Sunday, March 27, 2016

Kids and politicians should avoid lying



When I was a kid growing up in Northern New Jersey, my parents would regularly shop at a supermarket that was next door to a discount department store. The department store had an arcade that consisted of a dozen games. My favorite was a baseball game where you used one button to control the speed of a pitched ball bearing and another button to swing a bat at the ball. The thrill of getting enough base hits to score some runs was enough to keep my 11-year-old self-occupied until my parents finished grocery shopping and came to retrieve me.

On one occasion, I saw that there was an unplayed game left on the baseball machine so I finished playing it. When that game was complete, another game started up. I played that one too. And then another. Finally, after about 10 minutes, the guy who regularly repaired the arcade machines walked over to me and asked, "Did you pay for that game?"

I hesitated, but could only think to respond, "I only have a few hits left."

That was when he pointed to the coin slots that had black electrical tape over them. No one could have inserted any coins to play. He knew I hadn't paid to play. I knew it too.

A question that I've received from readers in one form or another over the past several months is whether it's ethical for politicians to deny responsibility for something they've said or done. I suspect they know it's not.

I was 11 when it was confirmed for me that denying something that clearly I'd done was not the right thing to do.

For politicians, who are adults with rich life experiences, they should know better than to deny the obvious. It's not just that their earlier comments can be trotted out on tape to make them look foolish as they contradict themselves. More than one politician has found himself or herself mocked by Jon Stewart, Trevor Noah, John Oliver, Samantha Bee, Stephen Colbert, or another late-night comedian who runs rapid fire video clips catching the politician contradicting or denying something he or she had previously said.

Getting caught may be a deterrent, but it's not the reason not to lie. If politicians expect voters to trust them, they should take responsibility for their words.

It's reasonable for politicians to withhold information in the interest of national security. It's a whole different thing when a politician says that maybe a demonstrator at one of his events "should have been roughed up" or says of another that "I'd like to punch him in the face" and then tells an anchor of a network morning news show, "I don't condone violence."

Just as I was confronted by the arcade game worker years ago, panicked, and didn't want to get caught doing something wrong, it's easy to imagine how politicians caught behaving inconsistently or badly might panic and reach for what they think is strength in a lie.

I was wrong, but I was 11 years old. Adult politicians should know better. The right thing would be for them to think about what they're saying before they say it. But when they do say it, they should own their words. 

Jeffrey L. Seglin, author of The Simple Art of Business Etiquette: How to Rise to the Top by Playing Nice, is a lecturer in public policy and director of the communications program at Harvard's Kennedy School. He is also the administrator of www.jeffreyseglin.com, a blog focused on ethical issues. 

Do you have ethical questions that you need answered? Send them to rightthing@comcast.net. 

Follow him on Twitter: @jseglin 

(c) 2015 JEFFREY L. SEGLIN. DISTRIBUTED BY TRIBUNE CONTENT AGENCY, LLC.


Sunday, March 20, 2016

Does donating to charity make a bad act good?



Does giving away ill-gotten gains to charity erase the unethical act involved in acquiring those gains? B.A., a reader from Columbus, Ohio, wonders if she can forgive herself for her actions at her local grocery story.

As B.A. was finishing up her grocery shopping, she decided to use the self-checkout counter. When she began to scan her items for checkout, she noticed that two $20 bills were sitting in the cash return slot of the register. The customer before her had apparently forgotten to take her change.

"I pocketed the money," writes B.A., who admits she made no effort to see if the person who had checked out before her was still within sight. She justified her action by reminding herself of the "finders, keepers, losers, weepers," refrain.

Before she left the store, however, B.A. writes that she noticed a young, distraught woman walking back and forth near the register. B.A. was pretty certain that she was the customer who had left the money behind.

With the two $20 bills in her pocket, B.A. had the opportunity to ask the woman if she had forgotten her change. She even could have asked the distraught woman how much she'd left behind as a way of trying to verify that the money was indeed hers.

"And still I kept the $40," she writes. "I figured it was a lesson learned that she would never forget."

Later, B.A. writes that she realized "the unethical and immoral position of her action." So she donated the $40 to charity.

"My guilt is all too palpable," she writes. "Hopefully, confession is good for the soul and I can forgive myself while not forgetting."

Giving the money to charity might have helped the charity out by fattening its coffers a bit, but the action doesn't diminish the fact that B.A. kept what wasn't hers. An honest shopper might have turned the cash into the store manager. Many readers might roll their eyes over such honesty arguing that if B.A. didn't know whose change it was then it was no more wrong to keep it than it would be to keep extra change dispensed mistakenly by a vending machine. The right thing would have been to turn in the cash to the store's manager.

But B.A. did have a good idea who the money belonged to, so she can't use the excuse that returning the money to the store wouldn't have resulted in getting it to its rightful owner anyway. Without hesitation, she should have asked the distraught woman if she was OK and then to ask her how much she had lost once she disclosed her issue. If the amounts matched, the right thing would have been to return the money.

Giving the money to a charity may have eased B.A.'s guilty conscious, but the contribution doesn't change that when given the opportunity to what was right, she chose to do wrong. The guilt she feels now may help to keep her from engaging in similar acts in the future. But nothing she does, short of the improbable task of now returning the cash to its rightful owner, will make a wrong act right. 

Jeffrey L. Seglin, author of The Simple Art of Business Etiquette: How to Rise to the Top by Playing Nice, is a lecturer in public policy and director of the communications program at Harvard's Kennedy School. He is also the administrator of www.jeffreyseglin.com, a blog focused on ethical issues. 

Do you have ethical questions that you need answered? Send them to rightthing@comcast.net. 

Follow him on Twitter: @jseglin 

(c) 2015 JEFFREY L. SEGLIN. DISTRIBUTED BY TRIBUNE CONTENT AGENCY, LLC.


Sunday, March 13, 2016

Should parents let their kids watch politicians in action?



Seven years ago, I started a column by recounting how I had written the words "hard work," "honesty," "courage," "fair play," "tolerance," "curiosity," "loyalty" and "patriotism" on the blackboard before I started teaching an evening class on professional ethics on Jan. 20, 2009. I then asked the students what these words were.

"Values," a few of them responded.

"Where have you heard them before?" I asked.

"In Barack Obama's inaugural address this afternoon," one of the students responded, correctly.

"These things are old," Obama had said. "These things are true. They have been the quiet force of progress throughout our history."

In teaching ethics, I typically tell the students that while I might be able to help give them the tools to think through ethical decisions, I can't change the values they bring with them into the class.

At the time, I observed how people with wildly different political views could share values. Obama and his opponent in that election, Sen. John McCain (R-Arizona), displayed this during the 2008 U.S. presidential election -- McCain when he took a talk-radio host to task for questioning Obama's religion and Obama when he refuted supporters' who attempted to capitalize on the pregnancy of the then unmarried, teenage daughter of McCain's running mate, Gov. Sarah Palin (R.-Alaska).

I was reminded of these observations after receiving questions from some readers about whether, given the tenor of the current presidential campaign, they should allow their children to watch the Republican candidates' televised debates, or whether it was appropriate for school teachers to discuss the debates. There was concern that seeing presidential candidates call one another names, accusing one another of being liars, or attempting to poke fun at the size of one another's hands might set a bad example for their kids.

"Is it right to let my kids see adults interrupt one another and bully one another on the public stage?"

While the tenor of the debates may be unsettling, I'm not sure the lessons about values is any less tangible. Just as voters could grasp a sense of McCain's and Obama's values by how they behaved and responded to comments and events, those watching the current candidates can do the same.

When Gov. John Kasich (R-Ohio) responds, "I'm notbiting," to a question from a debate moderator trying to pit him against one of his competitors, it tells viewers something about him. During the Conservative Political Action Conference, when Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Florida) responds to a CNN reporter's question by saying, "where I grew up, if someone keeps punching someone in the face, eventually someone has to stand up and punch them back," that tells viewers something about his values, as well.

The right thing is for every parent to decide what's appropriate for their children to view on television in their own homes. It would seem a lost opportunity for teachers not to use the current political campaign as grist for lessons in civics and values.

Even if a candidate shares our values, he or she might not get our vote if his or her political views do not match our own. But regardless of their political views, voting for someone whose values voters clearly find abhorrent -- someone to whom they'd be reluctant to expose their kids -- is going to prove a much more difficult lever to pull. 

Jeffrey L. Seglin, author of The Simple Art of Business Etiquette: How to Rise to the Top by Playing Nice, is a lecturer in public policy and director of the communications program at Harvard's Kennedy School. He is also the administrator of www.jeffreyseglin.com, a blog focused on ethical issues. 

Do you have ethical questions that you need answered? Send them to rightthing@comcast.net. 

Follow him on Twitter: @jseglin 


(c) 2015 JEFFREY L. SEGLIN. DISTRIBUTED BY TRIBUNE CONTENT AGENCY, LLC.

Talking Politics Over Turkey

For those wrestling with how to have a civil discussion over a holiday meal, a discussion with HKS PolicyCast