One definition of ethics is a code of behavior – rules made and accepted by a specific group of people(s) to standardize what is considered fair and acceptable behavior to this group. Morals concerns itself with the distinction between good and evil, right and wrong. Perhaps you don’t agree with these definitions.
Good writing frequently deals with the clash between ethics and morals. So, is there a distinction between the two? Can ethical and moral conduct clash? Can we act ethically, yet be immoral? How about the other way around?
Here is a quick story of ethics versus morality. Subtle or not? You be the judge.
I answer the phone quickly, after one ring. Punctual as it should be for a judge.
“Is this the interpreter?” a severe female voice asks me on the other end of the line.
“Yes. Good morning, Judge Lint. I’m ready for the telephone hearing.”
“Okay. Let’s swear you in. Give me a moment to call the other parties. Actually, the employer will not be a part of the hearing. I will be collecting information and testimony from only the employee, Mr. Perez.”
I nod stupidly into the phone as if Judge Lint could see me. I swear in under oath and wait for Judge Lint to set up the telephone conference. Three clicks later Mr. Perez’s telephone picks up. It is a voicemail.
I hear a frustrated puff on the other side of the phone from Judge Lint before she begins to leave her voice message.
“Good morning, Mr. Perez. This is Judge Lint from unemployment court. I’m calling about our nine o’clock scheduled telephone hearing. When you get this message please call my office.” Judge Lint goes on for a few more sentences, and I scramble to write it all down in my notepad.
My turn. I am impressed at Judge Lint’s professional message: quick, sharp, and to the point. A little long for me to repeat precisely word for word – my memory can only hold so much – yet clear and succinct nonetheless. I open my mouth to repeat Judge Lint’s words.
I close my mouth as I realize Judge Lint has just hung up. I shake my head in puzzlement, this time all too happy the phone is hiding my confused frown. I had not had a chance to utter a word.
“Well interpreter, I will hang up now. We will try Mr. Perez in 15 minutes again. Expect my call then.” The same strong, commanding tone of authority.
Wait!, I wanted to yell but clamped my jaw tight to find better words. I did not know how to begin – how to unfreeze my tongue from the shock. Who was I to tell the judge how to do her job?
“Excuse me, Judge Lint. Before you hang up –“ I pause.
“Yes?” she answers, her voice annoyed at my interruption of her morning. Her exasperated tone probably speaks to the piles of work she has waiting on her desk –I am only making her day longer. But I have a job too. As an interpreter I have to ensure communication. How to proceed? Her severe tone has made it perfectly clear she finds my interruption an unwanted annoyance.
“I just wanted to point out before you hung up that you left the message to Mr. Perez in English.”
I wait for a comment. The silence only thickens on the other end. It makes me wonder if Judge Lint has not understood my meaning or if I just irritated her even more. My throat feels dry.
“Yes?” she finally said, her tone now flat.
“Well, I just wanted to point out that I was not able to repeat your message in Spanish. Mr Perez might not understand and be able to call back.”
“Oh.” Judge Lint’s voice is now splashed with light amusement. “That makes sense. Let me call back. Can you just repeat my previous message in Spanish on his voicemail?”
Now it is my turn to be silent. My job is to ensure communication, not relay messages . A small difference for some perhaps, but leaving my own message felt professionally unethical –at minimum wrong. Hearing a message from me alone is very different than hearing Judge Lint’s voice repeated in Spanish by an interpreter.
“I’m sorry Judge Lint. I will need you to leave your own message. I will then repeat it the best I can in Spanish.”
More annoyed silence. By now we have spent more time not speaking on the phone than talking.
“Okay,” she finally says. “I will call back.”
The judge left the second message, this time pausing for me to repeat it in Spanish. Then, with a stiff, courteous farewell, Judge Lint hung the phone.
I take a deep breath, count to three to settle my stomach, hang the phone and go directly to take a long shower.