Sunday, November 20, 2022

Is a partner wrong not to agree it's time to behave differently?

     For some time, I’ve been sitting on a question raised by a handful of readers who happened to share a practice in their marriage that caused them to wonder about its ethical intricacies. The practice went something like this: As one member of the marriage spent money on themselves, the other felt it only fair that they spend an equal amount, even if they didn’t really desire anything at that moment. Judging from the questions, the practice evolved from some sense that the partners didn’t entirely trust one another to be responsible with money so they better spend equivalent amounts before the resources ran out.

I suspect there was more behind the motivation to keep score on who spent what, but the underlying premise was it was only fair that if partner A got whatever, then partner B deserved to get an equal whatever. The question I received typically arrived after one of the partners wanted to stop this practice while the other one didn’t. Was their partner’s choice not to stop unethical, was the question.

Let me remind readers that I am not a marriage counselor, psychologist or any sort of psychotherapist. My approach to therapy, I sometimes joke, would be to hear what behavior is bothering a client and then tell them to knock it off. If they arrived at the next session without having knocked off that behavior I would double my rates, and then proceed to double them each time the client showed up not having resolved the problem. While I might find such an approach inspired, I am confident it does not make for good psychotherapy. I don’t know, because I am not a therapist.

But the question of whether it’s unethical for a partner not to agree to stop a joint behavior because the other partner wants to change is one I can address. The short answer is that no, it is not inherently unethical behavior if someone doesn’t agree to stop doing something we don’t want them to do.

There are behaviors we might not like in others, behaviors with which we disagree, behaviors which we wish weren’t so, but that doesn’t make them unethical. In her essay, “On Morality,” published in "Slouching Towards Bethlehem," Joan Didion wrote: “Because when we start deceiving ourselves into thinking not that we want something or need something, not that it is a pragmatic necessity for us to have it, but that it is a moral imperative that we have it, then is when we join the fashionable madmen, and then is when the thin whine of hysteria is heard in the land, and then is when we are in bad trouble.”

I agree. Simply because we disagree with a behavior does not make it unethical.

Taking the time to find out why there is enough of a lack of trust in one another to feel the need for such a tit-for-tat practice seems the right thing to do rather than to perseverate about who is right and who wrong. If the services of a strong marriage counselor or therapist is needed to kick-start and mediate such a conversation, then that seems better money spent than trying to buy stuff simply to keep up with a partner’s outlays.

Do you have ethical questions that you need to have answered? Send them to jeffreyseglin@gmail.com

Follow him on Twitter @jseglin

(c) 2022 JEFFREY L. SEGLIN. Distributed by TRIBUNE CONTENT AGENCY, LLC.

Sunday, November 13, 2022

Check yourself when riding with others

“Check yourself,” an older woman who was seated on the subway car in Boston yelled quite loudly and clearly agitatedly at the young man who was standing next to her. “Your backpack keeps hitting me.”

The young man shifted a bit presumably so his backpack would be behind him and not knocking against the seated woman next to him. No luck.

“Just take the backpack off,” she yelled, repeating: “Check yourself.”

Boston’s Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority can be an amazingly efficient way to get to work. I ride it every weekday morning. Most typically, it is anything but efficient. As more riders returned this year, the MBTA claimed it was short-staffed so trains ran less frequently, which resulted in longer waits and many passengers seeming to be a bit more on edge. Sometimes the boards announcing wait times work. Sometimes they don’t. And sometimes an announcer asks people to remove their backpacks before boarding, but most often that announcement doesn’t run. The MBTA is consistently inconsistent.

More passengers carrying backpacks do not remove their backpacks when they are riding the train. Rarely does anyone call them on it, even when their backpacks occasionally knock into the person behind or next to them.

But the seated older woman on this morning called out the young man quite sternly and loudly.

Should the young man have been thoughtful enough to remove his backpack upon entering the train? At the very least should he have been aware enough of his surroundings to realize his backpack was knocking into the woman next to him? Should he have had the wherewithal to “check himself” without having to be yelled at to do so?

And was the seated older woman right to yell at the young man before asking him if he could remove his backpack? She did, after all, go right to a DEFCON-level engagement before simply asking him to remove his backpack because it was hitting her.

No one I know likes to be smacked around with a backpack. It seems a normal response to be agitated when it happens. But sometimes simply pointing out the issue to the backpack wearer and asking if they might remove it can resolve the issue. And yes, sometimes people being asked to correct their behavior – even if asked politely – respond badly.

In searching for the right thing to do in such circumstances, the young man should have been more aware of how his appendage might cause discomfort to other passengers and the older seated woman should have considered whether yelling was the most effective way to resolve the issue.

The young man did not remove his backpack, but he did get off at the next stop. I placed my backpack that had been on one of my shoulders between my feet as I stood for the rest of the ride. I should have thought to check myself and place it there when I got on the train in the first place.

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 to have answered? Send them to jeffreyseglin@gmail.com

Follow him on Twitter @jseglin

(c) 2022 JEFFREY L. SEGLIN. Distributed by TRIBUNE CONTENT AGENCY, LLC.

Sunday, November 06, 2022

The stories we tell should be our own

Back in the day, before there were “essay mills” online that offer to sell prewritten school essays to college students to pass off as their own, cheating still existed, though it was decidedly of a more low-tech variety. Some fraternities or sororities would keep files of papers that had been written by members. Sometimes the files were passed off as resources for students to use in developing their own ideas, but too often they served as a way for a student to pass off someone else’s work as their own. Since the filed papers had been returned with grades and comments on them, the cheating student could even take a moment to improve upon the stolen work by addressing any shortcomings a professor had noted. Such practice was cheating then, and it’s cheating now in the new form it takes where students can buy a paper written by someone else.

One of my professors at college had been an undergraduate there as well about 15 years before I attended. He had been a member of a fraternity, and shortly before our first paper was due for class, he liked to tell the story of how a recent student had submitted quite a well-written paper that seemed awfully familiar to him. “A brilliant piece of work,” my professor said (or something akin to that), “but the problem was that I had written it.” The student had simply retyped a paper he found in the file cabinet of papers up at the fraternity house.

The message was clear: “Don’t try to cheat. I will catch you and you will fail.”

What I was never sure about was whether the story he told actually happened, or if it was one of those apocryphal stories teachers sometimes tell to try to set their students on the straight and narrow. At the time all that mattered to me is that I was given fair warning not to cheat, something I’m pretty sure was already embedded in my psyche anyway.

Does it matter if the story happened exactly the way my professor recounted it? As long as it happened and he wasn’t making it up out of whole cloth, I’m not convinced a little embellishment crossed any ethical line. Does it really matter, for example, that it was not likely “a brilliant piece of work”? Not so much.

Over the years that I’ve been a teacher, I have never had a student turn in a piece of work I had written years earlier. But I do tell them in the past I’ve found articles I’ve written among the samples being sold by online essay mills. I don’t tell them this to scare them out of cheating, though they know I’m against that too. I tell them to let them know they should never be OK with someone else stealing their work. I also tell them that because it’s true.

We might embellish the stories we tell. We might not remember everyone who was involved in the stories we tell. But if we are using stories to make a point whether we are teaching or doing anything else, the right thing is to make sure those stories are true.

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 to have answered? Send them to jeffreyseglin@gmail.com

Follow him on Twitter @jseglin

(c) 2022 JEFFREY L. SEGLIN. Distributed by TRIBUNE CONTENT AGENCY, LLC.

Sunday, October 30, 2022

There's no moral high ground to using ethics as a bludgeon

I make mistakes. Most of us do. Even though I have written “The Right Thing” column about how people make ethical choices since September 1998, I am not immune to an occasional ethical lapse or have fallen short of making the best right choice I could have made.

Writing a column about ethical decision-making gives me no special powers to be more ethically righteous than anyone else. Because it’s part of my job, I may think about such things more frequently than some others, but my own shortcomings remind me that each of us is fallible and the best we might be able to hope for is to strive to do right by others.

There are times, however, that the fact of me writing this column has been used as a bit of a bludgeon. Once, after an editor and I got into a heated argument about how best to describe something in an article I had written, he grew impatient and said, “All right, Mr. Ethics, there’s no arguing with you.” That may have shut down our discussion for a moment, but it didn’t fix the article passage. My editor’s suggestion seemed to be that because I write about ethics I must think I have all the right answers. He was wrong. I don’t.

Another time when I was being interviewed on stage by a business school professor in the Midwest about how businesspeople can make sound ethical decisions, an attendee took some joy in asking how either the dean or I could be trusted to be an expert on the topic of ethics when we flagrantly ignored the signs on the auditorium door that read “no drinks,” as evidenced by our bottles of water sitting alongside us on stage. The audience member was correct. We violated the rules even though the water was on stage greeting us when we arrived. But if his suggestion was that either of us claimed to practice perfect ethical behavior in business because we were discussing it on stage, he too was wrong.

From time to time, I try to let readers know what has influenced the reasoning I use when writing a column on the ethical choices we make. Sometimes this takes the form of referencing a piece of writing. Other times it involves citing someone far wiser than I am about a particular topic. What I never try to do in the column, however, is to suggest that somehow I have the only appropriate ethical response to a given question or situation. I don’t.

For many situations, there’s no one right answer or choice. The ethical work involves thinking through all the possible choices we can make in response to something to try to arrive at the best right choice possible. You and I may arrive at a different solution to an ethical challenge with neither of us necessarily being wrong.

The right thing, it seems to me, is to avoid using ethics as a bludgeon with which to judge others or to assume you or I or someone else has some sort of moral high ground, but instead to focus on how to think through the decisions and choices we make. Ideally, we’ll make these choices motivated by doing what’s best not just for ourselves but also for those who might be affected by our actions.

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 to have answered? Send them to jeffreyseglin@gmail.com
 
Follow him on Twitter @jseglin

(c) 2022 JEFFREY L. SEGLIN. Distributed by TRIBUNE CONTENT AGENCY, LLC.