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Sunday, December 17, 2006

THINKING ABOUT ETHICS IN A VACUUM

Three years ago I was asked to give a welcoming address to new students at Emerson College, where I teach. My oldest grandson happened to be about to start kindergarten, so -- figuring that the concerns about starting a new school don't change much from childhood to the teen years -- I asked Evan if he had any worries.

"Two things," he said. "Making new friends and falling down."

I told the incoming class about Evan's concerns. I assured them that they would make plenty of friends, and that those friends would be there to pick them up if they should stumble.

Evan's advice immediately came to mind when James Winter, a reader from Baltimore, e-mailed to ask whom I myself turn to for advice in dealing with the ethical questions that readers toss my way. Winter is generous enough to imagine that "the occasion is rare indeed" when I find it necessary to turn to others for help, but in reality nothing is further from the truth.

Whether you're a seasoned ethicist or a complete beginner, ethics is not done in a vacuum. Rarely can I simply sit down and concoct a full-blown, thoughtful response to a reader's question. To bang out a glib observation with an amusing punch line might win me a chuckle at the reader's expense, but it would do little to help the reader think through an important choice -- and, even if the issue at hand is a minor one, the ethical issue that it raises is often important.

My challenge is to try to look past the superficial meaning of readers' questions and see what the readers aren't telling me, what motivated them to ask their questions in the first place. So I often return to questioners to see if I can better grasp what it is that they're trying to resolve. Whether it's through conversation or through correspondence, the questioner is often my best resource.

My resource pool reaches beyond the original source, of course. If a question falls into a specialized area about which I know absolutely nothing, I seek out an expert. If a question comes up that involves a skull being stolen from a graveyard, it never hurts to check in with an authority on cemetery law. But most of the time that isn't the case. Usually I turn to the same places to which you'd turn: to intelligent colleagues, friends and family members. I'm lucky that I can also rely on the wisdom of my students and the regular readers of this column.

Then, of course, there is the education I've received and the books that I've read. Often the perfect thought is already in my head, put there by some author whose work I've been fortunate enough to read.

For example: "Ethics is how we behave when we decide we belong together," Margaret Wheatley and Myron Kellner Rogers wrote in A Simpler Way (Berrett-Koehler, 1999).

Shortly after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, three women -- a Muslim, a Christian and a Jew -- decided to get together and write a children's book that would help explain to their own children and to others what their three faiths had in common. Instead their meetings turned into confrontations, often revelatory ones, about their own and one another's faiths.

The result of those meetings is "The Faith Club: A Muslim, a Christian, a Jew: Three Women Search for Understanding" (Free Press, 2006), by Ranya Idliby, Suzanne Oliver and Priscilla Warner. The book is a wonderful recounting of how three women chose to behave when they decided they belonged together. ["The Faith Club" is available at The Faith Club: A Muslim, A Christian, A Je... ]

When we're trying to sort through the gray maze of difficult ethical choices, the right thing to do -- and that turns out to be the question that Winter really was asking -- is to avoid making those choices in isolation. We should have faith that, on those occasions when we fall down, our friends will help to steady us.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Jeffrey Seglin has posed two questions that I would like to answer together. They are "Thinking about ethics in a vacuum" (December 17, 2006) and "Honesty is a great sleeping aid."(December 10, 2006) The rationale that humans can be caught up in justifying certain behaviors can sometimes be astonishing. For example, a certain cashier that I will call Rob accidently overpaid me $ 10 when I bought goods through his checkstand, but I did not notice it till I was away from the store. Then a couple of weeks later, I was at another store of the same chain in Midvale, and their garlic bread was 50 cents cheaper, than the store I shopped at in Sugarhouse. I had been gouged over $ 50 dollars in garlic bread over a year period of time, by the store in Sugarhouse. The store manager had been setting his own prices, outside of corporate guidelines and pocketing the excess profits. Still, after self reflection, I got Rob and sat him down in a booth at the deli, and explained that I wanted to make it right, and repaid the $ 10. I complained to the corporate headquarters and they let the store manager go from his position.

I was in Justice Court one time, and the Justice of the Peace found everyone that stood before him guilty. He even fined this auto salesmen who was selling his own vehicle on the auto lot where he worked. After lengthy research at a local law school library, I filed a complaint with the state Judicial Conduct Commission, where they finally removed this individual from the bench.

Lastly, I was working out at a university gymnasium, when two black men were accused of assaulting a campus police officer. Having seen the entire incident, the officer had lied in his report. I called the Ogden NAACP and informed them what had happened, after seeing an article in the university newspaper. The woman with the NAACP asked me to write a detailed statement concerning the incident, and I did dropping it off in the mail slot on 24th street. Because I chose to stand up for others, other injustices did not take place, and Mister Seglin, "...Honesty is a great sleeping aid...." May you and your readers have a happy holiday season.

Todd Brklacich