A lyric from The Eagles' song “The Best of My Love” has been running through my head this past week: “You see it your way, I see it mine, but we both see it slipping away.”
The words and melody were implanted like an earworm not because of a sudden desire to relive my freshman year in college, but because of several conversations I’ve had with readers or friends about ethical challenges they told me they were facing.
The conversations each started similarly. “I want to do the right thing here,” or a close variation, followed quickly by a description of a disagreement or challenging situation. Each of them was talking with me because I regularly write about how people grapple with making ethical choices, and I have some insight. Most of us have insight.
Whether the person asking for it finds it something they want to hear is a different thing.
When someone seeks advice on “doing the right thing” or making an ethical choice, all I can do is to help them think through the choice they are about to make. I can listen and offer them feedback on whether what they have done or plan to do seems fair to all parties involved. I can help them try to see how other stakeholders involved might be affected by their choices. I can do all sorts of things to help them try to make the best right choice they can make.
What I can’t do is to ensure that their decision to do what’s right will result in the outcome they desire. A business relationship might suffer if they choose to take a strong stand that runs counter to the desires of others in that business. A friendship might be strained. Ultimately, a choice might be made that strikes them as being morally abhorrent. No matter how ethically right someone is in making the choice they make, it is no guarantee that others will see the world the way they do.
This doesn’t mean that whoever they find themselves up against is immoral or unethical – at least not always. More often than not, it simply means that one person’s ethical choice is not the same as another’s. They simply disagree.
As I’ve mentioned in the column before, Joan Didion wrote in her 1965 essay, “The Insidious Ethic ofConscience,” that “when we start deceiving ourselves into thinking not that we want something or need something” but that it is a “moral imperative that we have it,” that is when “we join the fashionable madmen,” and that “is when we are in bad trouble.”
I will tell you the same things I tell those who seek advice: Choose to do the right thing not because it will result in you always getting your way and not because your righteousness will always win over others, but because ultimately having the integrity to think through a situation and to do what you believe to be right will help keep you from becoming the person you swore you never wanted to become. It just may give you that “peaceful easy feeling” The Eagles first sang about back when I was in high school — and now is another song I can’t get out of my head.
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 email@example.com.
Follow him on Twitter @jseglin.
(c) 2022 JEFFREY L. SEGLIN. Distributed by TRIBUNE CONTENT AGENCY, LLC.
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