Friday, August 14, 2009

Abraham Lincoln On Ethics

An article on Lincoln's personal code of ethics and his view of business ethics, based on an excerpt from the one-man play “Lincoln Live”
by Gene Griessman

“What does it mean to be ethical?

 As far as I’m concerned, it means treating others the way you’d want to be treated.  

 I never joined a church because the churches of my day required you to subscribe to a particular doctrine or creed.  I told a minister who was trying to recruit me that if I ever found a church that would inscribe over its altar only two requirements, I would join that church with all my heart: The first requirement would be, ‘Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart.’ The second requirement would be, ‘Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself.’

I reckon that anyone who keeps those two commandments will never have a problem with any legitimate code of ethics.  The second great commandment is really the basis of the Golden Rule—loving your neighbor as yourself.

Being ethical means being honest.   Perhaps the greatest asset was being known as Honest Abe.  It was a good name, and I believe that a good name is more to be desired than great riches.  

I made it a practice to be so clear that no honest man could misunderstand me and no dishonest one could successfully misrepresent me

As you know, I’m a lawyer; and, yes, there were lawyer jokes back in the 1800s.  I remember a story about a preacher back in Indiana who was conducting a funeral service for a prominent lawyer.  At one point in his eulogy, the minister said, “Here lies a successful lawyer and an honest man.”  A woman in the audience whispered to her friend:  “We need to take a peek to see if there are two bodies in the casket?”
I happen to believe that a lawyer can be honest.  In fact I found that clients often had more trouble telling the truth than lawyers did.  

Here’s some advice I gave young lawyers:  “Resolve to be honest at all events.  If, in your own judgment, you cannot be an honest lawyer, resolve to be honest without being a lawyer.   Choose some other occupation, rather than one in the choosing of which you do, in advance, consent to be a knave.”

If you’re ethical, you’ll strive to be knowledgeable.  In the 1800s it was common for people to talk about “living up to the light” that one had.  It was an excellent way of admitting in advance that one could be mistaken because of lack of knowledge.   I like that concept, and used it in my Second Inaugural Address: “With firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right” is the way I said it in my second inaugural address.

But there's something more important than knowing the truth, and that’s knowing what to do with the truth.  A village idiot might stumble upon the truth, tell everybody in sight, and do irreparable damage. Being wise involves knowing when to tell the truth, knowing how to tell the truth, knowing who to tell it to, and even deciding if you should tell it at all.   Some truth should never be told--like when my wife Mary asked me what I thought of one of her ridiculous-looking new hats.  

Being ethical doesn’t mean that you be suicidal. 

If you’re ethical, you’ll strive to use good judgment.  The true rule in determining to accept or reject any thing is not whether it has any evil in it; but whether it has more of evil than of good.   There are few things wholly evil or wholly good.  Almost every thing…is an inseparable compound of the two so that our best judgment of the preponderance between them is continually demanded."


  1. Thanks for this post on ethics by Lincoln. I have observed that many people these days tend to forget what is ethical and unethical, which makes this world chaotic. Thus, an article like this, from a great and famous man whose ideals are worthy of emulation, is always a good reminder, making your blog a valuable resource for readers.

    Eli, Business Sphere

  2. Hi Guys,

    Dropping by to say hi and to see what is new over here on your side of the world and things seem great as always :) Will just be reading here for a while :)

    In the mean time come and visit my virtual streets :)

    Empty Streets 1027
    1027 Music Central
    Metz's Secret Garden
    Call Center Life:

    Hope that your week is continuing to be a fabulous one and stress free.

    Take care always,

  3. abe, was the man, post more , ilike the way you think and write