tMichaelB is the web site for Tom Bengtson, who writes about business, religion, family and politics.

Thursday, October 27, 2005

Ethicist offers life principles for doing the right thing

One of the latest fads for newspapers and other organizations seems to be to hire an “ethicist.” The New York Times has an ethicist who writes a column in its Sunday magazine. The Minneapolis Star Tribune just added an ethicist to its business section. CNN has a news analyst, Bruce Weinstein, who calls himself “The Ethics Guy.” These guys have a tough job; usually they comment on situations without treading into any moral judgments but I am not sure that you can ever really separate morals from ethics.

I had an opportunity to hear Weinstein address a business group recently and he offered five “life principles,” as he called them, “for doing the right thing.”

First, do no harm. He said this applies to everyone, not just physicians. It means things like we don’t let others drive while intoxicated, and that we immunize our children. If we couldn’t trust that people were not out to harm us, we would never leave our homes, Weinstein said.

Second, make things better. It is not enough to simply try to avoid doing harm, we actually need to make a positive impact on our world. If our sole goal were to avoid doing harm, we’d never get out of bed. Making things better is a positive call to action, and motivates us to get out in the world and do things.

Third, respect others. We do this, Weinstein said, by observing three principles: confidentiality, telling the truth and keeping promises. When people share things with us in private, they expect you to keep it to yourself. If they discover that you shared their secret with the neighborhood, they will no longer respect you. Telling the truth is a fundamental obligation, although in some cases it is okay to lie if telling the truth threatens a greater obligation. For example, the obligation to protect life is greater than the obligation to tell the truth, so if you were hiding Jews in your house during World War II and the Gestapo knocked on your door inquiring about who was in your home, you could lie to protect the innocent. And keeping promises is essential to maintaining relationships. The bigger the relationship, the more important it is to keep the promise. Marriages break up when spouses break promises they make to one another on their wedding day.

Fourth, be fair. Many of us try on this point, but get steered in the wrong direction. Weinstein said, “one size does not fit all.” He said too often we try to treat everyone the same and consider that fair. But, in fact, sameness and fairness are not equal. He gave an example where it was fair for a mother to give a thin child a big piece of cake while giving a fat child only a small piece of cake.

Fifth, be loving. Weinstein offer three simple ways to show your love for others – not just your family members, but your neighbors and co-workers as well. First, smile. “When you smile, others smile back. Smiling is contagious,” he said. “Moods rub off on one another.” Second, take a genuine interest in others. “Ask others questions about them,” Weinstein said. And third, show sincere appreciation. “How often do you take the time to tell those around you that you appreciate them?” Weinstein asked. Note peoples’ contribution to the company or the neighborhood and you will make a big impact on those people.


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Justin D said...

Hey Tom. I enjoyed reading your blog this afternoon. It's inspiring me to take this up. I'll put it on the long list of things to do with that 25th hour in the day.