10/22/2014 12:03 pm ET Updated Dec 22, 2014

Traditional Virtues Trump Ethics Codes

In case you missed it in the title, I'm impressed with the idea of individual cultivation of traditional virtues. These virtues come from many sources and have stood the test of time. They include character traits such as kindness, patience, humility, honor, loyalty, wisdom, respect, trustworthiness, generosity, compassion, temperance, bravery, diligence, justice, frugality, chastity and charity. This is not intended to be an exhaustive list but rather an illustrative list. Readers may easily create a list of virtues that they would like to see exhibited in others and themselves. Aren't we all longing to interact both in our business and personal lives with individuals of good character?

Virtues are internal standards that become habits over time. Ethics codes tend to be external and rule oriented. For example, an ethics code may state that no purchasing agent may annually accept a gift from a supplier valued in excess of $20. Twenty dollars is not the point. The point of the code is to prevent favoritism and conflicts of interest. The virtues at issue are trustworthiness, honor and loyalty. Individuals who act with trustworthiness, honor and loyalty to one's employer might accept a gift valued at $31 and not act improperly. Yet they have violated an arbitrarily fixed code dollar limit.

It is too easy to equate ethics codes with law so that if a contemplated action is not contrary to the code or law, it is morally acceptable. Sadly, legality is the default position for many individuals both within and outside of the business world. If it is legal, then it is morally acceptable. In fact, this position is too easy and requires too little thought. It might be legal to enforce an onerous contractual provision, but is it virtuous or ethical? But one argues, the individual freely chose to enter into the contract and freedom of contract and personal responsibility for keeping promises (a virtue) is a cornerstone of our economic system. Even more foundational is trust. If individuals have to "lawyer-up" because they cannot trust one another to act honorably, then business relationships are in a sad condition. Unfortunately, that is all too often where we find ourselves -- unable to trust either strangers or "friends" to act honorably.

Virtues trump consequential ethics. Is it possible to accurately and completely conduct a cost-benefit analysis with our limited knowledge of the present and future? Unfortunately, a financial cost-benefit analysis frequently ends the conversation when making business decisions. The "bottom line" all too often consists solely of dollars, not traits such as honor and loyalty. But, one argues, business is not charity and shareholders deserve a maximum return on investment. There are many ways to respond to this argument, but for the sake of simplicity return to the concept of trust. If employees, customers, suppliers, and others who interact with business cannot trust the business to act virtuously, it will not prosper in the long term.

Surely, one asserts, there are problems with traditional virtues as a guide to action. Yes, there are issues that I will briefly mention and respond to in the following points:

1. Cultivating virtues is too hard. Yes, it takes a lifetime. It is a road without end. It is much more difficult than taking and passing a test over an employer's code of ethics.
2. Individuals will be more or less developed in their character. Yes, rules and laws are still necessary but the virtuous individual will require fewer rules and will not look for "loopholes" in order to engage in legal but unethical behavior. Part of the quest for virtue is to understand that we fail and are in need of humility and grace.
3. Individuals will act hypocritically or use an appearance of virtue to exploit others. This already happens. The fact that standards of virtuous conduct are violated does not mean that there should not be standards.
4. Making decisions based upon virtues is too difficult and is inefficient. Relationships based upon virtue become easier with practice. Being fearful that an individual has found a "technicality" that invalidates a promise is stressful and hard.
5. Virtues can't tell us how non-human entities as corporations and governments should act. This is true, but rules governing their actions could be based upon virtuous concepts such as justice and the avoidance of vices.
6. Virtues might sometimes be culturally specific. For example, an "honor killing" might be acceptable to some and abhorrent to others. However, most individuals of goodwill condemn this action as a distortion of honorable living. An extreme negative example does not invalidate the virtue of honor.
7. Virtues may clash. In a situation involving a clash of virtues, one needs a hierarchy of virtues, so that the superior virtue takes precedence. Compassion and love are traditionally ranked quite high.
8. The concept of virtues sounds too idealistic. Yes, virtues are ideals and they call us to act in accord with "the better angels of our nature" as President Lincoln famously stated. Why not respond to the highest standard?
9. Virtues sound too vague, uncertain, and unrealistic. This is not true in specific situations. For example, when you are stranded in the middle of nowhere, you hope that you meet someone possessing the virtues of kindness and compassion.
10. Virtues cannot be taught; one either has them or does not have them. Virtues inform conduct. Just like any skill, virtues may be learned, practiced, and refined.

So, are virtues a matter of genetics or environmental influences? I have no answer to this question except to say that it is the wrong question in this conversation. The right question is what will we do today, right now, to demonstrate kindness and compassion to start developing those character traits? What will we do today, right now, to make ethical codes obsolete because we act honorably? A call to develop virtues is not a call to some "holier-than-thou" supposed moral superiority. It is a call to be all that we can be and live a truly fulfilling life. Ancient wisdom promises that result from a quest for virtuous living.