Sunday, October 30, 2022

There's no moral high ground to using ethics as a bludgeon

I make mistakes. Most of us do. Even though I have written “The Right Thing” column about how people make ethical choices since September 1998, I am not immune to an occasional ethical lapse or have fallen short of making the best right choice I could have made.

Writing a column about ethical decision-making gives me no special powers to be more ethically righteous than anyone else. Because it’s part of my job, I may think about such things more frequently than some others, but my own shortcomings remind me that each of us is fallible and the best we might be able to hope for is to strive to do right by others.

There are times, however, that the fact of me writing this column has been used as a bit of a bludgeon. Once, after an editor and I got into a heated argument about how best to describe something in an article I had written, he grew impatient and said, “All right, Mr. Ethics, there’s no arguing with you.” That may have shut down our discussion for a moment, but it didn’t fix the article passage. My editor’s suggestion seemed to be that because I write about ethics I must think I have all the right answers. He was wrong. I don’t.

Another time when I was being interviewed on stage by a business school professor in the Midwest about how businesspeople can make sound ethical decisions, an attendee took some joy in asking how either the dean or I could be trusted to be an expert on the topic of ethics when we flagrantly ignored the signs on the auditorium door that read “no drinks,” as evidenced by our bottles of water sitting alongside us on stage. The audience member was correct. We violated the rules even though the water was on stage greeting us when we arrived. But if his suggestion was that either of us claimed to practice perfect ethical behavior in business because we were discussing it on stage, he too was wrong.

From time to time, I try to let readers know what has influenced the reasoning I use when writing a column on the ethical choices we make. Sometimes this takes the form of referencing a piece of writing. Other times it involves citing someone far wiser than I am about a particular topic. What I never try to do in the column, however, is to suggest that somehow I have the only appropriate ethical response to a given question or situation. I don’t.

For many situations, there’s no one right answer or choice. The ethical work involves thinking through all the possible choices we can make in response to something to try to arrive at the best right choice possible. You and I may arrive at a different solution to an ethical challenge with neither of us necessarily being wrong.

The right thing, it seems to me, is to avoid using ethics as a bludgeon with which to judge others or to assume you or I or someone else has some sort of moral high ground, but instead to focus on how to think through the decisions and choices we make. Ideally, we’ll make these choices motivated by doing what’s best not just for ourselves but also for those who might be affected by our actions.

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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