Are you “ethical” because it “pays”?

The Christian Science Monitor recently ran an article entitled “Why ethical investors fared a little better this quarter” . It carried the subtitle “Socially responsible investors also felt the pain this quarter, but not as much as many others.” The story contained the usual sludge of bad news from Wall Street this quarter, but suggested that so called “socially responsible” stocks lost less money than the market as a whole. Well, there’s a great incentive to be ethical: Make good decisions and you’ll lose LESS money than other people.

The headline of the article communicates a subtle message worth noticing: be ethical and you’ll make more money (or not lose as much) as other people. The unspoken suggestion : if you want to be more profitable, be more ethical.

But if we’re really concerned about ethics, shouldn’t we be willing to be good for nothing? Well, maybe not good for nothing…but shouldn’t ethics be practiced regardless of the financial fall out?

If by “ethics” we mean making principled decisions based on fixed, agreed upon standards of right and wrong, then the answer is an emphatic “yes”. Right and wrong, after all, is the basis of ethics, not money. Our ethical compass should lead us to true north regardless of our circumstances or the lure of financial incentives. It’s like the Old Testament quote from the heavily afflicted Job, whose wife told him he should curse God and die. “Though He slay me, yet will I trust Him”, said Job. Job’s ethical commitment to God did not depend on circumstance. Our commitment to ethics should be equally resolute.

Like Glen Mabie. According to an article on Glen quit his job when his employer television station made plans to accept money from a local hospital in exchange for what might be called “favorable coverage opportunities.” Glen opposed the plan, saying it would compromise journalistic integrity; his bosses told him to “wipe the capital ‘J’ off his chest” because “things aren’t done that way anymore”. So Glen walked. Left his job. Lost his income. Jumped off the financial security bridge. His oldest child told him he thought the decision was “cool” and Mabie is sleeping better. But he didn’t have a financial incentive to make the ethically right decision. In fact, it cost him.

So ethics isn’t always profitable. Sometimes its costly. But that’s what makes ethics ethical. That’s why Wall Street’s ups and downs should not dictate our ethical choices.