Sunday, July 03, 2022

Seek the right questions to ask before assuming you have the best answer

 A former editor of my column once suggested I regularly step back and tell readers what informs how I think about ethical issues I write about (in 24 years you cross paths with many good editors). My sense is that he believed such disclosures would provide a certain level of transparency with readers about who I am and how I think about stuff. Gayden was always a strong, supportive editor who is largely responsible for me writing The Right Thing column as long as I have even though he has not been my editor in more than a decade.


Occasionally, I have mentioned in the column that sometimes when people find others to be unethical it results from coming at ethical decisions from different approaches to ethical thinking. One group might embrace a rules-based approach to ethics where the belief is that if a rule can’t be applied equally to everyone, it’s not ethical. Others might adhere to more of a utilitarian view, seeking the greatest good for the greatest number of people. It’s clear that people belonging to either camp might find the other viewpoint to fall short of what they believe to be ethical behavior. Sometimes when we disagree with others it’s not because they are unethical. It’s that they view the world differently.


Over the past couple of weeks, we have experienced events that have resulted in many people searching for answers about issues they view quite differently. These events were preceded by a couple of years of the pandemic regularly placing us into unknown territory when it comes to seeking answers about how to stay healthy, show concern for the health of those around us and adapt to new ways to continue staying connected.


The past couple of weeks of reports of mass shootings, Congressional response to gun control, Congressional hearings on the Jan. 6 Capitol attack, and U.S. Supreme Court rulings on gun ownership and reproductive rights have elevated a collective search for answers that is increasingly loud and varied. A regular scan of social media suggests that many people believe they have the precise answers that might make some sense of all these events and affect a desired change.


In his most recent novel, Yonder, former colleague Jabari Asim writes beautifully and often harrowingly about the plight of several enslaved people (whom he refers to as “Stolen” in his book) on a plantation in 1852. In one scene from the book, one of the Stolen, named William, is speaking to another named Ransom, who is a Black preacher.


“You’re supposed to have all the answers,” William says after finding Ransom’s advice wanting. Ransom chuckles and responds: “I don’t even have all the questions.”


Answers such as term limits for legislators and Supreme Court justices may prove fruitful in the long run, but they will not result in immediate relief from many of the issues people are facing. Recommending short-term solutions to address the challenges that lie ahead also seems sound.


But at times when so much is in flux and the stakes seem high for so many, it strikes me that the right thing is to continue to try to find the right questions to ask before we assume we have the right answers. Only then can we hope to find some reasonable way to help protect those with whom we live.

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, a blog focused on ethical issues.

Do you have ethical questions that you need to have answered? Send them to

Follow him on Twitter @jseglin.


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