Three Friends

Published: April 25, 2008

By Jim Lichtman
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Three friends were called to the bedside of a friend who was dying.  The dying man says, “Look, I’ve led a good and happy life.  I’ve provided for my family, and settled with my business partners.  There’s just one thing I would like the three of you to do for me.

“I want to give each of you $20,000 in cash.  At my funeral, as you’re walking by my casket, I want you to just slip the money inside, next to me.  I know it sounds crazy, but I’ve always believed that you should never go anywhere without cash.  So, I’d appreciate it, if you could do this final favor for me.”

Needless to say, the three try to talk their friend out of such a request, after all, you really can’t take it with you, but the dying man would not be swayed.  Ultimately, all three agree to the request.

A short time later, at the man’s funeral, the three friends walk by the casket and one by one they discreetly slip an envelope in the casket next to their friend.  At the reception, the first friend comes up to the other two. “I have a confession to make,” he says. “I didn’t put the whole amount in.  I took out $5,000 and gave it to the poor.  I know that if I could have spent a little more time with him, he would have agreed that this was a good thing to do.”

The second friend looks at the first, “Boy, I’m really relieved to hear you say that because I didn’t put the whole amount in either!  I’ve been his business manager for the last ten years and while finalizing his estate, I discovered that I forgot to bill him for about $10,000 in services.  So, I took out $10,000 and put the rest in.”

Now, the third friend looks at the other two with complete outrage, total contempt.  “I don’t believe what I’m hearing!  This man was our friend.  We all grew up together.  We tried all kinds of reasoning and he didn’t buy any of it.  Besides, we gave him our word, which is why I want you both to know that I wrote him a check for the FULL amount!”

This story was first told to me by my own ethics teacher, Michael Josephson.  What I like about it is that it makes a few important points about ethics.

First, everyone’s ethical in their own eyes.  Sometimes, we look at life through a filtering system that make us look and feel better.

A second implication is that there’s a big difference betweentalk about ethics and actual ethics.  Ethics is not about what we say or what we intend it’s about what we do.  The fact that the third friend was the most outraged certainly doesn’t make him the most ethical.  And the fact that an individual or company has a credo or a mission statement about its ethics isn’t a substitute for action, for ultimately, we are all judged by what we do.

Another implication is that something is not ethical simply because it’s legal.  Ethics is not about technical compliance.  Although the writing of the check might have kept the third friend from being prosecuted for fraud, he stole that money as sure as he had stolen it in any other way, because it was against the spirit of the promise.

In the last twelve months we have seen an unsettling number of ethics scandals, and every time we hear of another our level of trust and confidence in individuals and institutions declines.

Of course, the real question in all of this is – How do we get back America’s integrity?

One way is by taking a closer look at ways each of us can improve what we stand for by practicing what ethicist Michael Josephson refers to as the Three C’s of Ethics:  Commitment, Consciousness and Competency.

Let’s enhance our ethical commitment by pointing out the practical benefits of trusting relationships.

Let’s increase our consciousness of ethics by considering the consequences of choices in terms of “stakeholders.”  Who will be helped or harmed by the action we’re about to take?  Determine whether a decision will violate any of your core, ethical principles.

And finally, let’s stress competent moral reasoning.  Let’s evaluate facts in light of ethical principles.  Let’s distinguish facts from informed opinions, speculation or assumptions.  And let’s try – to the best of our ability – to anticipate any possible unintended consequences.

If we are ever going to return to a higher standard of leadership, we need to understand that ethics is not about what we say or what we intend, it’s about what we do.  How we utilize our principles in small ways, as well as those that challenge the courage of our convictions, will determine the purpose and course of our lives.


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