Sunday, September 21, 2008


A reader from southern California is troubled by the state of ethics in America and, more particularly, among some members of his own family.

"Ethics are vital to quality of life," he writes, "and there simply is no room for unethical behavior. It is, unfortunately, common in all strata of society, as we experience and also read in the news every day. Lies appear to be acceptable, and even expected, in business, politics, relationships and many other areas of life."

He sees American society "tearing itself apart" because of unethical behavior.

Clearly, he posits, there is a trickle-down effect: "The housing-market collapse was caused by lies from unqualified mortgage applicants, lies from commission-seeking real-estate agents and mortgage bankers, and lies from investment promoters selling the packaged mortgages to investors."

But what troubles my reader the most is his discovery that many members of his own extended family have a totally different idea of what it means to be ethical.

"It's almost an hourly mental struggle for me to view them with love and not to be critical all the time," he says.

Their transgressions range from buying products, using them and then returning them for refunds to taking advantage of people "who are desperate to make a bare living" by asking them to do extra work for free, knowing that they have little choice because they fear not being paid for the original work they agreed to do.

My reader consulted a psychologist, who told him that this negative behavior is most likely born out of growing up in an impoverished environment.

"So," he wonders, "poverty early in life is a reason, if not an excuse, for dishonest behavior?"

He wants to know what happened to the concept of "you reap what you sow" -- or, to put it in New Age parlance, "karma."

His description of how hired workers might be compelled to do tasks without pay, out of fear of losing any payment at all, shows that my reader understands how financial pressure can cause people to do things that they know are wrong. These workers aren't the ethical transgressors in this situation, but their plight points to how financial need can be a powerful force in determining how we behave.

Even so, however, and regardless of any psychological explanation for how people decide to do what they do, there is no ethical justification for allowing your past to influence how you behave when you know that a given action is wrong.

I'm not sold on the idea that karma is the motivation we need to do the right thing. The choice to do what's right should be driven by the understanding that, as a society, we continue to function precisely because individuals opt for the right course of action when faced with tough choices.

I agree with Margaret Wheatley and Myron Kellner Rogers, who wrote in A Simpler Way (Berrett-Koehler, 1999): "Ethics is how we behave when we decide we belong together."

The right thing for my reader to do is to continue to let his family members know that he disapproves of their actions and why he disapproves, explaining how their actions are unfair to the retailers, workers or others of whom they take advantage. He doesn't have to harp on it, but neither should he give up and go along to get along.

After all, if we can't trust our family members, who love us, to try to set us on the right path, whom can we trust?

c.2008 The New York Times Syndicate (Distributed by The New York Times Syndicate)


Anonymous said...

That psychologist is wrong. If "growing up in an impoverished environment" is the reason behind unethical behavior, then there would be no honest poor people and no dishonest rich people. That, of course, is to laugh. Many people raised during the Depression with cardboard in their shoes and bread and milk for lunch grew up to be successful and honest people. And many grew up to be cheats and thieves regardless of their wealth. The main factor in the home was not money, but the parents' attitude toward both money and honesty. The other factor is innate personality. Some people are just natural born weasels.

Anonymous said...

Dear Mr.Seglin,
I just finished reading your article all in the family. You won't believe this, but I just returned from a visit with my mother and brother. I came home all upset because my mom was going to lie for my brother (who by the way is 42) He had decided to back out of a commitment and wanted her to lie to his girlfriend if she should call. I was stunned that she agreed. I just looked at them both and was silent. You see I have expressed my views and opinions so many times that they just ignore me. It has put a strain on our relationship. When I arrived home I spouted off to my husband all upset." What is wrong with people today"? I asked. I went downstairs and my husband said that I need to read this article. Your writer feels the same way I do. I have been struggling with many situations where people, family mostly, who come from wealth are very unethical. I do not buy into this poverty theory. When we lower our standards to accommodate a person wrong doing then we might as well give up. If you don't have enough respect for one self how can we respect one another.It 's the me mentality.
Thank you for you time
Gail Dreer

S. said...

I strongly disagree. It seems to me that your reader should focus on applying ethics to his own life, and not on how others are falling short of his standards.