The Aspirant’s Codex: Channel Your Ambition With Ethical Guardrails

Key Takeaways

  1. Social mobility can be a minefield of ethical dilemmas but navigating it doesn’t require you to compromise your integrity (or worse).
  2. Get an in-depth look at the long-term risks and benefits of “striving” ethically vs. unethically and learn why ethics is not just a “feel-good” concept.
  3. Discover how our interdependent society operates on reciprocity, and how ethical behavior leads to greater success chances in the long run.
  4. Delve into different ethical schools of thought, such as Deontology and Utilitarianism, and learn how to use such frameworks to craft your own moral codex.
  5. Learn actionable tips and strategies (like Aristotle’s “Golden Mean”) for putting these principles into practice to avoid ethical pitfalls along your journey.

There is no shortage of historical examples of infamous “social climbers” who behaved remarkably unethically, and one thing most of them share is they ended in jail (or worse): We all know these movies and documentaries.

As a “preliminary note”, when we talk about upward social mobility we do not refer to, associate with or endorse the practices of these folks. One of my key ambitions with this “travel guide” is to show fledgling up-and-comers a way aloft without compromising their integrity. This is needed because there are so many resources that, with their simplicity and edginess, have great appeal to “less experienced” (and possibly frustrated) target audiences, potentially leading them away from the righteous path.

Today we cover the long-term risks and benefits of striving (un)ethically (especially in the context of conscience and reciprocity). Then we dive into different ethical schools of thoughts (e.g., Deontology or Utilitarianism), contrast them, and provide you with actionable tools to implement these into your “daily grind”.

The Importance of Ethics in Social Mobility

Before we dive into the different philosophies and actionable strategies, I want to start with the big “Why?”: Why should you aspiring up-and-comer bother with ethics on your marvelous journey to greatness? Aren’t ruthless, exploitative, or manipulative schemes more effective in getting what I want?

I understand the allure of the idea to “just take what you want”: it is so seductively simple. However, it is also simplistic. We will now explore the reasons why an unethical path is doomed to fail: In a nutshell, immoral behavior is typically myopic since it tends to overvalue short-term effects (“get what I want”) while underappreciating long-term consequences. So why should you sign up for the “ethical track”?

Because deep down – beneath your tough shell – you (probably) want to. You want to be able to look into your own eyes in the mirror without disgust: today, tomorrow and in ten years. You want the sureness that you are a virtuous person, did the right things, and enriched other people’s lives. That is your conscience speaking, your moral compass. I want to emphasize this is not an abstract or even “esoteric” concept: There is a complex bio-chemical machinery in your brain responsible for ethical behavior incl. your frontal lobe, amygdala etc.

Unless you are a clinical psychopath with underdeveloped pertaining brain functions (i.e., mirror neurons, empathy etc.) you want to avoid “cognitive dissonance”: That is a state of inner conflict which occurs when there are two (or more) contrary “cognitions” (i.e., thoughts, ideas etc.) in your head. This could be, for example, a mismatch (“dissonance”) between your moral compass and your thoughts, speech, behavior. These well-researched “inner conflicts” are basically “psychological pain”. By choosing an unethical path, you are signing up for constant unnecessary pain with all its fatal implications, e.g., the link between long-term stress and reduced longevity, physical and mental illness etc.

Additionally, we’re all part of a global interdependent society of people who behave and collaborate mostly in reciprocal ways, i.e., we tend to pay like with like – positively and negatively. While I admire the “individualistic aspirant” – autonomy is a core value of mine – I have to break it to you that the saying “if you want to go fast, travel alone; if you want to go far, travel in groups” also applies to self-actualization.

While we’re not living in a perfect meritocracy (i.e., a system that solely rewards people based on meritable behavior) our socioeconomic systems do incentivize ethical and disincentivize unethical behavior (especially via reciprocity). Next to the mentioned clear conscience and health benefits, “ethical up-and-comers” benefit from improved, more reliable and rewarding relationships and networks (which build on a good reputation, trust and fairness). Research by management scholar Jim Collins found a clear link between ethical behavior (honesty, integrity etc.) and long-term success of “Level 5 Leaders”. There is, of course, also risk of excommunication, retaliation etc. for unethical up-and-comers.

I want to emphasize this is not a black-and-white issue: “Ethical” or “unethical” are broad terms and there are no objective truths regarding their meaning. For example, being assertive or disagreeable are valuable traits despite ruffling others’ feathers occasionally – as we discuss in another article. I also don’t claim that, for example, lying is per se “bad”: It depends on the context and what’s at stake. Some white lies can do more good than harm – and are typically generously forgiven since it’s a “very human thing” to do (unlike severe ethical breaches!).

I’m also guilty of “framing” situations sometimes in a particular light to guide decisions in the direction I believe is the right one – another “very human thing” to do. (In this context, Kaplan’s research on “framing contests” is insightful which I cover in another article.) We need to develop a nuanced perspective on the complexity of ethical dilemmas – i.e., defining the criteria by which you want to decide what is “right” or “wrong”. Let’s not reinvent the wheel but explore established ethical schools of thought for guidance in this regard.

Ethical Theories and Their Practical Application

The following theories are not “exhaustive” but provide a broad and differentiated view – i.e., a great starting point – on ethical decision-making because each of these addresses one of three key areas of ethical dilemmas: the actor (“Virtue Ethics”), their actions (“Deontology”) and their consequences (“Utilitarianism”). Let’s zoom into each of these, understand their core principles, limitations, and learn concrete strategies to apply them in our everyday life:

Virtue Ethics: “Developing a Moral Character

Virtue Ethics is a trait-based approach to ethics which emphasizes the role of a virtuous character as the measure of the moral value of your actions. Thus, behavior is considered ethical if it’s the expression of virtuous traits like honesty, responsibility, or fairness. Aristotle, a key advocate of Virtue Ethics, encouraged people to develop good habits and strength of character which serve as a robust foundation for ethical decision-making and, ultimately, a better life.

This is reasonable as habits have a strong impact on our lives due to their pivotal role in steering our everyday behavior (i.e., habits work like compound interest: each day “a bit more” compounds to a big effect over time). Thus, what sets this philosophy apart is its positive appeal to us up-and-comers to approach our personal development journey as a long-term quest rather than nurturing the illusion of “overnight success”. While this approach has limitations in situations which require fast decisions (i.e., when there’s not much time to “reflect one’s character”), a concrete guiding question is: “What would a virtuous person (, business etc.) do?”

The elegance of this is we typically know the answer already from our gut. However, Aristotle’s also offers practical advice by introducing the guiding principle of the “Golden Mean”, i.e., that the virtuous way is typically found “in the healthy middle ground” of two extremes (e.g., “courage” as the balance between recklessness and cowardice).

Deontology: “Doing the Right Thing”

Deontology, on the other hand, builds on the belief that certain behaviors are inherently ethical or unethical. It’s also called the “principled approach” as it emphasizes the importance of adhering to certain rules or “principles” to guide or actions. One of such “principles” we can use to apply this philosophy is the “categorical imperative” of the most prominent deontologist, Immanuel Kant: It asks us to “act only according to the maxim that we would want to be a universal law” (i.e., “Would you want that everyone else behaved the same way?”). In more practical terms, we may also consult the famous “golden rule”, i.e., “to treat others as you would like to be treated”.

The charm of Deontology is that it encourages us to behave in consistent and predictable ways (which is very conducive in social settings). However, it could be criticized for neglecting our action’s consequences or sometimes even tempting us to “do the wrong thing for the right reasons”. Try, for example, this famous thought experiment: Would you tell a fugitive murderer looking for your friend who knocks on your door that your friend is home? A die-hard deontologist, for whom “lying” is categorically “ruled out” as unethical, would have to…

Utilitarianism: “Achieving the Greatest Good”

Last but not least: Utilitarianism is an “economically-minded” school of thought which hones in on the “consequences” of our actions to judge their moral value. It’s all about, how Jeremy Bentham would say, creating “the greatest good for the greatest number [of people].” This consequentialist philosophy can be applied through conducting cost-benefit analyses for your decisions by weighing the relative benefits and drawbacks of each potential course of action (e.g., with tools like the “weighted scoring model” for the more analytically minded).

The selling point of this approach is its focus on generating desirable outcomes in a rational way. However, one of its main limitations is neglecting the “human factor”: We are not “perfectly cool computers” and in reality – thanks to our “bounded rationality”, time etc. – it’s typically not feasible to get the required overview of a problem situation and its moving parts to design an ideal solution that maximizes the net benefits. Additionally, following this doctrine too blindly may seduce us onto a slippery slope where “the ends justify the (increasingly nasty) means”.

A famous example to illustrate these principles is the “trolley dilemma”, where a hypothetical train is speeding uncontrollably towards a group of people tied to the tracks. Now you have to make the decision whether to divert the train to another track where only one person is tied. As a utilitarian, you would reroute the train (“the greatest good for the greatest number”); a deontologist, on the other hand, might argue – based on the categorical imperative – it is never morally acceptable to kill another human being.

Putting it All Together: The Aspirant’s Codex

Those “different” schools of thought may look (at the first glance) contradictory or evoke the impression you should adopt either one or the other. However, understanding now how these different – but complementary – approaches address distinct aspects of any ethical dilemmas (actors, actions, consequences etc.), this is an opportunity to combine them and make more holistic, better-informed decisions.

The key takeaway from this article is that mindful ethical behavior is a key success factor for our upward mobility journey because it factors in the long-term implications of our behavior as well as the needs of our complex stakeholder landscapes. Such “intelligently farsighted” behavior, while not as glamorously simple as (myopic) alternatives, leads to better decisions, more rewarding relationships, better reputation, health benefits, and most importantly, the ability to consistently live by our inner compass.

I want to encourage you to craft your own “moral codex” and use the introduced ethical theories and frameworks (and others such as the “United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights” or legal systems whose sole purpose is to ensure ethical behavior in societies) for guidance. To kick it off: How would you approach the decision in the “trolley dilemma” and why? Share your thoughts (and possibly introduce more frameworks you know) in the comments, so we all can learn from each other and grow together.

Cheers, John.

Recommended Resources for the Ethical Go-Getters

Here are some resources for the hungry ones to dive deeper into today’s topics:

  • “Would You Kill the Fat Man?” by David Edmonds: This thought-provoking book dives into the complexity of this classic ethical thought experiment (“trolley dilemma”) from various perspectives. It’s a valuable resource to better understand the differences between the schools of thought discussed, and their implications for our decision-making.
  • “Meditations” by Marcus Aurelius: This classic book offers a unique perspective into the “ups and downs” of a living a life of integrity while carrying the responsibilities of being a Roman Emperor on one’s shoulders. For us up-and-comers this can be a valuable source of inspiration as our responsibilities will grow aloft the ladder as well.
  • “The Ethical Brain” by Michael Gazzaniga – This factual book provides a comprehensive introduction to the neuroscience of ethical behavior and its implications for the successful adoption of ethical decision-making both as organizations and individual strivers.
  • “Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals” by Immanuel Kant – This classic is among the core seminal works on deontological ethics and introduces Kant’s (discussed) concept of the “categorical imperative”. For anyone who wants to dig deeper than the (admittedly watered-down) “Golden Rule”, who is better to consult than Kant himself?
  • “Nicomachean Ethics” by Aristotle – This classic and central piece by the “intellectual father” of Virtue Ethics comprehensively explores the big question how living a life of virtue leads to true happiness (“Eudaimonia”). Aristotle also offers practical advice for us by introducing the principle of the “golden mean” to avoid extreme behavior.

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