Excuses for bad behavior abound. One person insists, “I couldn’t help myself.” Another person says, “I’ve had this habit too long to quit.” Someone else pleads, “It’s not my fault.” Still another declares, “It’s out of my control.” We might even hear, “The devil made me do it,” as Flip Wilson used to joke. None of these statements are true – if we’re talking about personal behavior. We’re all responsible for our own behavior, habits, and choices because our behavior is just that – a choice. The choices we make, if we continue to make them long enough, form habits. Our habits result in behaviors that reflect our own personal code of ethics. The dictionary defines ethics as “the discipline of dealing with what is good and bad and with moral duty and obligation; a set of moral principles or values; the principles of conduct governing an individual or a group.”
A class I taught recently at the University of Phoenix included the study of ethics, which we discussed from both a personal and business viewpoint. As you might guess ethics do not mean the same thing to all people and all organizations. Some companies have written codes of ethics and others don’t. Some codes are given lip service by their companies, while others are strictly enforced. Ethics aren’t always the same for everyone since they’re influenced by culture, ethnicity, religion, country, and family. Sometimes a company has a different code of ethics than we do and we’re asked to do something that we think is wrong. We’re faced with an ethical dilemma and have a choice to make. Whatever the factors that weigh into the decision we make, it’s still our decision, our choice.
The big decisions are a lot easier to make if we’ve made small decisions, ethically, along the way. Ronald Reagan said, “The character that takes command in moments of crucial choices has already been determined by a thousand other choices made earlier in seemingly unimportant moments. It has been determined by all the ‘little’ choices of years past – by all those times when the voice of conscience was at war with the voice of temptation…whispering the lie that ‘it really doesn’t matter.’ It has been determined by all the day-to-day decisions made when life seemed easy and crises seemed far away – the decisions that, piece by piece, bit by bit, developed habits of discipline or of laziness; habits of self-sacrifice or self-indulgence; habits of duty and honor and integrity – or dishonor and shame.”
“We are what we repeatedly do,” wrote Aristotle. “Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.” Through the years, his statement has been supported by other philosophers, as well as the psychologists who have proven it to be true through extensive research. We now know that when we develop habits by repeating particular actions, we’re forming neurological pathways in our brains – literally “ruts.” These ruts are actually synaptic connections that get stronger as we repeat behaviors. In order to form a new habit and get rid of an old one, we practice new behaviors, which form new synaptic connections. Although they never go completely away, the old connections get weaker as the new ones get stronger. But the new ones only get stronger as we practice the new behavior.
Just like any other habit, our ethics get stronger when we make the right choices time after time after time, in the little things as well as the big ones. Then, when actually faced with an ethical decision that will have a serious consequence, we’ll have an easier time making the right choice – and won’t try to blame the devil for it.