Ethics Blog

April 10, 2014

Selfies and Ethics

Last week, the British newspaper The Mirror told the story of a teenager, Danny Bowman, 19, who had become addicted to Selfies. He became so obsessed by them that he would spend up to 10 hours a day, taking photos of himself. One day, having failed once again to take what he thought was the perfect Selfie, he tried to kill himself. He was suffering from what psychologists call Body Dysmorphic Disorder- an excessive anxiety about personal appearance.

Self-portraits are not new. Rembrandt, Durer and Van Gogh all made their self-portraits. (It is interesting to note that mirrors were not invented until the 15th Century.) Going further back in history, Egyptian and Babylonian monarchs erected gigantic sculptures of themselves for people to see. We could consider these sculptures as a grandiose expression of self.

Today, technology makes it possible not only for the powerful and wealthy to engage in self-portraiture but also for a much wider segment of the general population as well. As Prof. Pamela Rutledge of UCLA writes in Psychology Today: “Cell phones and Instagram have democratized self-portraitures, making it less precious and turning it into Selfies.”  In March 2014, Instagram, the most commonly used platform for Selfies, had more than 200 million users and over a billion photos uploaded.

Psychologists also tell us that self-image is important. Christine Erickson writes in her article, The Social Psychology of the Selfie published by, that: “(A Selfie) is how we define ourselves, and present for others to see. We rely on others perceptions, judgment and appraisal to develop our social self.”  I good picture of yourself will do wonders for your self-esteem.

I believe that the current trend in Selfies is more an expression of self-centeredness than one of narcissism. In preparing for this blog, I have asked a few of my colleagues, whether they would take selfies it they were not allowed to show them to anyone. The unanimous responses were that they would not. It seems that the primary reason people take Selfies is to show them to others.

What do Selfies have to do with ethics? One should presume that any societal phenomenon of this magnitude must somehow have a connection to ethics. What could it be?

I am sure that there are many legal and ethical issues surrounding the use of Selfies.

I personally believe that Selfies are essentially about self, while ethics deals primarily with how our behavior impacts others.

I remember seeing a cartoon in a Swiss magazine showing Mother Theresa coming up on a stage to receive the Nobel Peace Prize.  As she approached the podium, she immediately turned the spotlight that was supposed to be illuminating her onto a small child dying of hunger in Africa.

I do believe that the less self- centered our society is the more ethical it will become.

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March 31, 2014

The Madoff 5 -Aiding and Abetting-

Last week, a Federal jury found 5 former Madoff employees guilty of aiding and abetting Bernard L Madoff in the largest Ponzi scheme fraud in history. John T. Zach, the assistant United States attorney told the jury that the case was one of “massive criminal conspiracy.” The jury was asked by the defense attorneys to consider whether it was at all possible that the defendants might not have known that they were committing fraud.  The jury was convinced that the defendants had to know that what they were doing was illegal and damaging to hundreds of investors who lost most of their investments and for some, their lifesavings. They will be sentenced in July and face maximum penalties of up to 78 years in jail.

Preet Bharara, the United States attorney in Manhattan who brought the case, said: “The largest Ponzi scheme could not have been the work of one person.”

He is right. There are very few frauds perpetrated by a just one person. In most cases of fraud, there are numerous accomplices, or at the very least, silent witnesses.

What made them do it?  It’s an intriguing question that undoubtedly has more than one answer.

It does not seem, in this case, that the employees benefited significantly from their complicity. They were not accused of partaking of the $17.3 billion loot, although according to some reports they did very well working for the firm!

Could it be misplaced loyalty to Bernie Madoff?  Ultimately our loyalty should be to our values, even if it is detrimental to our immediate benefits.

Could it be a lack of courage to say “no”? It is not easy to say “no” in a close business environment where everyone else says “yes.” It takes courage.

Could the explanation be as simple as the fear of losing their jobs that motivated them to become accomplices? If that is the case, they most likely did not consider the risks versus benefits of their situation. If our jobs compromise our integrity and jeopardize our future, we should consider leaving, now rather than later.

Most of us have been asked by someone who has some of authority over us to do something that we feel is not right. What should we do in such circumstances?

Let me propose a few ideas that might be helpful.

1. Do not do what is asked of you if you think it is unethical. If you are not sure, consult someone you trust. That person’s advice may confirm (or not) your idea about whether what is asked of you is ethical or not.

2. Try to understand the objective your supervisor is trying to reach and then try to figure a way to reach the same goal without violating your conscience. It works, more often than you might think.

3. Inform your supervisor that the request makes you uncomfortable and explain why. Who knows, you might bring to his or her attention that the action you were asked to perform was indeed unethical? You will also create a reputation of being someone of integrity.

Integrity is highly valued in the corporate world as well.

As the Nigerian author Chinua Achebe once wrote:

“One of the truest tests of integrity is the blunt refusal to be compromised.”

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March 10, 2014

Email Ethics

Matthew Goldstein of the New York Times tells us the story of the demise and “fall from grace into fraud” of the once prestigious law firm of Dewey & LeBoeuf.  In his article, 4 Accused in Law Firm Fraud Ignored a Maxim: Don’t Email, Mr. Goldstein writes: “Four men, who were charged by New York prosecutors on Thursday with orchestrating a nearly four-year scheme to manipulate the firm’s books to keep it afloat during the financial crisis, talked openly in emails about “fake income,” accounting tricks” and their ability to fool the firms’ “clueless auditor.”

All four men deny the charges. The incriminating emails will certainly not help their legal case.

The story has very little to do about ethics and very much to do about the alleged crime of hiding from investors, creditors and auditors the true dire financial situation of the firm.  

From an ethical point of view, the issue is not what you say or refrain from saying on emails but rather what you do.  This applies to all form of communications.

The recent progress we have made in communication technology has been extraordinary. However, society has not been able to keep up with it from a legislative and ethical aspect. Paul Soukup, S.J. of Santa Clara University confirms this when he writes in his article Do New Media Require New Morality? “The recent history of communication technology in the United States shows legal and ethical thinking lagging behind innovations.”  

The use of electronic mail does have ethical dimensions.

Rick Brenner of Chaco Canyon Consulting writes on his blog post, Email Ethics, that: “Ethics is the system of right and wrong that forms the foundation of civil society. Yet, when a new technology arrives, explicitly extending the ethical code seems necessary, no matter how civil the society. And so it is with emails. The rules of civil society apply equally to all conduct, including that carried out with email. Whatever you would consider unethical in life is also unethical in email.”  

To be more practical let me list some email activities that most likely are unethical:

  • a) Being untruthful or misleading
  • b) Using improper language that is insulting, harassing or demeaning
  • c) Sending or forwarding sexually explicit images or jokes
  • d) Forwarding confidential information

As my friend, America’s crisis guru, Jim Lukaszewski says to his crisis communication clients:

“Do not send any email that you would be embarrassed to read to a Judge in court of law.”

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February 25, 2014

The Lone Wolf of Sochi

Ethics and Humor

The posting by Kate Hansen, US Olympic luger, of a video showing what appeared to be a wolf wandering around in the Olympic village went viral and was viewed by close to 2 million times in less than two days.

It was the perfect story. After tales of bathroom design errors, questionable drinking water and stray dogs disappearing, what could be more believable than a lone wolf wandering around the sleeping quarters of American athletes in the Olympic Village? 

 Many in the media and the public fell for it.  

 Most found it a harmless amusing prank, some took objection to it.

Jack Marshall, ethicist, lawyer and president of ProEthics Ltd.  writes in his blog post, Another Day, Another Web Hoax: The Web Hoax Scale: “It took up thousands of valuable minutes of news broadcasts throughout yesterday which could have been used productively to educate the public about all manner of things they actually need to know about.” He goes further and says: “It made the media a party to a lie. It doesn’t matter about what. It’s a lie.”

Pranks, by definition are deceptive. Deception, also by definition, is unethical.

Is there room for a compromise?

I certainly hope so.

Humor is ubiquitous in our society and culture. Henri Bergson, the French philosopher says that laughter is what makes us human. In his book Laughter-An Essay on the Meaning of the Comic, published in 1900, he writes that: “the comic does not exist outside the pale of what is strictly human.” I guess he must be right. We have yet to find a mammal that laughs at a joke!

Psychologists tell us that laughter (especially about ourselves) is healthy for our psyche. Paul E. McGhee, Ph.D. in development psychologist and a pioneer in humor research says:  ”Your sense of humor is one of the most powerful tools you have to make certain that your daily mood and emotional state support good health.”

Yet, from an ethical point of view, there are lines not to cross in humor.

I believe the essential criteria that determine what is acceptable and what is not is whether our humor is harmful or demeaning to others. As an example, we should never make fun of someone else’s infirmity, unfavorable situation or conditions.  

The American author and journalist Christopher Morley wrote:

“Humor is perhaps a sense of intellectual perspective: an awareness that some things are really important, others not; and that the two kinds are most oddly jumbled in everyday affairs.”

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February 10, 2014

Ms. Dylan Farrow

The New York Times recently published the column Dylan Farrow’s Story by Nicholas Kristof. In the article, he refers to an Open Letter from Dylan Farrow to Woody Allen fans posted on his blog. The letter alleges that Woody Allen, her adoptive father, sexually assaulted her when she was 7 years old. The open letter is probably the most moving text I have ever read in the New York Times and I highly recommend that you read it as well, now. Be warned, it is a tough read.

To me the letter has the resonance of authenticity. Furthermore, according to a number of studies, the overall rate of false accusations of child sexual abuse is less than 10%. Sunny Hostin, a former prosecutor said on CNN 360 last week that based on her experience of prosecuting sex crimes (with a 100% conviction rate) she found the account credible.

Mr. Woody Allen denies the accusation just as he did back in 1993 and published his own Op-ed “Woody
Allen Speaks Out”
in the New York Times yesterday.

In the present media frenzy, I found Maureen Orth’s  article 10 Undeniable Facts About Woody Allen Sexual-Abuse Allegation, published by Vanity Fair helpful. She decided to publish the article because, she writes: “As an author of two lengthy, heavily researched and thoroughly fact-checked articles I feel obligated to set the record straight.”

Jack Marshall author of the Ethics Alarms blog calls her an Ethics Hero because she willingly threw herself into “public controversy now while re-living the worst trauma of her life” in order to “encourage victims of child molestation and incest to speak out, and may stop some future crimes from occurring.”

This tragic story brings up at least two separate ethical issues.

  • 1. The tendency that we all have to turn a blind eye to a situation that makes us uncomfortable.

Ms. Farrow writes that her torment “was made worse by Hollywood” because, “all but a precious few (my heroes) turned a blind eye.” Turning a blind eye can never be morally justified. We have a moral, sometimes even a legal, obligation to report the suspicion of a crime.

  • 2. Whether the personal lives and negative conduct of artists should influence our appreciation of their art?

It is a difficult question.

On the one hand, if we categorically refuse to make a distinction between the artist’s conduct and his or her art, we may end up never appreciating it since no artist nor anyone else is ever perfect.

On the other hand is it possible (from a moral point of view) to totally separate the artist from his work, since art is a very personal expression of the soul of the artist?

I think that ultimately it comes down to a personal choice that we make on a case by case basis. Our decision will certainly be influenced by our own sensitivity, moral values and willingness to compromise…or not! 

As British author and journalist Jeanette Winterson once wrote:

“The body can endure compromise and the mind can be seduced by it.

Only the heart protests.”

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January 27, 2014

Photoshop, Ethics and PR

Last week, Narciso Contreras, a Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer was fired by Associated Press after he admitted to having altered a photo he had taken covering the Syrian civil war.  AP published the photo, not knowing that it had been “Photoshoped.”


In photojournalism, photo editing is problematic, because viewers assume and expect the photographic or video representation of events to be accurate.  The ethics code of the National Press Artists Association (NPPA) states that: “in documentary photojournalism, it is wrong to alter the content of a photograph in any way (electronically, or in the darkroom) that deceives the public.”


The issue of photo editing is probably as old as photography itself. In the early 1860s, a photo of Abraham Lincoln was altered to create a portrait which is the basis of the image of Lincoln on the current five-dollar bill.


Photo retouching has been used for political ends. The Russian dictator, Joseph Stalin “retouched out” the image of his enemy Leon Trosky from a photograph representing Vladimir Lenin speaking to the Soviet troops. More recently the North Korean “Leader” Kim Jon-un had all images of his uncle, Jang Song-thaek removed from public photographs after he had him arrested and executed.


Digital modification of photos has also been an issue in the fashion industry.  Last week The New York Times reported that Jezebel a feminist website, offered $10,000 for anyone who could deliver the untouched version of photos of Lena Dunham who is on the cover of the current issue of Vogue magazine. Jezebel’s declared intention was to “reveal how many pounds Dunham had lost on the Vogue Diet.” The unedited photos had more than a million page views, but to the surprise of many, the modifications were minor.


Is digital manipulation of photographs ethical? It is a valid question because the process alters reality or rather “a reality” and could be considered misleading or even deceptive.


We should recognize that we personally, more often than not, alter our “reality” by simple actions such as wearing make-up or shaving.


Some argue that photography is an art form and therefore for esthetics sake, such manipulation is acceptable. This position makes sense.


Jerry Lodriguss, an Astro-photographer, in his article The Ethics of Digital Manipulation writes “The fundamental fact that we usually forget is that when we take a picture we do not make a perfectly objective recording reality. What we make is an interpretation of reality.”


Nick Stubbs in his article, Photography Ethics and Photoshop asks a pertinent question:


“What is the difference between pulling an obtrusive branch out your way for that perfect landscape or simply removing it later on your PC? He adds: “ I am sure also, that when Turner or Constable made their beautiful paintings, that maybe another ship was added here, or an annoying, unwanted bush was removed there.”


What about Public Relations?  Are we not, to some degree, by our actions somewhat altering our clients’ reality or image? Many would agree that we are.


The essential, from an ethical point of view, is not to deceive, whether in a photo or a press release or a campaign.


The motto in the medical profession is “First Do No Harm,” I suggest the motto for the PR profession should be “First Deceive Not.”


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January 13, 2014

Traffic Jam

Some stories you just can’t make up.

The recent scandal involving the politically motivated closing of traffic lanes on the George Washington Bridge by the Christie Administration, causing chaos, is truly outrageous and reminiscent of the Wild Far West.  

In early September last year, in an apparent act of vengeance against the Democratic Mayor of Fort Lee, Mark Sokolich, for not endorsing the Governor for re-election, Bridget Ann Kelly, Governor Christie’s deputy Chief of Staff orchestrated a fictitious “traffic study” with the complicity of Port Authority officials in order to close two lanes on the GWB. The closing of the two lanes provoked the intended gridlock that lasted for days. The purpose was to provoke commuters to anger that would be directed against the Mayor of Ft. Lee.

When this matter became public, Governor Christie, in a 107-minute press conference took the blame for what happened and apologized profusely. The media’s reaction to the press conference was overall positive. As David Axelrod, President Obama’s adviser said: “Mr. Christie came across as candid, regretful and accountable.” 

Governor Christie was adamant that he had no prior knowledge of the action of his Deputy Chief of Staff which he fired promptly. His political future both as a potential candidate to the U.S. Presidency and as the current Governor of New Jersey depends on whether that is true or not.  It is hard to imagine that the Governor could think that he could get away with such a lie knowing that both the New Jersey State government the Federal government are investigating the matter.

The worrisome issue in this debacle is the fact that such an abuse of power, deception and recklessness could even happen. The fact that one could even imagine taking such action tells us about the culture of the Christie Administration. It also raises the question of judgment on the part of the Governor on hiring Ms. Kelly in the first place.

The matter is one of corporate culture. As Jack Marshall of Ethics Alarms says:

“…the fact that close aides and subordinates under his leadership thought that it was appropriate to do so demonstrates serious flaws in the ethical culture of the Christie administration…..”

He then adds a series of five questions that I believe should be asked not only to the Governor but to any CEO or senior executive following a serious breach of ethical conduct: 

•1.      Why did you trust aides capable of doing something like this?

•2.      Why did they have the impression that what they did would meet with your approval?

•3.      What have you done or said, or not done or said, to encourage such abuses of power?

•4.      How can we be sure that this won’t happen again?

•5.      What are you going to do to repair and improve the ethical culture in the organization you lead…?

As the French author Albert Camus once said:

“Without culture, and the relative freedom it implies, society, even when perfect, is but a jungle.”

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January 6, 2014

The “Quenelle”

A non-verbal insult to a people

The New York Times Paris correspondent, Scott Sayare, wrote, in his article Concern Over an Increasingly Seen Gesture Grows in France published on January 2, 2014, about a strange phenomenon, that is rapidly spreading, called the “Quenelle.” The “Quenelle” is a gesture that represents an inverted Nazi salute. It was invented by a French comedian whose popularity is based on his vile anti-Semitism. The individual in question, Dieudonné  M’Bala M’Bala,  the son of an African father and a French mother, has been condemned by French courts numerous times for “incitement to racial hatred.”  He denies the Shoah (Holocaust)  yet, in contradiction,  regrets that not more Jews were murdered.

The “Quenelle” has spread across the Channel and the Atlantic. Ben Cohen, in his article “The Reverse Nazi Salute Roiling English Soccer, published by Tablet, writes about Nicolas Anelka, a French soccer player for a British club who celebrated a goal he scored with that salute. He later apologized but his apology seemed disingenuous.   Ben suggests that America is not immune; case in point, Tony Parker, an NBA star was recently photographed doing the “Quenelle.” He too gave excuses for his unacceptable behavior.

The “Quenelle” is a non-verbal insult directed not to an individual but to a people.

Wikipedia defines an insult as: “an expression, statement (or sometimes behavior) which is considered degrading, offensive and impolite.”

How does an ethical-minded person respond to insults?

Below are three suggestions:

1.            We should avoid the best we can insulting any individual or a people.

A good guideline would be to follow the famous adage of “not doing unto others what we would not like to be done unto us.”

2.            If insulted, we should refrain, not matter how hard it may be, to insult back. We should not do as the man in the story below.

I once witnessed an amusing scene in a bar. A man, who came from Armenia and who could only speak a few words of English was being profusely insulted by another man, with offensive words that he could not understand. His only reply was: “same as you.” 

Neel Burton, a psychiatrist, philosopher, and writer who lives and teaches in Oxford, England writes in his article How to Deal With Insults and Put-Downs published by Psychology Today 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.”

3.            Try to protect others from insults.

The children’s rhyme: “Sticks and stones may break my bones / But names will never hurt me” is fundamentally not true. We are hurt by words. Bullying is most often an abuse of language.

I was recently on the Path train with my 6 year old son, when a man, standing very close to where we sat, started cursing at people around him in a very provocative way and using horrible language. He seemed either on drugs or insane. I was contemplating my next move should he get any closer to us, when I noticed that a young man who sat next to my son, put his hands on my little’s guy’s ears to protect him from hearing that nasty language. I was very touched and thanked him. 

Jean-Jacques Rousseau the French 18th Century author and philosopher once said:

“Insults are the arguments employed by those who are in the wrong.”

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December 16, 2013

Nelson Mandela

It was quite amazing to see how the passing of Nelson Mandela at age 95, became such a sensational global media event. Obituaries, short summaries of events in his life, as well as past interviews and video clips were published worldwide.

There is no doubt that he was an extraordinary man that lived an extraordinary life.

Why was he such a hero? What values did he personify that so impressed the world and why was he so admired?

Ben Cohen (a friend) in an insightful article Nelson Mandela and Zionism published by Algemeiner says:

“Mandela’s complicated legacy does not belong to any political streams-and that is a reason to admire him.”

His courage and resiliency to overcome brutal adversity as well as his perseverance in his struggle to bring down Apartheid in his country certainly plays a role in the high esteem he enjoys. Personally what impresses me the most is his capacity to forgive.  The fact that he was able to forgive the 27 years of cruel imprisonment and not seek revenge once he got out of jail is remarkable. His attempt to bring about conciliation avoided violence and bloodshed.

Forgiveness is a concept that we see in the legal system. The President, at the Federal level or a governor at the State level have the right to pardon a crime for whatever reasons such as good behavior. An Amnesty program can also be considered as a form of forgiveness.

Psychologists tell us that to be able to forgive can be liberating and very healthy for our psyche. The Mayo Clinic lists six benefits to forgiving.

They are:

1.      Healthier relationships

2.      Greater spiritual and psychological well-being

3.      Less anxiety, stress and hostility

4.      Lower blood pressure

5.      Fewer symptoms of depression

6.      Lower risk of alcohol and substance abuse

In the financial world, a cancellation of debt is definitely a form of forgiveness.

What about the concept of forgiveness in corporate culture?

It is present in the practice of giving someone a second chance.  A warning can be considered a form of forgiveness. In an article published by Forbes entitled Forgiveness As A Business Tool, Professor at INSEAD (The world’s largest graduate business school) Manfred Kets de Vries says: “We should remember that people who don’t make any mistakes don’t do anything. They are too busy covering their backs. They’re not going to try anything new.” He also believes that forgiveness in the work place also builds loyalty, creativity and productivity. 

As Robert Frost once said:

“To be social is to be forgiving.”


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November 18, 2013


While thinking of a topic for this week’s blog post, I came across publicity for a documentary and a book that had lying in their titles: The Amstrong Lie directed by Alex Gibney and Lying, by Sam Harris.

I have not (yet) seen the documentary or read the book.  

I find it interesting that the topic of the documentary about Amstrong is not about his incredible career as an athlete, his philanthropic activities, or even about his breaking the law by taking performance enhancing drugs but it is about his repeated lies done with incredible effrontery. 

Bestselling author and neuroscientist Sam Harris writes in his book Lying: “As it was in Anna Karenina, Madame Bovary, and Othello, so it is in life. Most forms of private vice and public evil are kindled and sustained by lies. Acts of adultery and other personal betrayals, financial fraud, government corruption-even murder and genocide-generally require an additional moral defect: a willingness to lie.”  Neil Degrasse Tyson, an astrophysicist at the American Museum of Natural History says of Sam Harris’s book: “Harris has compelled you to lead a better life because the benefits of telling the truth far outweigh the cost of lies, to yourself, to others and to society.”

The practice of lying baffles me. Lying is both universally practiced AND universally condemned. Except in very rare circumstances, such as to save a life, lying is by definition unethical.

Rulers lie to their subjects, politicians lie to their electorate, yet, as - Elena Gorokhova writes inA Mountain of Crumbs: “The rules are simple: they lie to us, we know they’re lying, they know we know they’re lying, but they keep lying to us, and we keep pretending to believe them.” 

The BBC’s ethics guide has an amazing 13-page document on lying. It quotes Sissela Bok’s “groundbreaking” book Lying: Moral Choice in Public and Private Life published in 1978. She says that “Liars share with those they deceive the desire not to be deceived.”

David Finn in his article “Why We Lie published by MOVE! says:

“One of the complaints about public relations that people make, indeed the major complaint, is that we are superficial in our thinking and too often we don’t tell the truth. I think that we should heed both criticisms and make a determined effort to improve our performance. Too often we do not do enough research to have reliable information about the message we are communicating and in controversial issues, we tend to believe what our clients tell us without listening to contrary views. If we are not careful we could make statements on their behalf that are not true.”

He concludes his article by saying: “We should be scrupulous about not telling others what, to our knowledge, we don’t think is correct. And we should never be a spokesperson or provide communication resources for the policies or positions of a company, a cause or a country with which we personally disagree.”

If only more would share this point of view and practice truth-telling.

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