Code of Ethics and the Four Way Test

Below is a presentation that I prepared to present today for local high school students about ethics and the four way test.


Everyone needs a Code of Ethics that they can live with each day.

“You must be the change you want to see in the world.” – Mahatma Ghandi

Since it was developed in 1932 by Herbert J. Taylor, who later became RI president, it has never ceased to be relevant.   Its four brief questions that are not based on culture or religion.   Instead, they are a simple checklist for ethical behavior.   They transcend generations and national borders.

The 4 Way Test of Rotary has endured so long because it teaches of the value of ethical actions within ourselves.

1. IS IT THE TRUTH? – to value truth is a sign of nobility.   The pursuit of truth is the avowed purpose of any scientific inquiry. TRUTH is objective and sometimes bitter to confront – especially the TRUTH about ourselves.   Nonetheless it is an inescapable TRUTH – that in the end we will all have to face the TRUTH about ourselves – THE FINAL ANALYSIS. As Shakespeare so eloquently put it in Hamlet – when we journey to “that undiscovered country from whose bourn no traveller returns.”   So perhaps Rotary’s first lesson is – TO THINE OWNSELF BE TRUE.

2. IS IT FAIR TO ALL CONCERNED? – A close ally to truth is fairness. The TRUTH is only a worthwhile objective if we use it fairly. Fairness itself is a controversial and contested concept.   But in simple parlance, it means treating everyone with equal concern and respect.   Respect for one another is a key ingredient of the 4 Way Test.   As the American writer Jackson Brown Jr. said, “Live so that when your children think of fairness and integrity, they think of you.”

3. WILL IT BUILD GOODWILL AND BETTER FRIENDSHIPS – this is the key to the Rotary way.   It is our friendship that binds us in a common bond of service to humanity.    That bond must be preserved at all times.   Sometimes even at the expense of TRUTH. The TRUTH is the tool by which we are supposed to build goodwill and better friendships – NOT DESTROY IT.

4. WILL IT BE BENEFICIAL TO ALL CONCERNED?   This requires us to consider the value of TRUTH within the context in which it is applied.   We need to asked whether the context requires us to subjugate the TRUTH to some other value like – KINDNESS or COMPASSION?   There are situations where the TRUTH is compromised or hidden in order to pursue a greater benefit.   To blindly pursue TRUTH at any cost is not the Rotary way. To do a greater good – compromise may be required.

It has been said that Rotary service is not a destination, it is a journey.   Wisdom teaches us to value friendship and cherish it as does our 4 Way Test.    I am reminded of the saying:  “Yesterday I was clever, so I wanted to change the world.   Today I am wise, so I am changing myself.”

–Thomas Smith


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