“Ethics” Means Acting Beyond Self-Interest

100 Trends to Watch for 2013

By Linda Fisher Thornton

“Ethics” Means Acting Beyond Self-Interest

Ethics is fundamentally about acting beyond our own self-interests. Can we be ethical without considering others and acting in ways that benefit them? Here are some interesting questions and quotes on the subject.

As you read, think about the business leader’s responsibility to act beyond the interests of the business and beyond personal gain.

Questions About Ethics, Ego and Acting Out of Concern for Others

1. Is ethics moving beyond the ego to show concern for others?

“While egoism may be a strong motivator of human behavior, ethics traditionally assumes that human beings are also capable of acting from a concern for others that is not derived from a concern for their own welfare.”

“The moral point of view goes beyond self-interest to a standpoint that takes everyone’s interests into account. Ethics, then, assumes that self interest is not the basis for all human behavior, although some philosophers, e.g., Hobbes, have tried to base ethics on self-interest. Their efforts, however, have not been widely accepted.”

Andre and Velasquez, Unmasking the Motives of the Good Samaritan, Ethics and Self-Interest, Santa Clara University

2. Can we define ethics based on reason, when reason doesn’t involve others?

“Justice can’t be determined by examining a single case, since the advantage to society of a rule of justice depends on how it works in general under the circumstances in which it is introduced.”

“Thus the views of the moral rationalists on the role of reason in ethics, even if they can be made coherent, are false.”

David Hume, Stanford.edu, quoting from Hume’s autobiographical essay, “My Own Life”

3. If we serve others now, will we benefit long-term?

“Enlightened self-interest is a philosophy in ethics which states that persons who act to further the interests of others (or the interests of the group or groups to which they belong), ultimately serve their own self-interest.[1][2][3]   It has often been simply expressed by the belief that an individual, group, or even a commercial entity will “do well by doing good”.[4][5][6]”

“Enlightened self-interest also has implications for long-term benefits as opposed to short-term benefits to oneself.[7] When an individual pursues enlightened self-interest that person may sacrifice short-term interests to maximize long-term interests. This is a form of deferred gratification.”

Enlightened Self-Interest, Wikipedia.com

4. Are we at our best when we consider others?

“The motives which lie behind our behaviors are often mixed and complex. But studies such as these are among the challenges to the long held view that even at our best, we are only out for ourselves. Rather, at our best, we may only be out for others.”

Andre and Velasquez, Unmasking the Motives of the Good Samaritan, Ethics and Self-Interest, Santa Clara University

5. What, then, is ethical behavior?

“In some ways, putting the greater good before your own can be thought of as the definition of ethical leadership, since it underlies so many of the other components.”“Ethical behavior reflects a value system that grows out of a coherent view of the world, based on equity, justice, the needs and rights of others as well as oneself, a sense of obligation to others and to the society, and the legitimate needs and standards of the society.”

The Community Toolbox, University of Kansas, ku.edu

What does all of this mean for leaders?

We are all responsible for acting beyond our own self-interests. In this age of ‘infotainment’ and information overload, we have to know ourselves, know our responsibility to others, and choose to act beyond self-interest and short-term gain.

522For more, see Linda’s book 7 Lenses and the 21 Question Assessment: How Current is My Message About Ethics?
7 Lenses is a Bronze Axiom Business Book Award Winner in Business Ethics41cEVx-Tu4L._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_
2014 Axiom Business Book Award Winner 
About 7 Lenses
Info@LeadinginContext.com  @leadingincontxt  @7Lenses

© 2012 Leading in Context LLC 



  1. Prakash S. • It is a true that we should act beyond our interest so that others and society in a large benefits. How can we be ethical without considering others ?. It is impossible and also unaccepted.


  2. Dr. Linda,
    Thank you so much for such an interesting article on Ethical leadership, and if you may allow me please kindly to add, according to Hume’s theory, that beyond self- interest , is just one of the seven elements of the Humean business ethics, still, that self-interest can, and does, motivate individuals to violate the rules of justice, Hume has his famous example of “Wayward self-interest being that of the sensible knave.”
    Thanks again for sharing your aspiring article.”


  3. Linda: An excellent post, especially in light of the U.S. elections, where “ethics” by some corporations, PACs, Super PACs, and politicians seemed to have been ignored.

    Corporations, like politicians, will find that ethical behavior and performance will grow in importance among their customers and consumers, who are demanding more transparency and accountibility — both of which require adoption of and adherence to higher ethical standards.

    In my area of expertise — strategic communications — ethics has taken center stage in many respects, but will gain in importance even more in the future as online and social media, consumer marketing, and other communications are being redefined by the Internet and the anonymity it enables. Thank you for your post.


  4. Reblogged this on People Performance Potential and commented:
    This is a great post exploring what we mean by ethics and how it shapes our behaviours.
    In the organisational context, there’s a clear message here in terms of leadership but I also think this makes great reading for any employee. Yet it’s an area of learning that I rarely see raised in the development of employees below the senior leadership level…
    Ethics are ever present and formative. So what stops companies putting greater focus into sharing such learning more broadly within their organisation?


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