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Sunday, November 16, 2008

THE RIGHT THING: WHERE I STAND

This column marks the 250th time "The Right Thing" has appeared as a weekly newspaper column. What began in September 1998 as a monthly business-ethics column evolved into a weekly general-ethics column in February 2004.

Throughout the life of the column, there have been serious ethics eruptions in the news. Sometimes these take the form of corporate CEOs engaging in behavior that is not in the interest of shareholders, employees or the public. Occasionally they involve politicians who stridently portray themselves as protectors of the public good while themselves engaging in lascivious, illegal or unethical behavior. And don't get me started on celebrities who cross ethical lines as often as they partake of the latest herbal wrap.

When such eruptions occur, readers or others invariably chime in with the observation that, in an era of abundant malfeasance, it must be good to be an ethics columnist. That may be true, but it has nothing to do with the plethora of ethically questionable targets that happens to be available to me. There is no joy in seeing others stray wildly from doing the right thing.

It's not, after all, these egregious ethical lapses that present us with our great daily challenges. We know outright wrong when we see it. What has been the challenge for many of my column's readers -- and for me -- is to choose the best answer when we are faced with multiple right choices. Whether you're wondering how fully to disclose your intentions to an employer, how careful to be about using someone else's copyrighted work, how to leave a relationship with your character intact or how to run for office without losing your soul, the challenge is how to think through the choices to come up with the best right answer.

Because people approach ethical choices from different perspectives, it's not surprising that different people choose different right answers. Someone guided by rules might likely arrive at a different conclusion than someone who is driven by the interest of the greater good for the most people, regardless of the rules. My job is to help sort out the questions you should ask in trying to decide the right course of action.

I bring up all of this because readers regularly ask me why I can't simply tell them what to do in a given situation. Short answer: Because that's not how ethical decision-making works. My job is to tell you, my readers, what I believe to be the right thing to do and why I feel that way, based on the information you provide me and the details I collect myself. To think through the situation and decide the best right choice to make is not my job, but yours.

What I hope is that, through seeing how other readers cope with ethical choices, every reader can come away wondering how he or she would react in the same situation, and perhaps begin to give more thought to the consequences of actions before engaging in them.

And, no, Dave in Massachusetts, I do not believe that advising your wife to hit her co-worker back, simply because the co-worker didn't receive a sufficient reprimand from the bosses, is the right thing to do.

c.2008 The New York Times Syndicate (Distributed by The New York Times Syndicate)

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