"It's not whether you win or lose, it's how you play the game."
This particular saying is perhaps the best concise expression of the ethical attitude toward life.
Much of our culture's ethical wisdom is expressed in common folk sayings. The problem is, we repeat them to our children and to one another, but we don't take them seriously enough for ourselves. We use them to fill gaps in our conversation, but not as serious moral principles.
Ethics consists mainly of various constraints or limits we place upon ourselves in pursuit of our goals. I want to use my neighbor's lawn mower, but I must ask his permission first. I want to avoid embarrassment, but I must not tell a lie to do so. Without ethical constraints we would still have life, but we wouldn't have a life as rich and meaningful as it could be, because we wouldn't have friendship and community.
Chief among the constraints we place upon ourselves is that we must treat one another with respect. We may refer to this constraint by different names: "tolerance," "civility," "manners," "politeness," "regard." But whatever we call it, it means basically the same thing: I should treat you the way that I would like to be treated. I should not attempt to cheat, mislead, manipulate, coerce or belittle you in order to get something I want, no matter how important that something seems to be at the time.
The reason for this is fairly clear in some instances. For example, if I cheat in a round of golf by not counting a couple of penalty strokes on the scorecard, I may win some temporary satisfaction from the immediate outcome, but in the long run I have harmed my own character by not being trustworthy, and I have impaired a relationship that will now never reach its full potential.
The real challenge is to remember the importance of treating others with respect when the stakes are high, when it seems like there is nothing more important than the goal before me at this moment, whether that is closing an important business deal, passing a piece of legislation that will save the environment or getting a ticket to the Packers-Vikings game.
At times like this it is important to remember that the long term outcome of events is rarely as clear cut in real life as it is in a ball game, that what seems like a victory at noon may have the appearance of defeat by evening. But the long term effect of treating others with respect is a gradual increase in mutual trust, and that continues to pay off throughout one's lifetime.
The Ethical Life is a biweekly series of reflections on the ways that ethical thinking influences our actions, emotions and relationships. Richard Kyte is the director of the D.B. Reinhart Institute for Ethics in Leadership at Viterbo University.