self.” Aristotle

“Whatever is my right as a man is also the right of another; and it becomes my duty to guarantee as well as to possess.” Thomas Paine, Rights of Man

I thought it would be interesting to do a series of articles on the Project Management Institute’s Code of Ethics and Professional Conduct, but in researching that I realized that the topic deserved a deeper look before we get to that document.

Anyone who has been following the news can see that ethical behavior (or lack of it) is at the forefront of the national discussion. It is also interesting to see that the normal reaction of the guilty person is to say that “I made a mistake” and then to apologize. Do we make a distinction between a one-time lack of judgement and a premeditated ongoing series of events? Does intent matter? Does a pattern of behavior change the ethical nature of the event?

We are all human and make mistakes, but when does a mistake create an ethical problem? Is an ethical breach absolute, or in the eye of the beholder?

What is ethical behavior and what does it mean to you?

Over the next couple of weeks, I will provide a high-level overview of the major areas of study within ethics today:

  1. Meta-ethics, concerning the theoretical meaning and reference of moral propositions and how their truth values (if any) can be determined

  2. Normative ethics, concerning the practical means of determining a moral course of action

  3. Applied ethics, concerning what a person is obligated (or permitted) to do in a specific situation or a particular domain of action[1]

Once we’ve covered the basics, I will focus on ethics as applies specifically to projects. But to start the conversation, we can ask ourselves several questions to get us thinking about the issues.

What would you do in these situations? If you get uncomfortable or angry reading these, that's the point!

Would you willingly and knowingly break the law? Before you say "no", have your ever exceeded the speed limit while driving? Are you more likely to do so if everyone is speeding, and does that make it OK? Is it ethical to break the law, but only if you don't do it too much? Have you ever set your cruise control 8 miles over the speed limit because you heard the police will "give you" 10 mph before they pull you over?

Related question - If you said yes to any of these (and I am sure almost everyone did), does that mean you can pick and choose which laws to obey, and how do you choose?

Would you steal from someone else? Would you steal from someone if they would never miss it, but it was important to your family? Would you steal from someone if doing so would harm their family but save yours?

Related question - would you vote for a politician that would raise taxes on your neighbors to fund something you felt was important, even if you knew they disagreed with it? Do you see a difference?

In your personal life, would you associate with someone who had been accused of multiple counts of sexual misconduct, paid $850,000 to settle a sexual harassment lawsuit, was fined over $90,000 for contempt while lying under oath and had their law license suspended?

Related question - would you vote for them if they represented your view on certain political issues?

You get home from the warehouse store and realize that you weren’t charged for a large item. Do you pay next time you are in, or do you just accept it as good luck?

You were hired by a company, signed a Non-Disclosure Agreement and were assigned to work on highly classified information. During your work, you identify activities that you believe are illegal and corrosive to the system of government that you were sworn to uphold. Do you violate the NDA and go public?

You are a highly placed public official in an important government agency that is accused of wrongdoing. When called to testify, do you plead Fifth Amendment Protections or fully disclose what you know?

You are coaching a recreation league team and have made a commitment to let everyone play the same amount of time (they are kids!). You are in a very tight game and are about to go to playoffs (and all the parents are very excited about that) and you suddenly realize that your worst player hasn’t been in yet. Do you put them in?

You are involved in a project that you know is failing, but the information being provided is being presented in a way that makes everything and everyone look great! Do you force the issue, or go along?

If you read these and said to yourself “it depends”, welcome to ethics!

But does it really depend? Aren’t there absolute truths?

We will start to discuss that in the next installment.

[1]Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy


I am typing this from a hotel in Europe. I am here because members of my team are working with a very talented group of people on an IT project I choose not to discuss. I do want to discuss my experience getting here. When we arrived (don’t ask me the name of the carrier!) we were met by large trucks that have steps on the back of them. I wasn’t even aware that those were still around as the last time I saw them was when I got on a plane in Augusta, GA in 1979! After walking down the truck/steps, we were ushered onto busses for the long ride to the terminal. It struck me that the airline was perfectly happy with me standing on a bus careening along at high speeds, but was so concerned about my safety on the much larger airplane that the mere fact that seat in front of me was slightly reclined caused a minor commotion. After I got off the bus, I was placed in the longest customs line I have ever been in (you don’t know me, but that is quite an accomplishment!). How is a long line even possible?? They know exactly how many people are coming and exactly when they will be there! A simple queuing theory formula tells you exactly how many people you need! 4 hours to get from the plane to the hotel. That’s a problem!


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