State University of New York Institute of Technology
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Ego and Ethics

The ego.  This is a great topic.  The recent article in Ethics Newsline describes it as part of our built in survival instinct.  I’ll buy that.  Unfortunately the ego is ultimately a severe handicap to the betterment of the human condition.  How so?  Well, the bible says to do nothing from rivalry or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourself.   Or, as Neil Young says, a little love and affection in everything you do could make the world a better place with or without you.   Neither the words of God or Neil leave much allowance for ego.    Is that how we go through life?  Ever seen a reality show?  These programs are a showcase for self-glorification and vindictive behavior and they are jeopardizing society by training us that this is the way to conduct oneself, and so we have parents getting into fist fights at little league games.

 I like the way the article refers to over-sized trucks as an extension of ego.  I used to have a long commute to work and would see these trucks on the road all the time.  I call them “Viagra wagons.”  I’ll bet at least fifty percent of the time they have one of those decals in the back window with the little cartoon character that looks like Calvin from Calvin and Hobbs, peeing on the words “ex-wife.”  Well, perhaps there’s a reason that guy is divorced.  He probably didn’t all of a sudden become that egotistical the minute he signed the papers.

 We might have a better go at life if we learn to practice a little meekness.  I know this isn’t an adjective that conjures up the image of anything that we as Americans would call iconic.  It doesn’t really make you think of Clint Eastwood movies and it’s often equated with weakness.  That is really too bad, because it actually takes strength to bridle ones tongue, to put your ego or immediate self-interest on the back burner in order to do what is best for everyone.  It’s admittedly contrary to human behavior.  That’s why the bible calls it a gift of the spirit.  It’s not part of the natural human condition. 

Meekness doesn’t mean we are supposed to somehow be immune to anger.  The bible also says to be angry and do not sin.  That tells me I should expect to be angry sometimes.  In virtually any arena of human coexistence like the workplace or marriage, anger is often aroused by even the slightest suggestion that you might be wrong about something.  It takes meekness to consider that the claim might be true but instead we go from zero to sixty in two seconds because our poor, precious ego has been bruised.   That’s what happens when two sinners try to occupy the same space.  Anger can also be aroused by a situation that doesn’t serve your immediate self-interests.  I can use myself as an example.  Early in my career as a surveyor, I was working on a big, long-term, high-profile job in Albany.  I went there nearly every day for months.  It was my first prevailing wage job, and I desperately needed the money, or so I thought anyway.  I don’t really need much of anything.   Well one day I came to work and was informed that there was another survey, a one day job that had to get done that day.  My partner, also my crew chief had to go to the Albany job, as it was a high profile job and he was the most experienced surveyor on staff.  Someone not so qualified or experienced was going with him.  I was going to the smaller job because I was the best man for it, more experienced than the individual going with my partner to Albany.  Well naturally I didn’t see it that way, so I was stomping around the office slamming things and cursing, like a monkey in a cage throwing its’ poo at the other monkeys.  Sometimes that’s how I imagine God must see us.  My employer had come up with the best plan for the company, but I wasn’t accepting my part in it.  A meeker person would have submitted to the situation.  I wasn’t that person at that point in my life.  My poor, precious ego was bruised.

So what’s the ego got to do with ethics?  Well, when we view a situation or someone’s words as an attack on our ego, there’s no telling what we might do, but it probably won’t be the right thing.  The kid at McDonalds is mad because his boss asked him to do something so he spits on someone’s burger. A field employee feels slighted by the way his boss is treating him so he spends as much time as possible goofing off.  Some client is getting billed for that time.  They don't know that the job didn't take eight hours but only six and then you went for ice cream and to the mall.  Maybe someone doesn't get the raise they feel they deserved so they start stealing stuff from the office.  It's our natural instinct to feel a need to get even when we perceive we have been abused in some way.  Let's try to fight the good fight.  Let's try to do our jobs like we're doing it for the Lord, even if our boss really is the biggest jerk in the whole world.  I don't believe there's any other way I'll ever hear those six words I long to hear; "well done, good and faithful servant."


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