Ethics Blog

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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October 21, 2014

Sayreville Hazing Scandal

On October 6, 2014, Richard Labbe, the Sayreville school superintendent cancelled the remainder of the 2014 football season. His decision came when he became aware of the allegation of a serious hazing incident that involved sexual assault. Since then seven students were charged with crimes that include sexual assault.

Hazing, a ritual of passage, which involves humiliating, abusing and harassing another human being, is by definition unethical because it violates the fundamental value of respect. Even though the victim may have consented to it.

One of the explanations or excuses given is that it is part of the culture, i.e. it is acceptable.  

That does not make it right!

According to The Guardian, some researchers believe that there are more than 800,000 students that experience hazing per year. “Everybody does it,” is a deplorable and disgraceful defense. We should attempt to change a “culture” when its practices are harmful. Hank Nuwer, an authority on hazing, says that “hazing has been part of the education culture for so long that it isn’t looked at as a major problem until it happens to your school. And then it’s the worst problem out there.”

We have historical evidence that hazing has been practiced in the U.S. since 1838.

That does not make it right!

Since when does a history of abuse justify it? What about the concept that society should improve with time?

What makes hazing particularly objectionable is the fact that there are so many that are aware of it yet do not speak up against it. In Sayreville, students, faculty, coaches and parents were aware of the practice. They all may not have been aware of the extent of the violation and humiliation but many had to know.  Why did they not stop it?

On October 19, 2014 all football coaches of the high school were suspended, as well as five tenured teachers because of the scandal.

Hillary Schmalzer of Florida State University, author of “Defining Hazing and the Immorality of Hazing by Sororities writes: 

“Since hazing causes pain and misery, it infringes on our human rights. Therefore the act of hazing is morally impermissible.”

Surely we, as a community, should be able to come up with some alternatives to abusive hazing practices and replace them with some rites of passage practices that are neither demeaning nor harmful.

As Laurence Sterne, the 18th century Anglo-Irish novelist once said:

“Respect for ourselves guides our morals, respect for others guides our manners.”

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October 6, 2014

Accepting Blame-Responsibility

One of the many controversies this past week was created when President Obama accurately quoted the Director of National Intelligence, Mr. James Clapper. He had acknowledged that the intelligence community had underestimated the strength and threat of ISIS and had not anticipated the extreme weakness of the Iraqi Army. Some accused the President of shifting blame to Mr. Clapper. I do not believe that is what happened. The President knows, as so does most of the country, that the “buck stops” with the presidency. The very function of a leader demands that he or she take full responsibility for actions or inaction that he or she was not directly involved in.

Admitting responsibility in a crisis situation is what we recommend our clients do.

The refusal to accept blame is what leads us to fabricate all kinds of excuses and more often than not, to blame others.

Adam blamed both Eve and God for his action when he replied to the question: Have you eaten from the tree from which I ordered you not to eat: “The woman you gave to be with me - she gave me fruit from the tree, and I ate.”

Why are we so reluctant to accept blame?

Obviously there are many reasons depending on the circumstances. I would imagine that most of them are motivated by fear, such as the fear of shame and the fear of appearing weak.

The fear of consequences, particularly at a corporate level, is probably the most common reaction when facing disclosure of a wrongful action.  Accepting blame for such an action can have serious legal and financial consequences for any company or individual, particularly in our litigious society.

However, accepting blame is really about being honest with ourselves and with others. It is the mark of a responsible person. Accepting blame is accepting responsibility for our actions.

As Bob Dylan once said:

“I think of a hero as someone who understands the degree of responsibility that comes with his freedom.”

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September 22, 2014

Off-Field Transgression

The editorial in last Thursday’s issue of AM New York, Moral Issues Knock NFL for a Big Loss talks about the “NFL’s stunning ineptitude in dealing with off-field transgression.” The article was referring to the recent revelation that both Ray Rice and Adrian Peterson of the NFL had recently been implicated in domestic abuse.

Jim Harbaugh, the head coach of the San Francisco 49ers promised in a press conference that the NFL will implement a new conduct policy.

Let me first say that I do not believe that domestic abuse is a matter of ethics. Domestic abuse is a crime and should be dealt with accordingly.

However I find the term “off-field transgression” interesting and ethically challenging.

Where do we draw the line, assuming that there is such a line, between conduct on the “field” and off the “field?” What repercussions does unacceptable behavior outside of the workplace have in the workplace? Ultimately should someone be fired for reprehensible conduct outside of the office?

What are the values or ethical considerations in making that decision?

The answer to the question will obviously depend on a number of factors, such as to the nature of the offense, whether it was a one-time occurrence or a pattern and of course on the policy of the company that employs the transgressor.

Dawn Klingensmith in her article Behavior outside work could cost you your job published by CTW news quotes Robert A. Dubault, a partner at Warner Norcross & Judd LLP and chair of the Firm’s Employment and Labor Law Group who said:

“Usually, the type of off-duty actions that might result in an employee being terminated is either something criminal or detrimental to the employer’s image or reputation, or something that conflicts with the employer’s interests, such as working for a competitor or starting up a competing business.”

Different States have different laws regarding automatic dismissal of employees but generally speaking most companies will let an employee go if it believes that the employee represents a risk of endangering the well-being of other employees.

Dawn Klingensmith, in the same article quotes Gloria Petersen, a professional etiquette expert at Global Protocol, Phoenix who said:

“Probably one of the most popular questions to ask someone you just met is “Where do you work? Once you answer with the name of your company, the company’s reputation is at stake. Your behavior becomes a reflection of the company whether the behavior takes place at a cocktail reception, informal party or on a social networking site.”

We are integrated human beings with all of its failures and complexities. I do not believe that we can be Dr. Jekyll at work and Mr. Hyde at home. Striving for integrity should be our purpose both “on-field” and “off-field.”

As King Solomon once said:

“The integrity of the upright guides them, but the duplicity of the treacherous destroys them.”

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September 15, 2014

Engaging our Critics

Last week the New York Chapter of PRSA held a Mock Tribunal of the PR profession that I was privileged to initiate and organize. The intent was to provoke a conversation on Public Relations and its critics.

Each participant in the discussion was given a court role. Randy Cohen, original “Ethicist” of the New York Times Magazine and current CEO of the radio talk show Person, Place, Thing was the judge.

Paul Holmes of the Holmes Group played the role of the Prosecutor. In his opening remarks he said: “I believe that when we practice spin rather than public relations, when we try to persuade somebody to vote a particular way, to buy a particular product rather than focusing on the necessity of building a relationship, we cheat not only the consumers, the employees, the communities with which we communicate but also our clients in whose long term interest is a genuine relationship.”

Michael Schubert, our Chief Innovation Officer and the Defense Counsel for the occasion replied by saying that the public relations industry is about giving our clients a voice and that we have a “moral obligation to do our job, which is to bring a company or a brand’s point of view to the public in an honest and transparent way.”

The Prosecutor and the Defense each had two witnesses: Fran Hawthorne and Delbert Spurlock for the Prosecution and Steve Cody from Peppercomm and Jacqueline Brevard formerly from Merck for the defense.  The discussion was lively and both profound and entertaining.

You can view the recording by clicking on the link below.

https://vimeo.com/105821992

It was my hope that this exercise would help us understand that ethical conduct in the practice of the profession was the best way to eliminate much of the criticism directed against public relations.

David Finn, the co-Founder and Chairman of Ruder Finn has always said that we should engage our critics. Back in 60s, he wrote an article for Saturday Review entitled Business and its Critics.  In an article published in MOVE! David refers to his Saturday Review article and writes that he believes that:

“corporations should give more thoughtful, sensitive and responsible responses when there were criticisms of their policies or practices in the media. This should apply to food companies that faced overweight problems, to automobile companies that faced accident problems, to smokestack companies that faced pollution problems, to chemical companies that faced agricultural problems, to nuclear power plants that faced potential disaster problems, and to cigarette companies that faced lung cancer problems. My argument was that corporations should not just dismiss these criticisms as unfounded or unproven. Means should be found to convince the public that business cared as much about health and safety as anyone else. In the course of the article I mentioned that the standard tobacco industry response to new health reports was unconvincing, and I suggested that a more thoughtful statement would be more appropriate. I believed that the industry should show respect for the new evidence and state that it would search for a responsible policy that recognized the seriousness of the problem revealed by the different studies.”

Why are we so reluctant to engage our critics?

I am sure that the reasons differ depending on the situation but could one of the reasons be that we are not so sure, after all, of the validity of our positions and actions? If that is the case, then our reluctance should be an indication that what we believe (or do) may somehow not be the right thing and that we should rethink our approach.

As Winston Churchill once said:

“Criticism may not be agreeable, but it is necessary. It fulfills the same function as pain in the human body. It calls attention to an unhealthy state of things.”

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August 11, 2014

Who Lives and Who Dies-The Ebola Emergency

According to the World Health Organization (WHO) we are facing an “international health emergency on Ebola.” The two countries most affected are Liberia and Nigeria. More than 1000 people have recently died from the disease.

Ebola is an extremely contagious, deadly disease that has no known cure.  There are two experimental drugs that some believe might be helpful. However, these drugs have not been properly tested and therefore are not on the market. One of these drugs (ZMapp) was administered to two healthcare workers, Kent Brantly and Nancy Writebol, from Samaritan Purse, who contracted the disease in Liberia, in the humanitarian exercise of their medical profession. They are now being treated at Emory Hospital in Atlanta.

The World Health Organization is convening a meeting of ethicists to discuss the ethical dilemmas of the use in an emergency of untested drugs and also to address the issue of distribution in a limited resources situation.

Some of the questions they will most likely discuss are:

1.      Is it acceptable to administer a drug that has not been tested on humans and whose benefits or harm are unknown?

2.      How informed can or should the consent be? Should one administer such a drug to a population   that can neither read nor write?

3.      Who should be held liable if something goes horribly wrong? The WHO? The ministers of health of different countries that authorized the use of such drugs? The pharmaceutical companies that manufacture them?

4.      However, in my mind, the most heart-wrenching question is who gets the drug when it is in a very limited supply? Should it be children, or healthcare providers, or the individuals who are most likely to benefit from the drug?

Bioethics is dealing with the most challenging ethical dilemmas because the choices that are made have life threatening consequences. In corporate ethics, the consequences are often about money (fines and lawsuits). In bioethics the consequences can be life or death.

In this case, we can summarily define the dilemma with the following question:

Who lives, who dies and who decides?

In facing such a question, we may have to recognize that there is no “right answer.” Any decision will be, at best, a choice of the lesser of two evils, a “wrong versus wrong” situation. There are some circumstances that require a heavy dose of humility and the admission that sometimes, we simply do not know.

I hope that the ethicists convening in Geneva this week will come up with guidelines that will help the international community make the right decisions. I sincerely hope that those guidelines will include the values of respect for human life, justice and fairness, as well as dignity.

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July 28, 2014

The Risks of Euphemism

The lead article, Silence and Punishment” in the July 20th issue of the magazine section of the New York Times by Michael Sokolove, tells the story of the fall from grace of Graham Spanier, an exceptional man who had a very successful career in higher education until he was forced to resign because of the Sandusky scandal. Jerry Sandusky, the former assistant coach of Penn State University was convicted on 45-counts of sexual abuse of young boys during a 15-year period from 1994 to 2009. He is serving a 60 year prison sentence.

Mr. Spanier now awaits trial. He is charged with “Conspiracy of Silence.” He is being accused of “conspiring with other top university officials to conceal information about suspected child abuse involving Jerry Sandusky.”

Jeremy Fyke of Marquette University and Kristen Lucas of the University of Louisville published a very interesting article: “Euphemisms and Ethics: A Language-Centered Analysis of Penn State’s Sexual Abuse Scandal” that was published in the Journal of Business Ethics.

The study showed that members of the University staff “used coded language to report the assault up the chain of command”… and that “top leaders relied on an innocuous, but patently false, interpretation of earlier euphemisms as a decision-making framework to chart their course of (in)action.”

For example, some of the words used to report the incident were “doing something with a youngster in the shower,” or “in very close proximity behind a young boy with his arms wrapped around him.” While the correct words that should have been used were that he had “raped a child.”

Sometimes euphemisms leave too much room for interpretation when there should be none!

Mr. Spanier says that he would have taken the appropriate actions had he been told of the true nature of the repeated incidents that were reported to him about Mr. Sandusky. He says: “I am an intervener, I see something going on the street, in the community, I intervene.” He adds that if he had been told “anything about child abuse, sexual abuse, had anything criminal had even been hinted about that possibility” he would have acted differently.

Having been himself the victim of violent child abuse by his father, who for many years, brutally beat him, one can easily believe that he would have indeed reacted appropriately had he been told the truth.

The authors of the study believe that: “Through euphemism, distasteful activities can lose their repugnancy, harmful conduct can be made respectable, and that which is socially unacceptable can be transformed into something socially approved.”

The use of euphemism serves an important role in society. It allows a “kinder, gentler” exchange between people and helps avoids unnecessary embarrassments and unpleasantness. It is indeed more appropriate to say of someone that he is “academically challenged” rather than “stupid.” It is kinder to say that someone is “disabled” rather than “crippled.”

Yet the use of euphemisms can represent a risk of downplaying an action that is unethical or even criminal. The term “enhanced interrogation” does not convey the horror of the word “torture.” The word “cheating” (on a spouse) does not have the stigma that the word “adultery” carries.

The question then: When is it acceptable, from an ethical point of view, to use euphemism and when is it not?

I believe it all depends on the intention. If the use of euphemism is for the sake of civility and an attempt not to offend, then most likely it is “OK.”

If, however the motivation is to diminish the severity of a reprehensible action, then we should abstain and have the courage to call out the unacceptable behavior by using the word of words that best clarify the action.  There is value in calling “a spade a spade.”

As the historian Paul Johnson once said:

“Euphemism is a human device to conceal the horrors of reality.”

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July 14, 2014

Motivation

In the article, The Secret of Effective Motivation published by The New York Times on July 6, 2014, Amy Wrzesniewski, associate professor of organizational behavior at the Yale School of Management, and Barry Schwartz, professor of psychology at Swarthmore College classify motivation in two categories: internal and instrumental.  They give the example of a scientist that conducts research just to find facts as internal motivation, while a scientist that conducts research to achieve fame and financial success as instrumental motivation. They also recognize that often people have both internal and instrumental motivations for doing what they do.  They ask the question: “What mixed motives-internal or instrumental, or both – is most conductive to success?”

To answer the question, the authors analyzed data from 11,320 cadets at the West Point Military Academy who had been rated on their motives for joining the Academy, such as to be a good leader (internal) or to have a better job later in life (instrumental.) They found that: “the stronger their internal reasons were to attend West Point, the more likely cadets were to graduate and become commissioned officers.”

The authors believe that: “Helping people focus on the meaning and impact of their work, rather than on, say, the financial returns it will bring, may be the best way to  improve not only the quality of their work but also –counterintuitive though it may seem-the financial success.”

Finding meaning in the work we do is an excellent motivator for success. Stephen Mills, blogger of the Rat Race Trap says that:One of the best ways to find some personal meaning and happiness in your job is to use it as an opportunity to improve yourself.  Personal growth is one of the best ways to do this, for at least one person – you.  You can make your work the education and practice ground for creating a better you.”

One can also apply the reasoning and findings of the study to the practice of ethics. Why do people do “the right thing?” What is the true motivation?  Could it be because of potential enhanced reputation and other benefits and does it matter?

Doing the right thing for the wrong reason is better than not doing anything at all. For instance, if a wealthy person decides to donate one million dollars to the local hospital so that he (or she) will be honored at a dinner party, that is sad. However, what really matters is that people are going to benefit from the donation.

Ideally, we would hope to do the right thing just because it is the right thing to do.

As author Keven Heath once said:

“A true hero is not someone who thinks about doing what is right, but one that simply does what is right without thinking!”

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July 1, 2014

Lost and Found

Last week a friend (and colleague) told me a story about her parents. The story is beautiful and has an ethical component-lesson for all of us.

Here is the story:

My friend’s parents are from the Middle East. Many years ago, they were forced to leave their home country because of a Revolution. They had to leave behind everything they owned except what they could physically carry with them. Among these items was a small briefcase with the family jewelry.

My colleague’s mother kept the briefcase in a bank safe deposit box but would occasionally bring it home so that she could wear the jewelry during a reception or party at her home.

On a fateful day, as she was leaving the bank, heading for home, she left the briefcase on the roof of her car. When she arrived at home she realized what had happened. She was devastated. For three days she did not eat nor sleep. She could not stop crying. Every piece of jewelry she lost had a sentimental value, a particular memory of her past such as a gift for the birth of child, a wedding anniversary or another joyful event.

Across town, another woman was crying. A single mom trying very hard to make ends meet.

She had found the briefcase. In the briefcase was a card indicating the name and phone number of the owner. Her friends and family were telling her that she should not even consider returning it. Yet, her conscience and values would not allow her to keep the newly found treasure.

On the third day, with great moral courage, she called my friend’s mother and asked whether she could ever be forgiven for having hesitated and for having kept the briefcase for that long.   She was warmly forgiven.

They arranged to meet so the young woman could return the briefcase. My friend’s mother did not expect that much would be left but to her surprise, none of the jewelry was missing. She offered the young woman any piece of jewelry she wished. The young woman categorically refused to take anything. It was then that my friend’s father wrote her a check for $10,000 which today would represent approximately $50,000.

The woman accepted the check and for a great number of years, stayed in touch with them, expressing her gratitude and explaining how that money had actually changed her life.

The ethical lesson to be learned is that it is never too late to do the right thing.

The young woman might have reasoned within herself that by not returning the briefcase immediately, she had already committed a felony and that she might as well enjoy the fruit of her crime. She did not.

As Og Mandino once said:

“There is an immeasurable distance between late and too late.”

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June 24, 2014

Ethics and Emotions

I read an interesting article in the June 20th 2014 edition of The New York Times entitled Our Moral Tongue by Boaz Keysar, professor of psychology at the University of Chicago and Albert Costa, research professor at the Center of Brain & Cognition at the University of Barcelona.

They conducted a study that revealed that the moral choices people made in facing an hypothetical ethical dilemma are influenced by whether the dilemma is presented to them in their native tongue or not. The study seems to indicate that we react more with our emotions that with our intellect when a dilemma is presented to us in our own language rather than if it is presented in a foreign or second language.

To illustrate the point, the authors quote Nelson’s Mandela who said:

“If you talk to a man in a language he understands that goes to his head.

If you talk to him in his language that goes to his heart.”

We often think of ethics as an academic discipline in the field of philosophy with its theories, principles and codes. Yet we should not ignore the critical role that emotions play in the ethical decisions we make, whether they be negative emotions such as fear, guilt and anger or positive emotion such as empathy, love and joy.

Ilana Simons, Ph. D literature prof. at the New School believes that emotions serve not only to protect us individually but also to bind communities. In her Psychology Today article The Four Moral Emotions-Guilt, Shame, Embarrassment, and Pride Make Societies Work” she writes:  ”After all, we all have a better chance at survival if the species works as a team, rather than battling it out to mutual extinction. In turn, emotions are useful because they seal a Social Contract, a system of ethics  that protects the species–not just individuals–into the future.”

Philosophy and Psychology are not mutually exclusive!   Paul Thagard, Professor of Philosophy at the University of Waterloo and author of The Brain and the Meaning of Life writes in his article also published by Psychology Today, Ethical Thinking Should be Rational AND Emotional, that does not believe that reason and emotions are opposite. He says that: “being good requires both thinking and feeling.”

When trying to convey ethics and inspire ethical conduct we should address both the heart and the mind of our audience.

Albert Einstein once wrote:

“The intuitive mind is a sacred gift and the rational mind is a faithful servant. We have created a society that honors the servant and has forgotten the gift.”

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