Ben Franklin’s Ethics Alarms

Why do good people do bad things? Usually it’s because they aren’t thinking about good and bad at all. They are thinking about more immediate issues, like getting through the day, keeping a job, making a child happy, paying the bills, enduring a crisis. When good people—most of us, I believe–actually focus on doing the right thing, doing good, they tend to do it. The trick is  focusing, when emotions and basic human needs are so powerful.

Behavioral economist Dan Ariely’s book “Predictably Irrational” describes an experiment in which he gave Harvard Business School students a test that had an obvious way to cheat built into it, as well as a cash reward for doing well. He tracked how many students cheated. He also varied the experiment by asking some students to do simple tasks before they took the test: name five baseball teams, or state capitals. He discovered that the students who were asked to recite some of the Ten Commandments, unlike any of the other groups, didn’t cheat at all. Like a slap in the face, the classic moral rules reminded the students to consider right and wrong. It didn’t matter whether they were religious, which Commandments, if any, they could recall, or even if they recalled them correctly. This is because it wasn’t the content of the Commandments that affected them, but what they represented: being good, or one culture’s formula for doing good.

As part of  the preparation of  a company’s new ethics program, I once interviewed a thoughtful engineer who had worked in a corruption-plagued industry.   “I’m not religious,” he said. “I believe, however, that non-religious people have to find some substitute for prayer. Prayer makes an individual think about values and virtues, and in life we need to be reminded as often as possible to think about doing the right thing.  If something doesn’t make you think about this, it is easier to break rules, break laws, hurt people and cause all sorts of harm.”

“We need ethics equivalents of prayer.”

I have thought about his comment often, and I have been looking, until now without success.

But I found them. I found them in a very old book assigned to me when I was in the 10th Grade, a book I didn’t pay much attention to at the time, and remembered absolutely nothing about it. The book is “An Account of My Life,” the autobiography of Benjamin Franklin, our colorful Founding Father who was also a philosopher, wit, inventor, scientist, and who held his harmony part pretty well when he sang with John Adams and Thomas Jefferson in “1776.”

Franklin, in describing his lifetime formula for achieving virtue, charts out the agenda for a productive day. It begins with asking himself a question: “What good shall I do this day?” It ends with a second question: “What good have I done today?


Thanks, Ben.

Thanks for the bifocals, too.

And the country.

One thought on “Ben Franklin’s Ethics Alarms

  1. Pingback: A Shocking Farewell Confession From “The Ethicist” | Ethics Alarms

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