Ethics in Creativity

Are ethics and creativity in conflict? What tensions exist between them and what responsibilities do they hold to one another? A set of studies recently came out concerning the ethical behavior of creative people. Coverage by The Harvard Business Review included the headline “Why Creative People Are More Likely to be Dishonest” and offered an unflattering assessment. Aside from granting creative personalities the asset of thinking outside the box, the article noted that such people “see creativity as rare and believe that they deserve a bigger box.”

What lies behind this issue? Is creative thinking with its inherent lack of boundaries always at risk of leading a person into unstable ethical ground?

Think about what it means to be creative.

A Google search of “signs you are a creative person” brings up enough questionable, occasionally insulting content to reinforce the notion that no one is quite sure what creativity actually is (Lifehack.com currently has two different lists and they include things like being “irresponsibly responsible” and an “inability to relate to others”). Dictionary.com plays it safe on creativity with “the ability to transcend traditional ideas, rules, patterns, relationships, or the like and to create meaningful new ideas, forms, methods, interpretations, etc.” Way to live your truth, Dictionary.com, with the “etc.” – as if one must be creative in order to complete the definition. Most can at least agree that at its heart creativity results in bringing new into being.

Think about what it means to be ethical.

The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy states that ethics involves “recommending concepts of right and wrong conduct.” These “concepts” tend to be agreed upon by a group, as opposed to being personally-held morals. They’re guidelines.

Ethics uphold traditional beliefs.

Creativity, however, tends to eschew the traditional in favor of the new. Creativity supports the innovative and celebrates disruption. Ethics leans toward the more established. Synonyms for ethics include convention and imperative. Synonyms for creative include visionary and inspired. Are they in perpetual conflict? Is there any meeting in the middle?

Rather than limit ourselves to what these terms mean I suggest we look at what they do: the intentions behind their appearance.

We are ethical not to lay down a lot of rules.

We are ethical to make the place we inhabit gentler, more considered or more thoughtful. An ethical standard makes our shared existence more beautiful. Kinder. In short, it makes the world a more tolerable place to live. A better place.

We are creative not to make a lot of stuff.

We are creative to create meaning. Create change. Create a difference. Create an impact. To make the world gentler, more considered or more thoughtful. More beautiful. Easier perhaps. Joyful even. Or we might just create to make the world a more tolerable place to live. But it will be better.

Ah-ha.

A meeting in the middle.

With this in mind, how now will you ensure an ethical application of creativity? There are numerous professional codes of conduct available for almost any craft you can name (yes, even for comic book writers. There are myriad codes, creeds, canons, guidelines, rules, principles and standards.

So I will leave you with just one piece of advice for dealing with the tension between creativity and ethics:

Do better.

What do you think? Have you ever run into ethical quandaries while performing creative work?

Recently, I spoke on this topic with the Dallas chapter of CreativeMornings. You can watch the video here.