Selfishness and Ethics

Recently, my parents decided to host foreign exchange students in their home. The first student lived with us while I still lived at home and we shared a room. I found myself constantly getting upset with her. I tried so hard to let things go, but I continually got angry at what she did or how she acted.

After she left, I came to two realizations at once. First, I got upset with her because she had difficulty seeing beyond herself. She only thought of herself. She was selfish. Second, the reason I got upset is because I am selfish. Please note that I put a present tense “is because” since this has not changed. I am not about exclude myself from the topic of human selfishness. I wanted to live with someone aware of my needs. I wanted her to do things how I wanted.

I believe there are good people in the world, but I also believe selfishness is at the core of every human being. This doesn’t mean people do not or cannot act selflessly. I mean that the capacity for selfishness resides in everyone.

I read an article recently about humanity. It covered a biological study about the human social instinct. The author explained that humanity moved toward socialization and that moved us away from selfishness by achieving a greater sense of “we.” I would have to disagree. Selfishness has not disappeared from the world because people want to be with other people.  In the situation with the foreign exchange student, we were both selfish in our own ways.

Selfishness wouldn’t be so bad if it did not inevitably hurt people. People do sometimes intentionally inflict hurt through selfishness, but most often it causes harm unintentionally. Why am I writing about selfishness and ethics together? I think that ethics form a boundary around people. Ethics help us know what to do. If followed, ethics should not only safeguard us from hurting other people with selfishness but also safeguard us from the selfishness of others. I like to think of ethics as a fence. It forms a boundary between what I should do and what I should not do. It also forms this same boundary around other people. This does not mean that they cannot step outside of that fence. Typically, fences have a door to go in and out.

This article took the words right out of my mouth. “Very often today we see individuals trying to get ahead at the expense of others. Sometimes it’s blatant. Other times it’s more insidious. But this attitude harms businesses, nations, governments, countries, and even churches. It’s selfishness — the self-will, self-love, self-promotion, and self-seeking that many believe essential to success. This kind of activity hurts everyone, including the one engaging in it.”

For example, this past Thanksgiving 2013, Kmart announced that it would open much earlier than it had in previous years for Thanksgiving Day. The company planned to open at 6 a.m. and remain open through Black Friday. This seemed a viable business option, as Black Friday is one of the most profitable sales days for stores like Kmart. However, customers were upset and went on social media to rant. One infographic explained the situation by describing it as “corporate greed” with customers questioning the ethics of making employees work long hours for a holiday.  Corporate greed is a form of selfishness.

I argue that ethics are even more important in business. Overall, the bigger the business is the bigger the impact. However, as one article pointed out, small businesses can have a large impact as well. When businesses make a decision, it does not just impact people inside the organization, it also impacts the stakeholders, the customers and sometimes the surrounding community. Take the two toxic chemicals floating in the Elk River of West Virginia. Freedom Industries made a decision and now news reports are saying the drinking water for over 300,000 residents is poisonous.

When a company or a person acts ethically on a consistent basis, this forms a foundation of trust. I agree with the article by the Thought Bridge explaining that trust is essential for success, especially in business. Trust is a large part of a person’s or an organization’s reputation. In my field of public relations, trust is essential. If the employees cannot trust us with the reputation or brand of the company, or customers do not trust the company, we haven’t done our jobs. PR professionals recognize the need for ethics in our field and have produced many helpful codes, such as the PRSA Member Code of Ethics.

However, just as I cautioned in my last post, as a profession we need to do a better job of actively living out our ethical guidelines. Fences are of no use in protecting anyone if you are never inside the boundary. Ethics are a must, especially when under such intense media scrutiny or given large business decisions with the capability of impacting thousands. It may seem easier to be selfish right now, but in the long run, it will do more damage than anything.


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