Sunday, September 24, 2017

An ancient text teaches us that life's too short not to get along



"Soon you will be dead," can be a great admonition to yourself when trying to put things in perspective. It's also a common refrain in Marcus Aurelius' Meditations, the first offering of our ethics book of the month.

Stay with me. While Meditations was originally written in Greek by a first century Roman Emperor, it's highly readable and seems wildly relevant to a modern audience trying to cope with day-to-day ethical decisions. It's likely Marcus never intended his words to be read by others, but instead used his written observations to help himself gain perspective and keep on going even when all about him seemed filled with obstacles.

Several accessible translations are available in paperback. While I'm no Greek scholar, nor an expert on Marcus Aurelius, I'm a fan of Jacob Needleman and John P. Piazza's The Essential MarcusAurelius, (Tarcher/Penguin, 2008) for its language, although it does not feature all of the meditations. There's something therapeutic about making your way through the entire litany, recognizing that Marcus' struggles in dealing with people and leadership were consistent and ongoing. For a complete translation, Gregory Hays' (Modern Library, 2002) is a good read and the language quite accessible. (It's also fun to toggle back and forth between editions to glean the subtle differences in translations.)

Each meditation is short and can provide some perspective that the woes and travails we face today might not be all that different from those faced almost a couple of thousand years ago.

"When you wake up in the morning, tell yourself: The people I deal with today will be meddling, ungrateful, arrogant, dishonest, jealous, and surly," Marcus writes in meditation 2.1. "They are like this because they can't tell good from evil." Yet, Marcus copes with this observation by recognizing that no matter how flawed other people are, they are still people. "No one can implicate me in ugliness," he continues. "We are born to work together like feet, hands and eyes, like the two rows of teeth, upper and lower. To obstruct each other is unnatural."

Marcus recognizes in meditation 7.22 the power of forgiving others their mistakes and that feeling "affection for people even when they make mistakes is uniquely human." You can do it, he writes, "if you simply recognize that they're human too, that they act out of ignorance, against their will, and that you'll both be dead before long."

The right thing, Marcus suggests (and the only sane thing), is to take responsibility for our own actions. "Ambition means tying your well-being to what other people say or do," Marcus writes in meditation 6.51. "Self-indulgence means tying it to the things that happen to you. Sanity means tying it to your own actions."

As the first pick of "The Right Thing Ethics Book Club," it's an ancient text that can help to remind us that life's too short not to recognize that while we all may be flawed, the right thing is to find a way to work together by remembering we are all human beings, even if some of us are more meddling, ungrateful, arrogant, dishonest, jealous and surly that others. 

Jeffrey L. Seglin, author of The Simple Art of Business Etiquette: How to Rise to the Top by Playing Nice, is a senior 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) 2017 JEFFREY L. SEGLIN. DISTRIBUTED BY TRIBUNE CONTENT AGENCY, LLC.


Sunday, September 17, 2017

Don't let the personal get in the way of the bigger picture



What ethical issues concern people the most?

This September marks the 19th year I've been writing "The Right Thing" column. What began as a monthly business ethicscolumn grew into a weekly general ethics column that is published in newspapers in the United States and Canada. Now, as I write what is column number 765, and it heads into its 20th year, it seems a good time to occasionally look back to try to make some sense of the ethical issues that concern readers the most.

While I've written about corporate malfeasance, lying executives and presidents, philandering CEOs, misguided values statements, overtaxed employees, petty theft, contested inheritances, uncivil political campaigns, cheating professional athletes, and roughly 700 other topics, the ones that garner the most attention are not what I would have expected.

Once the column has runs in the publications, which subscribe to it from the Tribune Content Agency, I post it to the column's blog. I've done this for almost 11 of the 19 years of the column's life. Among other things, the blog analytics allow me to see which columns are viewed the most. (It also allows me to see the column has a far larger readership from The Netherlands than I'd ever expect.)

Rather than large social issues involving politics, business or promiscuous scalawags, the most viewed column over the past 11 years was published in January 2006. The topic? Panhandlers who pick returnable cans and bottles from their neighbors' curbside recycling bins. It had almost twice as many views as the second most-viewed column, which was published in May 2016, and explored what a prospective employee should do when an interviewer tells her that the person she'd be reporting to is "mean." Close on the heels of mean bosses (or inappropriate interviewers, depending on how you view it) was a March 2013 column about cellphone customer service operators insisting they couldn't help when ultimately it turned out they could.

It's the day-to-day ethical challenges we face that seem to interest us most. That's not to say that we're not concerned with the larger world around us, but who among us hasn't spent hours on the telephone trying to resolve a cellphone or cable television or internet service provider issue and come away feeling like it was the end of the world as we know it? These are not world shattering issues, but they are those that seem to consume us day in and day out. They too often are the issues that get in the way of us being able to address larger global issues such as war, famine and social injustices.

The right thing perhaps is to keep perspective. While we might be drawn to stories of recyclable cans, bad customer service and inappropriate job interviewers, we shouldn't allow these day-to-day issues to get in the way of doing what we can do to live an honest life and leave the world a bit of a better place than when we entered it. 

Jeffrey L. Seglin, author of The Simple Art of Business Etiquette: How to Rise to the Top by Playing Nice, is a senior 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) 2017 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