How do we do the right thing?

It would be nice to think that we all lived ethical lives, but how many of us can really claim that we always put our principles first? Take philosopher Roger Steare’s unique test to find out. By Catherine Jones

Would you describe yourself as a good person? Most of us would, but do you think you could explain exactly what it is that makes you good? It may not be something that we often stop to consider, but our personal morality — our beliefs and behaviour — plays a crucial part in how we live our lives, how we manage our relationships with others and how we see the world.

According to Professor Roger Steare, author of 'Ethicability: How To Decide What’s Right And Find The Courage To Do It' (buy online at ethicability.org), we all have a ‘moral DNA’, a personal code for ethical living. Understanding that code can give us a valuable insight into how we make decisions, and help us to make better choices in the future. Here, Steare explains why morals matter, and how we can all find the courage of our convictions.

Psychologies: What do we mean by ethics, and why do they matter?
Roger Steare: Ethics can be defined as moral principles that guide our behaviour, together with legal rights and duties that are acceptable in a particular society. They matter because they help us to decide what’s right. Standards of living are up but standards for living are down. Will we continue to put things before people or will we put principles before profits? Do we buy fruit out of season or do we consider carbon emissions? Do we do what’s legal or do we do what’s right — and how do we decide? If we all thought more about it and changed or modified the way we behaved, the world would become a better place.

What can we do to become morally better?
Since the 1950s, we have believed that success is more determined by our wealth and our ability to consume than it is by our ability to nurture and sustain meaningful relationships. The one thing that would make us more morally grown up is more self-discipline. A moral grown-up is someone who can exercise restraint and acknowledge they don’t need a new car every year, or two holidays a year. Our lifestyles are unsustainable so restraint is probably the greatest moral virtue that we need to find now. If you truly care about your fellow man then in order to translate that wish into action we must all curb our unlimited wants and desires. If we don’t, then we are effectively stealing from others, and stealing the future from our children and grandchildren.

Your moral test divides people into six moral ‘types’. Are some better than others?
I’d be worried if someone in the armed forces didn’t have an Enforcer profile; if they had an Angel profile, our security would be compromised. But you wouldn’t want people with an Enforcer profile looking after you in hospital. We need all six moral types (Philosopher, Angel, Enforcer, Judge, Teacher and Guardian) to make society work — we all have different things to contribute.

Moral consciences

Human beings make decisions using three broad moral consciences, which evolve throughout our lives, explains Steare. Our first moral conscience is Rule Compliance: doing what’s right is simply doing as you’re told. This is an important stage in the development of young children. It is also a good thing — in moderation — for adults. Rules help to protect us from those with no moral conscience or to protect us from danger.

As we get older and begin to interact and communicate with others, we learn that it feels good to share our things, to be kind and thoughtful. This second stage in moral development is Social Conscience: what’s right is what’s best for others.

If Rule Compliance is external and Social Conscience is about interaction, then Principled Conscience, or integrity, is internal. It’s our moral compass, our mature or grown-up moral philosophy. What’s right is defined by moral virtues such as courage, fairness and self-discipline.
Some of the greatest role models — such as Gandhi or Nelson Mandela — believed that doing what was right was not about personal happiness or wealth, it was about exercising virtues such as courage and self-discipline to balance our insatiable greed and our childish fears. Our integrity helps us make complex and difficult decisions about the world and the communities we live in, to make real sacrifices for what we believe in.