Friday, May 12, 2006


Not everything that's wrong is a breach of ethics. Despite what some people seem to think, it's possible to simply be wrong without being morally culpable.

The other day an old friend called to ask my advice. A consultant he had hired was having trouble meeting agreed-upon deadlines, and my friend had discovered that the consultant had taken on another project with someone affiliated with his business. The new client was not a competitor, but my friend believed that the time the consultant spent on this new project was causing him to miss his deadlines on my friend's project. He wanted to know if he would be on solid ground in questioning the consultant's ethics.

The consultant clearly was late in delivering what he had promised, but -- beyond his not keeping the promise implicit in every agreed-upon schedule -- I didn't see any ethical breach. There were no restrictions on the consultant taking other jobs.

My friend didn't have an ethical problem on his hands, in short. He had a management problem, namely, how to get the consultant to deliver on time.

But my friend was in an all-too-familiar position. Instead of addressing the challenging management issue, he felt that he would have a more powerful argument if he could attribute the consultant's behavior to some ethical breach. That sort of thinking is misleading, however, because the attempt to place the other person on the defensive elevates the problem to a moral issue and distracts attention from the real problem at hand.

The tendency to shove tough decisions onto the ethical battlefield isn't limited to the workplace, of course.

D.T., a reader from Orange County, Calif., wrote me recently with one such example. She and her boyfriend are planning to marry by the end of the summer. Each of them has children from previous marriages.

Her son is 21 years old. He works and pays for his own college and personal expenses. Her fiance's son and daughter are 13 and 9, respectively. They live with their mother in another state, and her fiance pays more than $1,000 a month in child support.

The couple has drawn up a prenuptial agreement regarding their premarital assets. They plan to commingle most of the assets they accumulate after they are married.

But they are at odds over their wills. D.T. believes that the surviving spouse should agree to divide whatever remaining assets the couple may have so that her son gets half and her fiance's children each get one-quarter.

"He feels that we should think of them as `our' children and divide assets three ways," she writes.

She is writing to me to ask what would be the most ethical thing to do here.

While D.T.'s fiance may have a good idea in thinking of all the children as simply "theirs," there's nothing unethical about either of their approaches. As long as each is honest with the other about his or her intentions, either solution would be a sound one from an ethical perspective.

What they're facing is a good, old-fashioned disagreement. The right thing to do is to take the time to talk through their differences, explore both options as well as any other alternatives, and find a decision that satisfies both of them.

The risk of seeking the ethical upper hand in resolving day-to-day issues is that it removes one of the key responsibilities that each of us bears: to learn how to deal with people who occasionally see the world differently from us.

That's a valuable lesson for anyone, particularly those who are headed into marriage.


yawningdog said...

Won't fair be a third for each child?

Anonymous said...

why? if they each contribute equally by incomes, if they didn't get married, the numbers would mean her on gets all of her stuff and his kids each get half of his. That's 1/2 and 1/4 and 1/4. Why should she pay for another woman's children? why should she not be doing what she can to protect her own children? his two kids are not only getting from their father, but also from their own mother.