Sunday, January 12, 2014
The golden cone of silence
In mid-December, my wife and I stopped by a farm stand and garden center in Eastern Massachusetts. We were on our way home and intended to buy some food.
The food section of the market is indoors. There's a large outdoor area that in the summer features plants and in the winter features wreaths and other holiday decorations.
After we purchased our food and headed outdoors to our car, we noticed the evergreen kissing balls that were hanging outdoors near the parking lot. We decided to purchase one of the kissing balls to hang by our front door.
As we were choosing a kissing ball, my wife noticed some loose sprigs of evergreen on the ground along with a loose lone pine cone. She decided it would be OK to scoop up the loose sprigs as well as the pine cone. I didn't think this was OK. The pine cone was, as my wife pointed out, very close to being in the parking lot rather than the outdoor farm stand area. I pointed out that because the pine cone was spray painted gold that it had clearly dropped from a decoration rather than a tree. She remained convinced it was fair game.
I went inside to pay for the kissing ball while my wife took our previous purchases plus her newfound spoils to the car.
When I returned, I noticed a gold pine cone sitting on the ground not far from our car. I opened the car's back hatch, placed the kissing ball safely inside, and then got into the car.
We drove home without incident. But when we pulled up to the house, my wife looked quickly on the floor in front of the passenger seat.
"Where'd my pine cone go?" she asked. It was nowhere to be found.
She was disappointed, but I reminded her that I didn't think it was "her" pine cone in the first place. She disagreed, repeating the argument that it had fallen very near, if not in, the parking lot near where our car was parked.
"Oh well," she responded.
As we walked around the house toward the front door, I pointed out that I hadn't told her that I saw the pine cone lying on the ground as I walked back to the car.
With holidays approaching and company in high supply, our conversation with friends and relatives at some point centered around who was right about the appropriateness of taking the fallen pine cone. There was little consensus on that issue, but clear consensus that I was wrong not to have told my wife I saw the pine cone lying on the ground after she thought she had taken it.
They were right. The right thing would have been for me to have told her that the pine cone was lying on the ground. That would have given her the opportunity to decide whether to take the thing, as I thought she should not, or just leave it there. By concealing that information from her, I never gave her the opportunity to make that decision.
We may disagree with the choices others make and we can challenge those choices. But there's no high ground in withholding information to keep others from making their own choice about right and wrong.
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