Ethics is Acting Beyond Self-Interest

By Linda Fisher Thornton

This is an edited version of a previously published reader favorite.

“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.

If we ever forget, we’ll be reminded by ethically-aware constituents that it’s not ethical leadership if we don’t consistently act out of respect and concern for others.

About Linda Fisher Thornton
Linda Fisher Thornton is Founder and CEO of Leading in Context, and author of the award-winning book 7 Lenses. She teaches as Adjunct Assoc. Prof. for University of Richmond SPCS. She is leading a movement to help leaders and organizations Unleash the Positive Power of Ethical Leadership.

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