You’ve certainly heard people talk about ethics before. Companies everywhere talk about doing business in an ethical manner, and you probably don’t want to spend a lot of time with wildly unethical people. Now obviously, what constitutes “ethical” can differ significantly from one person to the next, so finding a solid definition of ethics is fairly difficult.
Thankfully, though, figuring out where ethics comes from isn’t – because it all begins with respect, for yourself as well as for others. Both kinds of respect are necessary in order to develop an ethical framework, and since I’m not above being selfish, I feel like starting with respect for yourself.
You’ve probably heard the phrase, ‘If you don’t respect yourself, then no one else will respect you either.’ At least, you’ve heard it if you were raised by my mother, along with phrases like ‘Don’t play in traffic!’ and ‘Stop eating glue!’ (I was a weird kid.) Anyway, when it comes to respect, that advice is true. Because respecting yourself means that you expect certain behavior out of those around you – you expect them to treat you fairly, to be honest, to listen to your ideas and opinions without dismissing them out of hand – and that expectation about how others should treat you is a foundational element of ethical behavior. If you don’t respect yourself, then you might not stand up for yourself when others fail or refuse to treat you properly. By respecting yourself, by recognizing your value, you’ll automatically and unconsciously work to enforce the kind of behavior in others that is consistent with good ethics. I think this is the easiest way for ethical behavior to begin, by starting with ourselves. Because we know ourselves better than we know anyone else.
But obviously it’s not all about us. So at the same time that we need to respect ourselves, we also need to respect others as well. We need to recognize that they deserve the same consideration and fair dealing that we expect them to provide to us. That doesn’t necessarily mean that others should be treated exactly the same way we expect to be treated, because other people might have different needs and expectations. What it does mean, though, is that we need to be looking for ways to show respect to others at the same time that we are expecting other to respect us. No human relationship can survive indefinitely if one only party is doing all the work. Respecting others allows us to ask the question, “How would I want to be treated if this were happening to me?” – and by doing so, we ultimately learn a little bit more about what we expect from others. So in a weird way, respecting others is an excellent strategy for reinforcing the belief that others should respect us.
As you can see, this is all very circular, so to a certain extent it doesn’t really matter where the respect starts and ends. If you’d like to begin the other way around, by treating others decently with no expectation of them reciprocating that treatment, I suppose you can – but it won’t take long before you start having those expectations, and you absolutely should. Regardless, developing respect is where your ethical framework will begin, and strengthening that respect – for both yourself and others – is the best way to grow and develop your ethical self.
So if you haven’t done so already today, go ahead and tell yourself that you’re worthy of respect. Then do it every day between now and forever. If you’re not in the habit of doing so, you’ll be surprised how big a difference it can make.
Note: this article was adapted from our online training course “Ethics for Everyone”. For more information click here.