Sunday, September 02, 2012

Does sleeping well reflect good behavior?

Mark Twain is widely credited as originating the comment: "I did not have time to write you a short letter, so I wrote you a long one instead." While the observation may not have been original to Twain (the philosopher Blaise Pascal appears to have written something very similar almost 200 years earlier, albeit in French), the sentiment holds a lot of merit.

Writing short can be a challenge. And there are times when things simply get lost that should have been said but weren't.

Recently, I included in my column the example of a businessman who, in a prior business, had gone bust. After liquidating his assets, he worked out a deal to pay his creditors pennies on the dollar. Even though he wasn't legally obligated to pay back the full debt, he said he did so because "it's just a moral or ethics issue." He told me: "I have to sleep at night."

Several people who read the column observed that I appeared to be a fan of the "sleep test," a simple ethics test that basically holds that you can gauge if you've made an ethical choice by whether or not you can sleep at night.

As one colleague reminded me, Harry Truman is quoted as saying he never lost any sleep over his decision to use the atomic bombs during World War II. "That's not to say he made the wrong decision," my colleague wrote, "only that it was sufficiently complex that his sleep should have been disturbed."

In his book, Defining Moments: When Managers MustChoose Between Right and Right (Harvard Business School Press, 1997), Joseph L. Badaracco Jr. points out that "people sometimes lie awake at night precisely because they have done the right thing. They understand their decisions have consequences, that success is not guaranteed, and that they will be held accountable for their decisions. . . . In short, if people like Hitler sometimes sleep well and people like Mother Teresa sometimes sleep badly, we can place little faith in simple sleep-test ethics."

My readers, colleagues and Badaracco are correct. Being able to sleep soundly is no more a guarantee that an action you've taken is ethical than is the ability to read about yourself on the front page of your local newspaper without blanching at the report of your actions. Many people would find it abhorrent to have their exploits made public. Some, however, might not care one whit.

Making a true ethical decision takes more than just the ability to sleep well at night. It involves a thorough examination of the consequences of your possible actions. Sometimes we are presented with clear choices of right and wrong, but most often the challenges we face involve choosing the best right answer possible among many possible choices.

For the businessman who paid back his debtors, even when he didn't have to, his decision-making process involved far more than just determining whether he'd be able to sleep well. It was not the only right choice he could have made, but after doing the work of thinking through his various options, he decided it was indeed the best right thing to do.

Knowing that whether or not someone can sleep at night is not a clear indication of having behaved ethically is important enough that it warrants writing a bit longer.  

Jeffrey L. Seglin, author of The Right Thing: Conscience, Profit and Personal Responsibility in Today's Business and The Good, the Bad, and Your Business: Choosing Right When Ethical Dilemmas Pull You Apart, is a lecturer in public policy and director of the communications program at Harvard's Kennedy School.  

Follow him on Twitter: @jseglin  

Do you have ethical questions that you need answered? Send them to 

(c) 2012 JEFFREY L. SEGLIN. Distributed by Tribune MediaServices, Inc.

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