Ethics Blog

August 13, 2015

Vulgarity and Political Correctness

What we have witnessed recently in the context of the presidential debates is shocking and unacceptable. There can never be any justification, from an ethical point of view and otherwise for vulgarity. Jack Marshall of the Ethics Alert blog writes:

“Ethics dictates that one communicates with respect for anyone within hearing distance, and unless ugly words serve a material purpose, using them is not the mark of a good citizen, a good neighbor, or a trustworthy human being.”

To claim that vulgarity is acceptable because America is too Politically Correct is a poor excuse.

Steve Nelson, the headmaster of the Calhoun School in Manhattan writes in his August 10th, 2015 Huffington Post column that: « political correctness” is actually civility and sensitivity. Political incorrectness - is a flagrant, entitled abuse of power. »

However political correctness sometimes, hinders the expression of a reality or perceived truth. Such hindrance can be surmounted in finding ways to express what we wish to convey with compassion. There is nothing wrong, for the sake of truth, in saying what we believe even though, at times, it may not be pleasant to hear. However we should always strive to avoid causing harm to an individual or an institution in both our speech and writings.

Political correctness can also be hypocritical. We are more concerned about not expressing negative or even harmful ideas than by the fact that we have those ideas. For example, it is wrong to make racist comments but the real issue is why do we have those racist ideas in the first place? The problem is not only one of speech only but also of sentiment.

The wise King Solomon once wrote:

“As a man thinks in his heart, so is he.”

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August 10, 2015

The Lion and the Dictator

Trophy Hunting and Human Rights

The illegal killing of Cecil, the 13 year old lion who was lured out of a national park in Zimbabwe and killed by American dentist Walter Palmer has created an international uproar evidenced in social media.  The dentist has closed his practice and is now in hiding, and his home in Florida has been vandalized. He did issue a statement expressing regret for the killing. The Zimbabwean government has made an official request for Mr. Palmer’s extradition and more than 100,000 people in the U.S. have signed a petition to the White House asking that he be extradited. Some major airlines have declared that they will no longer transport carcasses into the country.

Can there ever be an ethical justification for trophy hunting? The issue is not as clear-cut as it may seem as is often true in ethical matters.

Hunting and fishing are very much part of the American culture. According to the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service National 2011 Survey, nearly 38% of Americans participate in wildlife related recreation, which represents some 90 million Americans. The survey also estimates that $37 billion is spent on hunting every year.

The Safari Club International which has 50,000 members states that one of its goals is to promote wildlife conservation. Furthermore, the organization asks its members to “agree to abide by the organization’s code of ethics, which includes making a positive contribution to wildlife and ecosystems, complying with game laws and assisting game and fish officers.” The Club suspended the membership of both the hunter and his guide until it completes its investigation.

I believe that it is problematic if the only reason an animal is killed is to show off the hunter’s skills.

What has surprised me in the coverage of the story is that very little mention is made that this happened under one of the most brutal regime on earth. Human Rights Watch in its assessment of the regime says:

“The government of President Robert Mugabe continues to violate human rights without regard to protections in the country’s new constitution… Police violates basic rights, such as freedom of expression and assembly…”

Human rights and animal rights are not mutually exclusive.

I just wish, and hope that the outpouring of compassion for the dead lion would spill over into the plight of the citizens of that and other countries where human rights are abused.

As Albert Schweitzer once said:

“The purpose of human life is to serve, and to show compassion and the will to help others.”

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July 27, 2015


Engaging in the Absence of Trust

The « historic » nuclear deal contracted between Iran and the United States, Russia, Britain France China and Germany has provoked a controversy of great magnitude in the United States.

Proponents of the deal argue that it is the best guarantee to restrain Iran from developing a nuclear weapon and reduces the risk of further U.S military involvement in the Middle East.

Opponents of the deal point out that Iran is governed by a regime that has a track record of deception and of not honoring its commitments and therefore cannot be trusted.

The Ayatollah Khamenei, the supreme leader of Iran did nothing to appease the detractors when he said recently that:

“The so-called world powers of the world had to kneel down today in front of the will of the followers of Islam.”

President Obama acknowledged that trusting the Iranian government is problematic when he pointed out that this agreement is “not build on trust- it is built on verification.”

In most situations one can reasonably expect an opponent to act in his or her best interest. It is however not the case when dealing with fanatics whose interest can be detrimental to their well being.  This is why making a deal with Iran is indeed particularly “problematic.”

We are often obliged to engage with people or organizations or even governments that we do not trust.  Is it possible to keep our integrity and moral values in our dealings with someone who does not share them? Can we negotiate “in good faith” when we know the opposing party is not?

Our values are our own and are not dependent on our opponents’ values. By refusing to participate in the unethical practices of our opponents, we are in a position of moral strength. We may also, indirectly, expose our opponents’ lack of integrity.

The quote below from King Solomon is reassuring:

“The integrity of the upright shall guide them; but the perverseness of the treacherous shall destroy them.”

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July 7, 2015

Greece-Not All Promises Should be Kept

As we contemplate the potential disastrous effects of Greece defaulting on its debt, let us reflect on the role of ethics in such a situation and the lessons we may learn from a personal level.

A loan is a contract with specific terms between lender and a borrower. It is based on the mutual trust that both parties will live up to the agreement.

Keeping a promise is a fundamental value for society to function.

Yet, not all promises should be kept.

Let me list four examples:

1.      There are promises that should not have been made in the first place and therefore should not be honored. Joyce Mitchell, the Clinton Correctional Facility tailor, most likely promised David Sweat and Richard Matt that she would pick them up after their escape and help them get to Mexico. She had a change of heart and decided not to keep her promise and pursue her criminal project. If we promise to do something that is unethical or illegal, not only are we exempt for keeping that promise but in fact we have the obligation not to honor our word.

2. There are promises we make based on information that we believed is true. If we discover that we have been misled, we may be exempt, morally speaking, from keeping such promises. The law will consider promises voidable if they had been extracted by deception. For example, a marriage made under false pretense can be annulled by the court if it is “fraud-based.”

3.      Promises made under threat are also not to be kept. William Safire in a 1995 column wrote that: “The promise you make with a gun to your head is devoid of moral or legal force. Nobody is obligated in any way to keep a pledge extracted under duress.” My grandmother was once forced to sign a document depriving her of her rights I believe to property. She very wisely wrote the words, “under threat” immediately preceding her signature. When the document was presented to a judge he recognized the ruse and annulled the document.

4.      There are promises that were made in a given context that now has changed. New circumstances can make it impossible to keep a promise. The law also allows changes to contracts for unforeseeable circumstances.  This may be the situation the Greek government finds itself in. The government, most probably, did not expect the Greek economy to tank when those loans were made.

These cases are the exceptions rather than the rule and should not be used as an excuse not to honor our word. In most cases we are obligated, from an ethical point of view to keep our promises.

The secret to keeping promises is to make very few of them and only when we are reasonably sure that we will be able to keep them.

As the British-Canadian 19th century poet Robert Service once said:

“A promise made is a debt unpaid.”

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June 23, 2015

Rachel Dolezal

Solidarity AND Integrity

The revelation last week that the president of the Spokane chapter of the NAACP, Rachel Dolezal, had misrepresented herself for many years as African American while in fact she was not, has created a media frenzy such as we have not seen in a long time.

That seems to indicate that our society is fascinated by confusion and celebrates mystification. 

Ms. Dolezal was a well-known civil rights advocate and did a very good job at the NAACP. Her identification with the black culture and people was always for her to make.

But why the lies?

Many years ago, the chairman of a large US corporation told me the story of how, while he was in the military, in response to some very nasty and racist remarks about black people from fellow soldiers, he pretended to have African American ancestry. At first they did not believe him but somehow he managed to convince them that it was true. I think he did it out of solidarity and empathy for African Americans but also to embarrass and even shame his “comrades in arms.”

Feeling empathy and solidarity with a group of people is a very positive thing. Identifying with a cause wholeheartedly is admirable.

Maybe the earliest account of such identification with a people of a different religion and culture is found in the Bible. Ruth, the Moabite widow, says to her Jewish mother-in-law:

“Wherever you go, I will go; and wherever you stay, I will stay. Your people will be my people, and your God will be my God.”

Some of the “I am” slogans testify to those sentiments such as:

Je suis Charlie after the murders of journalists of the French satirical magazine.

“I am a Jew” after the attack and murders of Jews at a Kosher store in Paris.

I am Arthur Andersen” following the layoff of thousands of employees of the firm because of fraud.

Eugene V. Debs, the founder of the American Railway Union once said:

 ”While there is a lower class, I am in it: While there is a criminal element, I am of it; while there is a soul in prison, I am not free. ”

 Maybe the most famous identity-solidarity quote of our time is President Kennedy’s who said in a speech to a German audience on June 26, 1963, following the building of the Berlin Wall by the Communists that divided the city.

“Ich bin ein Berliner”

Solidarity and empathy however should never be expressed in a way that compromises integrity. The manifestation of these worthy sentiments cannot be at the detriment of truth.

April Dinwoodie, a former colleague and friend and CEO of the Donaldson Adoption Institute said very appropriately:

“While I can certainly understand a complex racial identity and I can absolutely respect someone being inspired to fight for human rights on behalf of a community - I simply can’t wrap my head around Rachel Dolezal being so completely dishonest and in denial of that dishonesty. It does no one any good and sadly it does undercut the work she did on behalf of people of color. This is all so very deep and disturbing and seeing this fractured person and family is truly heartbreaking.”

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June 12, 2015

FIFA Nostra II

Pleading Guilty

Although nine FIFA high officials were indicted by the U.S. Department of Justice on charges of corruption, the president of the organization, Sepp Blatter not only refused to resign or even postpone the election but also managed to win re-election.

Three days later he resigned. What happened that changed his mind so dramatically?

We do not know, yet. He must have received some information that guided his decision!

Could it be that one or more of the nine officials that had been arrested “talked” to the FBI or even turned over some incriminating evidence against him in exchange for leniency from the prosecution and maybe less severity in the punishment?

It is usually what happens, and it works.

Plea bargaining is a very common practice. In the U.S. more than 90% of criminal defendants plead guilty rather than go to trial.

Yet plea bargaining and other such deals pose some serious ethical questions.

In an ideal world of “justice for all” equal crime should always deserve equal punishment. However in the real world of crime, corruption and money, things are not that simple.

The ethical dilemma of plea bargaining is one of expediency versus justice. Our judicial system is over laden with caseloads and with limited resources. Some cases take years to come to trial. Furthermore the cost of prosecution (taxpayer’s money) is extremely high. Plea bargaining resolves those issues but is it fair?

In most cases it probably is not because it lessens the severity of the punishment of criminals but only for those that have something to bargain with; and it might be coercive, allowing people wrongly accused (also called innocent) to admit to a crime they did not commit to avoid being convicted (falsely) of a worse crime.

On the positive side, plea bargaining reduces the likelihood that the guilty will be acquitted and thus benefits society.

This situation is quite typical of a bad versus bad scenario, with no perfect solution. In such circumstance the goal is the do the least harm to the greatest number of people possible.

Maybe the most interesting aspect of plea bargaining from an ethical point of view is that it rewards an admission of guilt by reducing the severity of punishment.

Admitting wrongdoing is often the first step in rebuilding trust.

As psychiatrist and author Dr. Louis Tartaglia would say:

“Admitting that you are wrong is a dignified expression of humility.”

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May 28, 2015

FIFA Nostra

The early morning arrest yesterday in Zurich, Switzerland at the prestigious and luxury Baur au Lac Hotel of seven top FIFA officials by plainclothes Swiss police officers was reminiscent of an episode from the Eliot Ness and the Untouchables TV series of the 60s. These men were gathered in Switzerland in preparation for FIFA scheduled presidential election on Friday.

Sepp Blatter, the current president of FIFA, is running for a fifth 4-year term and there are no indications that he might step down in spite of the fact that his senior officers were indicted. Roger Cohen in today’s New York Times says that “he is a man without a conscience,” quoting The Guardian describing Mr. Blatter as “the most successful non-homicidal dictator of the past century.” Mr. Blatter said today, at the opening of FIFA’s 65th Congress: “We, or I, cannot monitor everyone all of the time. It is necessary to begin to restore trust in our organization. Let this be the turning point.”

In all fourteen FIFA officials have been charged by the U.S. Department of Justice with widespread corruption involving of hundreds of millions of dollars over the span of 20 plus years, as well as racketeering, wire fraud and money laundering conspiracy. The extradition proceedings to the U.S. are in progress.

United States Attorney General Loretta E. Lynch said: “The indictment alleges corruption that is rampant, systemic and deep-rooted both abroad and here in the United States. It spans at least two generations of soccer officials who, as alleged, have abused their position of trust to acquire millions of dollars in bribes and kickbacks.”

Corruption by definition does not happen in a vacuum or overnight. It is the end product of a culture that allowed it in the first place.

When an organization is involved in repeated wrongdoing by a great number of people in high places, and for a very long time, it indicates rather clearly that that organization and its culture are corrupt to the core. We are not dealing here with a case of one bad apple but rather of an alleged conspiracy at the highest level of management to commit crimes repeatedly over a great number of years.

Every institution or corporation has a culture. Culture in this context can be defined as “the way the company does business.” It involves all of the many activities and processes required in order to reach its business goals.

The Ethics and Compliance Initiative lists five elements of an ethical culture:

1.      Communicates ethics as a priority

2.      Sets a good example of ethical conduct (integrity)

3.      Keeps promises and commitments

4.      Provides information about what is going on (transparency)

5.      Employees perceive that top managers are held accountable for ethics violations

In order to develop an ethical culture a company needs good governance, independent oversight and transparency.

Can the situation at FIFA be remedied? Some people think it is possible. Ben Cohen, a fellow blogger and a friend writes in his Commentary article “America Deals A Heavy Blow to FIFA” that: “it is thanks to American efforts that soccer, dogged for years by allegations of corruption and bribery, just may be on the cusp of recovering its integrity.” Let’s hope he is right.

You can recognize an ethical culture in a company when you hear employees, at all levels of authority say: “this is not how we do things at this company.” or “this is the way we do things here.”

It would be great to hear this from FIFA!

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May 15, 2015

A Thoughtful Comment

From time to time, I receive comments on the blog that I find thoughtful and that go to the heart of the issue. This is one of them that I am happy to share with my readers.

Emmanuel- I am a subscriber to your ethics blog and always enjoy reading it. I do however have a (two) question(s) for you about this last one.

When we talk about the ethics of donating money to a campaign, though it may seem ridiculous that someone should be spending that type of money to get elected, the greater ethics question is not who gives that money, it is the root issue that the money is needed in the first place.

If you look at our electoral system, it is evident that the goal of people who run for office is to get elected. In order to do so, you have to get publicity, name recognition, and that can only be accomplished through advertising, media blitzes, etc. All of that takes a great deal of money. Once you get elected, your primary goal becomes getting re-elected. All activities are generally directed towards that end. Every decision you make, every vote you make, every action you take ends up being directed towards that goal. And money takes up a large part of that. No money, no re-election. Unfortunately, the result is that donors are needed, and the more you donate, the more access you “earn” to the candidate/representative. It is the “dirty” fact of politics. It may not sway a specific decision, but if someone has your ear, you can bet it affects the thoughts in your decision making process. So if that is the underlying issue how you get that money becomes irrelevant. And for some reason we cannot get our elected officials to get rid of what is essentially a corrupting system. Even our learned leader, the voice of “transparency in government,” when given the option to take the money granted by the election finance bill, turned it down, because he was raising more on his own. Hardly ethical. But very politic.

There is, however, another significant ethical issue that seems to elude much public discourse. And this is a real ethical problem. If I give money, or if a company gives money, or if Joe Blow down the street gives money, it is money earned on our own (despite our current administrations remonstrations that we did not build that). The issue of public employees unions donating money is much more critical and as far as I am concerned incredibly unethical. If I am an employee of the public, my salary is being paid by the public. However if the people who make the decisions regarding my employment, income, retirement etc. are not my employers, but representatives of my employers who need money to get elected, and the public employee unions donate money to those who are not the ones actually paying, but to those who are getting elected but don’t actually foot the bill, there is an incredible unethical conflict of interest there. The public unions in California for example have taken over the state, and have even been quoted in hearings on the legislature floor threatening legislators “that we know who you are, and how you vote. We got you elected and we can get you unelected. This threat is directed to the people who they will be directly negotiating their next contract with. Perhaps if you are going to write about the questionable ethics of donating to political causes, that would be a better avenue to pursue, and more of a real ethical issue.

Thanks for your ongoing thoughts, with (truly) great appreciation.

Barry Newman, M.D. M.B.A.

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May 5, 2015

The Ethics of Spending

At the White House correspondent’s diner last week, President Obama made a reference to the Koch brothers, who said that they would be spending one billion dollars on the presidential candidate they choose to support. The President poked fun at the fact that it may take a billion of dollars for someone to like a candidate and vote for him or her.  He said:

“I mean, it’s almost insulting to the candidates. The Koch brothers think they need to spend a billion dollars to get folks to like one of these people … It’s got to hurt their feelings a little bit.” He added:  ”Look, I know I’ve raised a lot of money too. But in all fairness: My middle name is ‘Hussein’ … What’s their excuse?”

However funny the comments, it is quite shocking to think that one billion dollars might be spent on one candidate for the presidency in 2016. According to Open Secrets, both President Obama and Gov. Mitt Romney spent over a billion dollars in the 2012 campaign.

It gets worse.

It is estimated that a record 10 billion dollars will be spent on the 2016 presidential election.  It seems to me that the process of electing a president has gone out of control.

Ann M. Ravel, the chairwoman of the F.E.C (Federal Election Commission) is quoted in the New York Times last Sunday saying: “The likelihood of the (Campaign Finance) laws being enforced is slim. I never want to give up but I’m not under any illusion. People think that the F.E.C is dysfunctional. It’s worse than dysfunctional.”

Surely, there must be better ways to spend 10 billion dollars, such as medical research and education.

On a national and individual level, is there such a thing as the ethics of spending? Can’t we just do anything we want with our money?

Ethics is about values. What values should influence our spending?

Let me list a few.


Being careful as to how we spend money and avoiding waste as best we can are certainly important values.


We have to be able to “give an account” for the actions we are taking. We need to morally justify even if it is only in our own eyes, how we spend our resources such as money, time and energy. We would all object to someone striking a match and setting a large amount of money on fire, like the character Cal in Steinbeck’s East of Eden.


Many of us have more than we need (although we most likely have less than we wish.) We are in the midst of global despair for lack of very basic needs. Can we, in good conscience, distance ourselves completely for our fellow humans and turn a deaf ear to their cry for help?


It is interesting to note that the Hebrew word for charity is: Tzedakah which means justice and fairness which is different from the idea of generosity and magnanimous giving to “the poor.” Tzedakah is perceived as the performance of an obligation, not just a nice thing to do.

As Benjamin Franklin once said:

“Waste neither time nor money, but make the best use of both. Without industry and frugality, nothing will do, and with them everything.”

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April 20, 2015

Aaron Hernandez

Last week Aaron Hernandez was convicted of first degree murder for killing, back in June 2013, Odin Lloyd. The jury found that he had shown “extreme atrocity and cruelty” in the shooting. He has been sentenced to life in prison without parole. He still faces another trial for a double murder that happened in 2012.

The chilling account of the trial in the New York Daily News was quite revealing in its disclosure of an important fact.

Mr. Hernandez was hired by the New England Patriot’s coach Bill Belichick in spite of failing the “character questions” during the interview. The interview assessment stated that he was “on the edge of acceptable behavior.”

Including character questions in a job interview is very important, but only if it truly determines the hiring decision. In this case, failing the character questions did not prevent the New England Patriots management from offering Mr. Hernandez a 5 year- $40 million contract. It seems that athletic performance and the potential of millions of dollars in revenue trumped any consideration of character.

Yet character does count.

Michael Josephson of The Josephson Institute in his book “Making Better Ethical Decisions” lists the 6 pillars of character as:

1.      Trustworthiness based on honesty, integrity, reliability and loyalty

2.      Respect manifested by civility, courtesy, decency, dignity, autonomy, tolerance & acceptance.

3.      Responsibility leading to accountability, pursuit of excellence and self-restraint.

4.      Fairness evidenced by process, impartiality and equity

5.      Caring

6.      Citizenship

David Brooks in his amazing New York Times Op-ed A Moral Bucket List, adapted from his recently published, The Road to Character, makes an interesting distinction between “resume virtues” and “eulogy virtues.” He says that “resume virtues are the skills you bring to the marketplace. The eulogy virtues are the ones that are talked about at …your funeral, whether you were kind, brave, honest or faithful.” He believes that “wonderful people are made, not born.” We develop character by taking actions that benefit others, not just ourselves.  He writes that “people I admired had achieved an un-fakeable inner virtue built slowly from specific moral and spiritual accomplishment.”

Jack Easterly, the team chaplain of the New England Patriots was seen handing players a photo of an iceberg as they were getting ready to leave for the Super Bowl. Below the picture were the words:

“Character . . .because it’s what’s beneath the surface that matters most.”

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March 31, 2015

Germanwings Flight # 9525

Any airline crash provokes very strong emotional reactions in all of us. The crash of flight 9525 is no exception particularly because it was seemingly provoked intentionally by a mentally disturbed co-pilot, Andreas Lubitz, who thus became a suicidal mass murderer killing 149 passengers and crew.

Among the many reactions to such an event is empathy because we imagine the horror of such a violent death.

Another feeling, less altruistic, is fear. We are consciously (or subconsciously) aware that we may also die in such circumstances.  The immediate reaction to that fear is a frantic quest to take measures that will prevent such a catastrophe, particularly if our own future is involved.

While the airline industry, government regulators, legislators, public health and law enforcement officials try to find new solutions to make flying even safer, I wonder whether, as individuals, we might be, in the future, in a position to prevent such a catastrophe and simply not be aware of our preventive capabilities.

I am sure the investigation will reveal that there were a number of people who could have, by their actions, help to prevent the disaster.

It is hard to imagine, that not ONE person noticed that there was something just not right with Andreas.

What about his ex-girlfriend? It has been reported by the Huffington Post that she said in an interview with Bild magazine, a German tabloid:

“When I heard about the crash, there was just a tape playing in my head of what he said, ‘One day I will do something that will change the system and everyone will then know my name and remember me.’”

Why did his physician, who gave him a sick leave note for that very day, not inform Mr. Lubitz’s employer? According to The New York Times, Lufthansa was aware of his depression. What about his colleagues and friends? They must have been aware that something was wrong. What about his parents, didn’t they have a clue that their son was in trouble?

Man-made disasters never happen in a vacuum. In retrospect we discover that hundreds if not thousands of people played a role, even if insignificant in their eyes at the time, in the chain of events that ultimately led to the catastrophic outcome.

Why are we so reluctant to intervene in what seems to us at the time to be “none of our business?”

I am sure that there are a number of reasons but let me list a few.

1.      We do not want to get involved. Our own lives are time-consuming and complicated enough!

2.      We assume that others will react appropriately. The phenomenon is known as the diffusion of responsibility.

3.      We underestimate our potential impact. We are not aware of the difference we can make.

We should want to be the disruption in a chain of events leading to a catastrophe. We should be the chain’s weakest link.

We should wake up every morning asking ourselves:

“What disaster will I prevent today?”

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February 26, 2015

Herman Rosenblat - The Risk of Exaggeration

In the business section of the Feb 21, 2015 issue of the New York Times is an article about Herman Rosenblat, a Holocaust survivor who passed away at age 85 in a hospital in Aventura, Fla. Mr. Rosenblat wrote about his Holocaust experience in a book called: “Angel at the Fence.” The book was, according to Sam Roberts, the author of the New York Times article “not unexceptional” except for the amazing story, in the book, of young girl who threw him an apple over the barbed wire surrounding the concentration camp where he was held captive. Even more extraordinary, 12 years later the author saw her again, recognized her and married her. They lived “happily ever after” for the next 56 years.

However beautiful the story, there is one problem: the story is not true, or rather it is not exactly true. The episode of the girl and the apple never happened.

He justified his deception by saying:

“I wanted to bring happiness to people, to remind them not to have hate but to love and tolerate all people. “I brought good feelings to a lot of people and I brought hope to many. My motivation was to make good in this world.”

The sad thing is that Rosenblat will be remembered for his lie and not for his life. Case in point, the title of the NYT article mentioned above is:

“Herman Rosenblat, 85 Dies; made Up Holocaust Love Story.”

Bill O’Reilly’s Fox News story about his reporting on the war in the Falklands is under scrutiny. He repeatedly told his viewers that during the Falkland War, he had been reporting from the “War Zone,” when in fact he never set foot on the Falkland Islands but reported from Buenos Aires.

Robert McDonald, the recently appointed Secretary of Veterans Affairs recently claimed in a conversation that was recorded by CBS News that he “was in the Special Forces.” Actually he was not. He did graduate from West Point, completed the Army Rangers training and was assigned the 82nd Airborne Division but never served in the Special Forces.

He apologized, saying:

“I incorrectly stated that I had been in Special Forces,” his statement read. “That was inaccurate and I apologize to anyone that was offended by my misstatement.”

We all exaggerate somehow. Words like “zillions” and “mega” are by definition exaggerations. We do it for different reasons such as convenience, or to be more dramatic, to make a stronger point and even to manipulate. Sometimes we exaggerate to look better, smarter or more heroic. Exaggerations are very often used in advertising. Superlative such as “greatest,” “best” and “No. 1″ are most likely exaggerations.

Is it ever ethical to exaggerate? I believe that in most circumstances it is not because it strays away from the truth.

Exaggerating is a high-risk behavior and should be avoided as much as possible. The risk is the loss of trust that, once lost, can very rarely be regained.

As the Talmud says:

“If you add to the truth, you subtract from it.”

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February 11, 2015

Brian Williams - “Good Night and Good Luck.”

Last week’s revelation that Brian Williams was less than truthful in his delivery of news and in his accounts of his own experiences in more than one instance poses some fundamental questions about truth and honesty in the exercise of one’s profession.

I believe that every profession has its own ethical risks or temptations. Physicians, lawyers, public relations professionals and journalists have their own codes of conduct and code of ethics. The Society of Professional Journalists states in its code of ethics:

“Ethical journalism strives to ensure the free exchange of information that is accurate, fair and thorough. An ethical journalist acts with integrity. … Journalists should be honest and courageous in gathering, reporting and interpreting information.”

Brian Williams definitely ignored these values. He must have forgotten the perfect example of excellence in journalism that was Edward R. Morrow who flew 35 military missions over Europe during WWII. He was known for “fearless integrity.” An award was created in his name. Oddly enough Brian Williams was one of its recipients!

Yet he is not the only one to blame. We, the public, bear some responsibility. We today expect or rather demand sensationalism, drama as well as entertainment in the delivery of the news. There is a new word for it: “infotainment.” The temptation for journalists and broadcasters, in that context, is to please the audience, even if it is at the detriment of being truthful. We get the television we, or our culture, deserves.

David Brooks in his NYT Op-Ed piece, The Act of Rigorous Forgiving published on Feb 10, 2015, believe we do not have the correct responses when such scandals happen. He says that “The civic fabric would be stronger if, instead of trying to sever relationship with those who have done wrong, we tried to repair them, if we tried forgiveness instead of exiling.” He makes a very good point when he says that “good people are stronger when given second chances.”

I think NBC just gave Brian Williams a second chance notwithstanding the 6-month with no pay suspension!

As Bill Clinton once said:

“The God I believe in is a God of second chances.”

Emmanuel Tchividjian

Senior Vice President & Ethics Officer

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February 4, 2015

Ethics and the Super Bowl

The Super Bowl is an impressive American phenomenon. I doubt that any such yearly event happens anywhere in the world.

Here are some 2014 statistics:

Viewership: 111 million +

Attendance 100,000 +

Average cost for 1 min ad: $8 million

Advertising Revenue $330 million

The 2015 numbers are not in yet, but it is safe to assume that they will be in excess of those numbers.

Sportsmanship and Ethics go (or should go) hand in hand. Sports, particularly team sports adhere to fundamental ethical values such as fairness, team spirit and abiding by the rules.

Such an event is also a magnificent opportunity to communicate a message of value. The PSA video ad sponsored by NO MORE that aired during this year’s Super Bowl is just amazing. You can watch here should you be among the few that did not see it during the game.

According to NO MORE’s website, the organization:  “is a movement to raise public awareness and engage bystanders around ending domestic violence and sexual assault launched in 2013 by a coalition of leading corporations, advocacy and service organizations. NO MORE is supported by hundreds of domestic violence and sexual assault organizations at the local, state and national levels that are using its signature blue symbol to increase visibility and funding to address these critical issues.

Showing of the PSA at the Super Bowl to more than 111 million viewers brought awareness of the endemic problem of domestic abuse in the United States and elsewhere in the world. According to Safe Horizon, 1 in 4 women will have experienced domestic violence during her lifetime. In the U.S. more than 1,000 women are killed each year by their husbands or boyfriends.

Bringing awareness to such an issue is a good thing but should only be seen as a first step to actions that can bring about change. If awareness does not bring about change, it becomes meaningless.

What is the most important action you should take if you suspect someone is in immediate danger of domestic abuse:

Call 911!

There are other actions that can be taken such as providing financial support to organizations that provide counseling, legal representation and even safe shelter to victims.  You may even offer your time to volunteer.

Most importantly we should all be advocates for an end to domestic violence. We should be a voice for those whose voice has been silenced by abuse.

As Martin Luther King once said:

The ultimate tragedy is not the oppression and cruelty by the bad people but the silence over that by the good people.

Emmanuel Tchividjian

SVP-Ethics Officer

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January 28, 2015

Sheldon Silver

I suspect that many, if not most, New Yorkers were shocked at the news of the arrest and charges of corruption of Sheldon Silver, the NY Assembly Speaker in Albany. Some I am sure had a more cynical and sad reaction such as: “What else did you expect, it’s politics.”

Mr. Silver was charged with corruption in accepting millions of dollars in bribes and kickbacks. He declared: “I am confident that after a full hearing and due process, I will be vindicated of these charges.”

Mr. Silver, by most accounts, has served his constituents of the Lower Eastside very well for close to 40 years. He also had an outstanding record as Assembly Speaker for more than 20 years.

He still enjoys the support of the overwhelming majority of lawmakers as well as NYC Mayor de Blasio who said: “Although the charges announced today are certainly very serious, I want to note that I’ve always known Shelly Silver to be a man of integrity.”

It was announced today the he would leave office of Speaker by next Monday but will retain his seat as an Assemblyman.

The U.S. District Attorney, Preet Bharara said something quite different at a news conference after the arrest of Mr. Silver:

“These charges go to the very core of what ails Albany - a lack of transparency, lack of accountability and a lack of principle joined with an overabundance of greed, cronyism and self-dealing.”

Will we ever truly know who is right? Will we ever know the truth?

The popular saying “innocent until proven guilty” is often misunderstood and misused. Attorney and law professor, Basil Tchividjian (my nephew and fellow blogger!) clarifies it when he writes:

“It is critical to remember that “innocent until proven guilty” is a legal term and that just because a person is viewed  under the law as “innocent” does not mean that they did not commit the offense.  It simply means that a jury was unable to unanimously agree that the government was able to prove the crime beyond and to the exclusion of all reasonable doubt.  It means that the defendant will be considered “innocent” under the law and will not lose his freedom.   It does not mean the offense never occurred.”

Did his powerful position lead him to think he was above restrictions? Did the Speaker believe that the fees he collected over the years, as a consultant, were legitimate? Were they?

A jury will decide to convict or exonerate him.

However, whether one is morally (ethically) innocent or guilty is not only a matter of law but also a matter between the person and his or her conscience.

John Cassidy in his January 23, 2015 The New Yorker article After Shelly Silver, It’s Time to Drain the Albany Swamp says: “In Albany, recent history suggests, there’s an endless supply of people who are eager to sell their influence to the highest bidder. What’s needed is a thorough overhaul of a system in which corruption is endemic.”

The story also begs the question whether legislators should even be allowed to collect income from any other sources then from their salaries? In the past 12 years, 41 elected officials have been accused of misdeeds. It seems to me that the present situation creates too many temptations of wrongdoing and also creates the appearance of wrongdoing even if none has occurred. This destroys trust, which is one of the most fundamental values for society to function.

What ethical lesson can we take from this sad story?

I believe it is that we should always be accountable for our actions. Accountability means being able to give an account of or to be able to justify a course of action we have taken, in other words, to be responsible.

As Eleanor Roosevelt once said:

“One’s philosophy is not best expressed in words; it is expressed in the choices one makes… and the choices we make are ultimately our responsibility.”

Emmanuel Tchividjian

SVP-Ethics Officer

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January 14, 2015

Charlie Hebdo & The Value of Insults

What happened in France last week essentially deals with crimes, abhorrent murders not ethics. These murders were fueled by hatred, Antisemitism and intolerance and took the lives of 17 innocent people. One can however look at those multiple tragedies from an ethical perspective. Ethics is about values. The values of freedom, tolerance, respect, and truth have been cruelly scorned in those events.

The gunning down of the journalists at Charlie Hebdo and the killing of 4 Jewish men at a kosher store were linked according to the now dead Islamist terrorists. They were perpetrated because they believed the prophet Mohammed had been insulted by the content of the satirical magazine and that those killings would avenge him.

Insult by definition is unethical since, at the root, it is a form of disrespect with the intent to hurt. Respect is an important value in society. Yet, there is a place for satire and comedy in our society. If we all, at all times, try to avoid offending anyone, we would have a rather bland and humorless society.

There is, most of the time, a positive ethical aspect to an insult. An insult acknowledges a value that the insulting person claims the person he or she insults does not have. If I say to someone “you are a liar,” (and mean it as an insult, not a compliment!) I am hereby making a claim that truth is good and lying is bad. The insult implicitly recognizes values that are accepted by society.

Yet no one likes to be insulted, unless suffering from an extreme form of masochism!

How should we deal with what we perceive as an insult?

Below are two questions we might ask ourselves before responding to an insult.

Do I respect the person who insults me?

Someone said: “In order for you to insult me, I would first have to value your opinion.” If the Boston strangler called me a wimp or Genghis Khan a coward, I would not not lose sleep over it.

Is there a modicum of truth in the insult?

To have an impact an insult needs to have some aspect of truth. We should ask ourselves if there something in the insult that we can learn from about ourselves and our behavior. If it is so, then the insults can in fact, be a benefit for us. It is up to us, the insulted, to determine which aspect of the insults corresponds to a reality we might have ignored until then.

Neel Burton, M.D., psychiatrist, philosopher, and writer who teaches in Oxford, England believes that:

“We need never take offense at an insult. Offense exists not in the insult but in our reaction to it, and our reactions are completely within our control. It is unreasonable to expect a boor to be anything but a boor. if we take offense at his bad behavior, we have only ourselves to blame.”

Rene Descartes, the 17th. Century French philosopher said it beautifully:

“Whenever anyone has offended me, I try to raise my soul so high that the offense cannot reach it.”

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December 18, 2014

Sony Hacking Scandal

The hacking and subsequent publishing of emails between senior executives at Sony last week caused quite an uproar. The racially charged remarks about President Obama as well as disparaging comments about actors and directors caused serious embarrassment for their authors.

Hacking violates the important value of privacy and in most cases it is illegal. No ethical dilemmas here, it is just wrong.

Privacy is a human right that is included in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1948 which states: “No one shall be subjected to arbitrary interference with his privacy, family, home or correspondence, nor to attacks upon his honor and reputation. Everyone has the right to the protection of the law against such interference or attacks.”

I find the Sony hacking story interesting from two different ethical aspects.

For one, the role of the media in dealing with information that has been illegally obtained is problematic. Should the media or anyone for that matter, publicize information that has been obtained illegally and that violates someone’s privacy?

Andrew Wallenstein, co-editor of Variety is asking the right question in the December 11, 2014 issue of the magazine. He says that he wonders whether he is somehow “complicit with these nefarious hackers by relaying the details of seemingly every pilfered terabyte.” He, however, concludes, erroneously, in my view that “Journalism is, in some sense, permissible thievery. We occasionally catch wind of what our subjects would rather us not know, and we don’t hesitate to report it if it contributes to an understanding of what we’re writing about.”

One of the arguments in favor of such publication is the “public right to know.” Andrea Laksmiwardani, from the Department of Communication at Taylor’s University, in her article Right to Know versus Infringement of Privacy, published by Journalism Ethics believes that: “Publics have the right to be aware of the things that concern their safety or things that might affect their way of living.” She adds that: “Journalists should always consider the right of individuals’ privacy, even if it is contradicting with the public’s right to know.

Secondly, as to the “public” (you and me?) are we morally entitled to be entertained by the shameful exposure of the privacy of others?

We, as a society, should determine the kind of media we believe we deserve. It is the public’s demand for the sensational and ludicrous that creates the market for a media that satisfies those very demands.

One of the roles of ethics in society is precisely to try to change a culture that does not uphold strong ethical values.

As author and poet, Henry Van Dyke once said:

“Culture is the habit of being pleased with the best and knowing why.”

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December 2, 2014

Bill Cosby

I have been quite reluctant to write about the accusations of rape and sexual abuse by now 20 women against Bill Cosby until I wondered if my reluctance was not akin to other people’s reaction of turning of a blind eye.

We have a tendency to ignore what makes us uncomfortable and then we give ourselves all kinds of excuses for not addressing allegations of wrongdoing. We may also want to avoid being in a conflicting situation and would prefer to remain uninvolved.

One of the frequently given excuses is that we do not know for sure what really happened and that we should leave the matter to law enforcement and the courts.

It is a poor excuse for two reasons:

1.           Allegations, by definition, are unproven. Allegations do not have to be proven right before being investigated. Allegations, when addressed properly are often a first step in a long process that might lead to exposure, denunciation, arrest, conviction and jail time. It is a legal obligation for certain professionals, such as healthcare providers, teachers and lawyers to investigate such allegations.

2.          If we relied only on the courts to determine wrongdoing, criminality would grow exponentially. We are each individual members of the Jury of Public Opinion. When sufficiently informed, we are entitled to our own opinion!

What is the correct ethical response to allegations of misconduct?

Let me list three possible actions:

1.    Report

It is important that more than one person (you) be aware of the alleged conduct. Tell someone you trust and that you know will take it seriously.

2.     Investigate

Try to get as much information as you can. If you are in position to do so, you may do your own due diligence but depending on the allegation, it may be best to have a third party such as an institution or government entity do the investigation.

3.    Pursue Justice and Fairness

If the allegations are found to be baseless then move on. However if they are credible, then it is your duty to do the best you can to see the matter resolved in a way that both fairness and justice is served.

It takes courage to act but remaining silent will enable the perpetrator to continue in his or her actions and thus cause more harm to many more victims. It is our duty to prevent that from happening.

Ernest Hemingway once said:

“Courage is grace under pressure.”

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November 24, 2014

The Ethics of Silence

Last Friday, I had an impromptu and very short brainstorm discussion with our current Executive Trainees about what could be a good topic for this week’s blog post. The conversation quickly turned to the theme of silence, its positive and negative effect in society.

The virtues of silence have long been recognized. The popular saying “speech is silver but silence is golden” may date back to Ancient Egypt. It probably means that in some circumstances the less you say the better it is. I can imagine that when you are in the company of strangers, discretion would be more appropriate than indiscretion.

Keeping a secret is a form of silence that is highly ethical.

Silence in some case is a legal right. If you are being arrested, you do have “the right to remain silent.” The Fifth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution permits you not to answer specific questions when you may, by the answer you give, incriminate yourself.  An attorney, under the attorney-client privilege, is bound by law to keep communication between his or her client confidential.

Sometimes silence is an obligation, such as when its purpose is not to disturb the tranquility of others. I am afraid I was oblivious to that obligation last week as I boarded an Amtrak train on my way to Annapolis to speak to a PRSA chapter there. I asked the gentleman sitting next to me whether he was going to Washington D.C. He looked at me as if I was insane, which prompted me to question his sanity. He finally with apparently great self- control whispered to me: “This is the silent car!” I did not even know Amtrak had one.

Silence can be a powerful tool in sending a speechless message. Elie Wiesel once said that it was impossible to find the correct words to describe the Shoah and that maybe the best way would be to find the greatest contemporary actor, have him or her appear on the world’s  greatest stage and then… for the actor to remain silent.

Moments of silence can be moments of contemplation, prayer, reflection and remembrance of loved ones that are no more.

“Omerta” the implicit code of silence among members of the Mafia is a very negative aspect of silence.  The “Omerta” prohibits a member to reveal any information to the authorities and the breaking of it is punishable by death.

Keeping silent when witnessing wrongdoing is, in most cases, morally unacceptable, even if the victim of wrongdoing is you.  We are to say something if we see something.

The November 19, 2014 issue of Rolling Stone features a long article entitled A Rape on Campus: A Brutal Assault and Struggle for Justice at UVA (University of Virginia.) The article tells the story of 18 year old Jackie who was gang raped for three hours at a fraternity party by fellow students. The victim waited for two years to make the assault public! The author of the article believes that: “Rapes are kept quiet (at UVA) both by students-who brush off sexual assaults as regrettable but inevitable of their cherished party culture- and by an administration that critics say is less concerned with protecting the students than it is with protecting its own reputation from scandal.”

According to the Clery Center for Security on Campus, (quoted in the article) one in five women is sexually assaulted in college yet only 12 percent reported it to the police.

What is wrong with this picture?

Could it be that we are facing a culture of silence about rape and particularly about rape on campuses?

The only remedy I see is to speak up, and to encourage others to speak up.

As Elie Wiesel once said:

We must take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.

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October 31, 2014

Be Afraid, Be Very Afraid

The Value of Fear

The fear of an Ebola pandemic has gripped the country. Many believe that it is due in large part to the over dramatic coverage by the media. Jon Stewart is quite funny on his exposé of the Ebola media frenzy. The probability of a pandemic in the U.S. according to the scientific community is most unlikely. As of now, in the U.S. only one victim succumbed to the disease. Furthermore he was not infected in the U.S. but in Africa. To put things into a U.S. perspective, more than 36,000 Americans die of the flu each year yet more than half of the population choose not to be vaccinated against it. Deborah Kot, of the Boston Globe, in her article Why Americans Have Irrational Ebola Fears tells of a teacher from Maine who was: ”placed on a 21-day leave demanded by parents because she recently attended a conference in Dallas - the same city where the Ebola patient Thomas Eric Duncan died on Oct. 8.”

Fear is a basic and very powerful human emotion because it is often the base for many of our actions. Fear has numerous expressions horror, alarm and anxiety.

Fear has, for many, been perceived as a negative feeling. We are encouraged since childhood to overcome our fears. Many of the fairy tales we were told were actually pretty scary. What is more scary that a wolf eating your grandmother and about to eat you? These stories had the purpose of exteriorizing our fears.  Halloween and its zombies and other creepy creatures probably serve the same purpose. That may also explain the success of horror movies and novels.

Government authority has used fear (in others) as a tool to coerce required action from the public. Niccolo Machiavelli, author of the Prince understood that very well when he wrote that: “It is better to be feared than loved, if you cannot be both.”

Tyrants have ruled their “subjects” by fear of prison and torture to obtain submission to their will.

Religious leaders have also used fear to control and manipulate the flock. One theme of Umberto’s Eco’s novel, The Name of the Rose is about the concern of Church hierarchy that fear could be eliminated by laughter. In the movie adaption of the novel, one of the characters, the blind murderous priest Jorge de Burgos says: “Laughter kills fear, and without fear there can be no faith because without fear of the Devil, there is no more need of God.”

Health public policy makers use fear in public health campaigns to bring awareness to the public of the risk of certain lifestyle behaviors such as overeating and smoking. The purpose of these campaigns is to change behaviors and thus improve personal welfare and public health.

Fear can have a paralyzing effect. It was that type of fear that Franklin D. Roosevelt spoke against in his first inaugural address in 1933.

“Let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself-nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance”.

We have many reasons to fear and at so many levels.

At the global level, we fear, to name a few, the consequences of climate change, wars, terrorism (home grown or international) and the collapse of world economies and of our financial system. 

On a personal level we fear death and disease, whether our own or of those we love as well as financial distress. We fear anything that can cause physical or emotional pain.

Yet fear is essential to our wellbeing. If we were truly fearless, we would take unimaginable risks and most likely suffer equally unimaginable consequences.

Akiko Busch in his New York Times article What Are You So Afraid Of?” published yesterday has an interesting take on the potential benefit of fear on a global level. He says: “At a moment of such social, political and environmental urgency, I would like to think it is possible to tap into human fear to change behavior in some fundamental and strategic way.” 

Fear has an ethical value as well. In many circumstances it keeps us from wrongdoing. The fear of being exposed, charged and even condemned will keep us from committing a felony. The fear of being shamed will also keep us from unethical practices.

Aaron Ben Ze’ev in The Subtlety of Emotions writes:

“The functional value of fear is not merely existential but social as well: it keeps us aware of our norms and prevents some of the activities which may violate them.”

 Happy Halloween!

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