Morality Is Like Nutrition

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In a 60 Minutes interview with Peter Overton, Tom Cruise famously said to Overton “Put your manners back in“.

At yesterdays’ Royal Commission, CBA chief Matt Comyn reflected on a ‘robust discussion’ he had with his predecessor, Ian Narev, on the practice of selling certain insurance policies to people ineligible to make a claim. Comyn revealed Narev’s response was to “temper your sense of justice”.

That advice (or was it a warning?) allegedly made by Narev to Comyn is a good example where had applied ethics been practiced, the outcome might have been significantly different for all concerned.

In this post, I want to touch on and bring light to the importance of ‘applied ethics’.

If the growing amount of research findings about us living in a world of distrust is true, there’s a question I would like to pose to you.

And the question is this:

What does it mean to act ethically or morally?

I’ve asked this question many times over the past twenty-five years during my corporate conference presentations and in-company behaviour change programs.

As you’re reading this post, I wonder how you would personally answer this question?

While researching for my master’s degree in professional ethics, in one of my favourite texts on ethics, I read this statement:

“Morality is a lot like nutrition.” 1

I very much like this analogy, because most of us aren’t experts in nutrition, but we pretty much have an idea of what’s good and what’s bad for us when choosing what we feed ourselves. That doesn’t always mean we make the best decisions to boost our well-being.

Like nutrition, most of us aren’t experts in ethics.

However, also like nutrition, most of us think we’ve got a pretty good handle on what’s right and what’s wrong.

The reality is, right and wrong, especially when it comes to decisions and actions in a corporate environment aren’t as clear-cut as it might first seem.

Unlike most of us, I have actually intensively and extensively studied professional ethics and what I’ve learned over the years as a professional conference speaker and corporate educator is this:

No-one wants to ‘buy’ ethics… until it’s too late!

What I mean by this is, educating leaders and their teams on how to apply ethics into their decisions and actions, isn’t something corporate Australia seem to think is worth investing in… until it’s too late.

Part of the reason for this is most leaders and their teams don’t think they need to be educated on acting ethically or morally. Like nutrition – most of us don’t think we need to be educated on nutrition, but there’s an obesity epidemic!

Another part of the reason is, unless taught correctly, ethics can be BORING, and can very quickly go down the rabbit hole of philosophical theorising and positioning and for most of us, we just don’t have time and for most of us, we want the quick attention-deficit blueprint version.

In my previous post this month, I highlighted the value of the ethical decision-making question known as The Light of Day Test which is:

With this decision I’m about to make or this action I’m about to take, would I make this decision or take this action, if it were held up in the ‘light of day’ for all to see?

This is as close to a quick attention-deficit blueprint version of ethical decision making that I’ve found in all my research.

However, when you dig a little deeper, that question alone, although a great place to start and a practical way forward for leaders and their teams, may not always be enough.

Continuing the analogy between morals and nutrition, just as some nutritionists disagree on what’s good for us to consume, ethicists may disagree on what is the ethical or moral action we might need to take.

It is far beyond the scope of this post to look at the various ethical theories, however, my aim is to clear up something I was asked yesterday by an executive leader.

Her questions to me were:

What is the difference between morality and ethics? Is there a difference in acting morally and acting ethically?

Here’s what I replied:

Morals are set of guiding rules that we as individuals develop over a period of time, through learning, experience and exposure to the communities and societies within which we live.

A community can be a family unit, a footy team, a workplace, a town, and all these form part of the society in which we live.

Ethics is the practice of mindfully reflecting on our moral beliefs and has the aim of challenging, supporting, refining, developing and improving our moral beliefs.

So, to act morally, is to act in ways that are aligned with our beliefs about how we should act. To act ethically, is to reflect on our moral decisions and actions.

With all the Royal Commissions highlighting breaches of trust, it is the practice of ethics – challenging the decisions and actions of corporate representatives and their leaders, that seems to have been lacking.

Narev’s advice to “temper your sense of justice” ought to have set in place a more robust discussion based on applied ethics… starting with the application of the Light of Day Test.

It’s at the Royal Commission, in The Light of Day for all of us to now see, that Narev, Comyn and many others in the finance sector, are now having to reflect ethically on the decisions and actions they took, based on the ‘morally accepted’ practices of the Bank that resulted in significant breaches of trust.



  1. Hinman, L M. (1994). Ethics: A Pluralistic Approach to Moral Theory. 2nd Edition. San Diego: Harcourt Brace College Publishers
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