Sunday, February 01, 2009


Last week, on the first night of a class in professional ethics that I team-teach at Emerson College in Boston, I wrote these words on the board: "hard work," "honesty," "courage," "fair play," "tolerance," "curiosity," "loyalty" and "patriotism."

Then I turned and asked the class: "What are these things?"

"Values," a few of the students responded.

"Where have you heard them before?"

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

He was right, of course. These are the values President Obama listed in his speech, the ideals upon which he thinks our success in meeting new challenges is based.

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

Typically I start any ethics class by telling the students that I cannot teach them values, nor can I hope to change their values. The values they have coming into the class are likely to be the same ones they have leaving it.

Our values are shaped early in life, I tell them, by our earliest experiences and, above all, by the examples -- positive and negative -- supplied by our families.

The priorities we place on these values may change, though, depending on where we are in life. If we're in our early 20s and single, for example, we may prioritize our value of fairness and tell off an unreasonable boss. In our 40s, when we have a family to support, that urge for fairness may be trumped by our concern for our family's well-being, leading us to forgo the urge to put a workplace ogre in his place.

Our values don't change, in short. Our priorities do, though, and we act accordingly.

These personal values that help us determine right and wrong are the morals that guide us. How we apply these morals to particular situations ... well, that's ethics.

People with wildly different political views may share similar values, as then-Sen. Barack Obama (D.-Ill.) and Sen John McCain (R.-Ariz.) demonstrated in the recent presidential campaign.

The two men clearly had fundamental differences of opinion on many of the issues, but at different points in the campaign each showed a similar sense of fair play -- McCain when he castigated a conservative talk-radio host for raising insinuations about Obama's religion and Obama when he rejected his supporters' attempts to capitalize on the pregnancy of the unmarried, teenage daughter of McCain's running mate, Gov. Sarah Palin (R.-Alaska).

The difference between the two men, in short, is not one of values but rather of how they choose to apply these values to various situations. That's what defines them as politicians, but it's their values that define them as human beings.

When Obama said, in his inaugural address, that there is nothing so satisfying to the spirit, "so defining of our character, (as) giving our all to a difficult situation," that's what he was talking about: how we choose to apply our values to a task. He was talking about ethics, about doing the right thing when faced with "common dangers."

Each time I face a new class of students, deliver a talk or sit down to write a column on ethics, I do so fully aware that I cannot change my audience's values. It's a daunting task to stand before a group of people, some of whom I know will choose to behave unethically regardless of what I say or write, and make an attempt to influence their ethics or at least to inspire them to think those ethics through.

The right thing for me to do, based on my values, is to give my all to such difficult tasks. And the right thing for you to do, whether you are a student, a listener or a reader, is to decide whether the way you choose to behave reflects the values you say you hold dear. If not, you either don't have the values you think you do or you need to rethink your behavior. There is nothing new about this observation. But it is true.

c.2009 The New York Times Syndicate (Distributed by The New York Times Syndicate)


Anonymous said...

To have the COURAGE to be SELF RESPONSIBLE takes HARD WORK!! Without Self Responsibility, all of these other " values" are just socialistic rhetoric for those who have been deemed "entitled". Just another load of Horse Manure, Look through it and it STINKS.
Michael Manley- Granville, Ohio
An educator, married 48 years, with two daughters, both of whom teach, both of whom have two children, both of whom waited until after age 25 to get married, both of whom have Doctorates in Special Education, And both, like us live great totally debt free lives.

There is no free lunch!!

Anonymous said...

The word "values" is, to me, clouding the actual nature of the terms that you put on the board. These are character traits, and the question is whether or not to value them enough to pay the price for their cultivation. I suspect that when this nation had a multitude of small farmers, no one was too far removed from at least an example of what it meant to extract living from life. Today, the sellers of consumer goods and of services make sure that there is little time to think before reaching. Advertisers on television, especially, could do a lot in terms of not supporting programming that is based on the opposite of all of the traits you mention. This would require responsible corporate leadership. So many laugh-track programs are mean spirited and exemplify the lowest laughs that can be extracted.
As an aside: I'd exclude "patriotism" from the list because it can be wielded falsely, whereas the other traits cannot be untrue to themselves without disintegrating completely.

Anonymous said...

What causes regret in one's soul after doing the 'right thing' despite the assurances of others in management? Is it self esteem gone amuck? Or is it just wanting to be a 'nice guy'? Or is it something deeper to sort through?
Barbie C.