In light of a number of events that have transpired over the past year, the elements required to live well and live ethically have been a frequent topic of public and private discussion. Despite this fact, one question has gone largely unexamined outside of academic circles, namely: might living well depend on doing what is right and vice versa? This should be remedied, as philosophers and psychologists have uncovered a range of potential connections between well-being and ethics that are of great practical concern.

First, it has been proposed both by ancient philosophers like Plato and Aristotle and by a number of contemporary thinkers that engaging in ethical behaviors enhances well-being. This has been tested experimentally and the results are encouraging. For example, in a study lead by Professor Michael Steger from the University of Louisville, it was found that by doing things like volunteering one’s time, giving money to a person in need, or expressing gratitude for something someone did, participants were able to improve their well-being, or more specifically, their degree of life satisfaction to a greater degree than by engaging in self-serving activities like going on a walk or attending a sporting event.

So there seems to be some preliminary evidence that suggests that doing good is good for you. But what about the other way around? Might being well lead one to behave more ethically? Some researchers seem to think so. For example, in his meta-analysis on studies that examine the benefits of happiness, Professor Sonja Lyubomirsky from the University of California, Riverside, found that:

positive affect experienced at work has been related to intentions to perform behaviors that are beyond the call of duty” and that “positive moods experienced at work have also been related to actual prosocial organizational behavior.

Similarly, in their study on the relationship between mood (referred to as affect) and corporate philanthropy, Professors Leon Zoltoy and Don O’Sullivan reported that their findings:

underline that ethical corporate decision making is infused by affect. Thus, the aim of encouraging ethical corporate decision making—such as the decision to engage in corporate giving—can be advanced by attending to and shaping the affective state of key decision makers.

Clearly then, insofar as one desires to maintain a workplace full of ethical employees, the importance of caring for their health and happiness should not be overlooked.

According to many philosophers of ethics, not only is well-being a product and a cause of ethical behavior, but it also plays a role in determining what we are morally obligated to do. For example, according to Utilitarianism, we are morally obligated to perform whatever action available to us will result in the greatest net-balance of well-being to ill-being in the world. According to W.D. Ross’s ethical pluralism, an obligation to promote well-being sits alongside duties like fidelity, gratitude, and justice. In either case, it turns out that when determining how to behave ethically, we must always consider the well-being of others.

Facilitate Ethical Behavior

In light of these connections between ethics and well-being, there are a number of key takeaways for those who wish to successfully achieve their aims of behaving ethically, living well, and improving the lives of others. Given that the evidence is mounting that behaving ethically makes one better off, employers should start by offering group activities that encourage employees to behave in cooperative, prosocial, and ethical ways. For example, organizations could provide opportunities for their employees to do volunteer work on a retreat or team building activity and even incentivize them to do so.

Focus On Why Well-Being Matters

While employers are becoming increasingly aware of the monetary benefits of having happy and healthy employees, it is important to bear in mind that there are other reasons for investing in wellness. For example, if being well leads people to behave ethically, then companies can potentially avoid a wide variety of human resource headaches by ensuring that their employees are happy and healthy. Additionally, if our moral obligations are at least partially determined by the impact that our actions will have on other people, then employees deserve to be happy in their work environment regardless of whether or not the company for which they work is made better off in the process.

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