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Book Review: ‘Make an Ethical Difference’ by Mark Pastin

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Make an Ethical DifferenceAccording to ethics thought leader Mark Pastin, humans are born with an eye for ethics. That is, we have an innate sense that helps us see what’s right and do the right thing. What we lack is a simple, step-by-step way to use our ethical sense to solve a problem.

It sounds like a humble enough order, but Pastin says there are few ethics books out there that focus on the practical aspects of solving problems, mediating conflicts, and reaching agreements. That’s why he wrote Make an Ethical Difference: Tools for Better Action.

Pastin is a heavyweight in the world of business ethics. He’s been awarded grants by the National Science Foundation and the National Endowment for Humanities, among others. He’s advised multinationals and governments worldwide, been featured in the top business press, and spoken before crowds of thousands. Currently, he’s the CEO of the Council of Ethical Organizations, a nonprofit dedicated to promoting ethics in business and government.

Yet despite all his credentials, Pastin strikes a decidedly down-to-earth tone. All he wants is to show people how to apply ethics in real-life situations.

This is one of those books that makes me happy as a reviewer. Why? Because it has value. It’s useful. It’s smart. It’s fresh. It’s really got the character of an instant business classic.

Pastin introduces five tools that help us sharpen our ethical sense so we can bring about the right decision in any type of situation or scenario. In brief, they are:

1. Know the ground rules you’re dealing with. Ground rules are rules that will only be breached under extreme duress. Look beyond the individuals and their actions to uncover the ground rules that help explain their actions.

2. Reason backward to find the interests. Ask of each possible outcome, “What interests will that outcome serve and for whom?”

3. Find all the facts. Find the facts that all parties, irrespective of their ground rules and interests, agree upon. If you don’t have all these shared facts, you can’t make a sound decision.

4. Stand in the shoes of those affected. If you want your innate ethics sense — your ethics eye — to lead you to sound ethical decisions, you have to exercise empathy and understand the other person’s perspective.

5. Take the global benefit approach. Look at the consequences of your actions in terms of who counts (to be sure that the relevant parties are considered), and what counts as a benefit or harm.

Once we understand these five tools, Pastin shows us how to apply them to bring about agreement between two or more parties who are in a standoff. Woven throughout the book are 10 real-life ethical dilemmas he solved in his role as a business ethics consultant in which we see this model in action. Each case study reads a bit like a detective story. He tells us the scenario, introduces the players and the problems, and leaves us to wonder how it can possibly be resolved. But resolved it is, every time, using Pastin’s elegant process.

Pastin includes advice and guidelines for employees and managers who want to change their culture and create an ethical workplace. He also offers a self-assessment tool, My Ethical Workplace, based on 25 years of research, that businesses can use up to five times in a 12-month period to measure their progress.

I hope this book will meet with wide critical acclaim, because it’s well written and beautifully thought out. It should be lauded for bringing a rather ethereal and lofty topic — ethics — down to earth where it belongs.

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About Patricia Gale

Patricia Gale has written and ghostwritten hundreds of blogs and articles that have appeared on sites such as Psychology Today, Forbes, and Huffington Post, and in countless national newspapers and magazines. Her "beat" is health, business, career, self-help, parenting, and relationships.