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March 31, 2009

Excess

Time magazine this week's cover story is entitled: The End of Excess - Is the Crisis Good for America?

Excess spending and consumption is difficult to define and very personal. What is basic to you may seem excessive to others. What we have in our closets would be considered, the ultimate luxury in poorer countries such as Zimbabwe (ex Rhodesia) or Haiti.

In some cases it is obvious. Mrs. Marcos was said to have 3 000 pairs of shoes. It would appear to me that in this case, it is more a situation of mental deficiency than one of economics. Excessive eating has resulted in alarming numbers of obesity in America. Recent studies indicate that one of every three Americans is obese.

Who decides what is excessive and what are the criteria for making that determination?

In a way, the local, State and Federal Government decide by imposing higher tax rates on people of higher income and wealth. Our tax system not only provides the country with funds for basic requirements of the State such as Defense and Education but also serves as a redistribution of wealth demanded by justice. How the government spends that money is a different topic all together.

The issue of excess also involves the values of freedom and responsibility. I am free to do whatever I want with money that is mine, yet I want to be responsible in the way I spend. I am free to eat as often and as much as I decide yet I am also responsible for the condition of my health.

Responsibility means: "giving an answer to" or to be accountable. But to whom?

1. To yourself. One should spend and consume according to one's values and conscience.
2. To your immediate family or to people that depend on you for financial support. For instance, it would be considered irresponsible for a father of middle income and wealth to purchase a Ferrari instead of saving the money he would spend on the car for the college education of his son.
3. To the Community at large. Taking care of the less fortunate has always been considered in history and in most cultures a moral duty.

As Frederich Hayek, the Austrian economist, philosopher and Nobel laureate once said:

"Liberty not only means that the individual has both the opportunity and the burden of choice; it also means that he must bear the consequences of his actions. Liberty and responsibility are inseparable."


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March 23, 2009

Outraged

"Anyone can become angry-that is easy-but to be angry with the right person, at the right time, and for the right purpose and in the right way- that's not within everyone's power and that is not easy." -Aristotle

The recent revelation that AIG paid to its executives $216 million in bonuses has angered the public. The reaction is understandable not only because of what seems to be another expression of excess in corporate America but because AIG is on the brink of bankruptcy and has benefited from $170 billion stimulus from the Federal Government. That of course means that the taxpayers, (you and me) are footing the bill. The word most often heard about those bonuses is "outrage."

If my math is correct, the bonuses represent a little more than 1/10th of 1% of the stimulus package AIG received. Furthermore, the hypothetical cost of the bonuses to each taxpayer would amount to $1.56! Not much to be outraged about.

However, it is of course, the principle of injustice and unfairness that have people upset.

Anger is a legitimate emotion. We become angry when we think we have been wronged or taken advantage of. We become angry when we believe we have been the victim of injustice or unfairness.

However we rarely get angry when someone else is the victim of injustice. That is regrettable.

Below are some numbers that should get us outraged:

The number of victims of domestic violent - 32 million.
The number of children that go to bed hungry - 13 million
The number of adult illiterates - 7 million
The number of homeless (adults and children) - 600 Thousand
(These numbers cover the U.S. only)

Anger can have a moral value. It should lead us to corrective action. We should try to see how we can individually "make a difference," correct an injustice however apparently small our action may seem to us.

As Bede Jarrett, the Dominican English priest and author once said:

"The world needs anger. The world often continues to allow evil because it isn't angry enough."

 

 

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March 16, 2009

Conflicts- of- Interest

The New York Times reported on March 3rd that a Harvard Medical School professor and a full-time member of the Harvard Medical faculty was also a paid consultant to 10 drug companies. The dean announced the creation of a 10-member committee to re-examine the school's conflict- of- interest policies. The financial interaction of the pharmaceutical industry with universities is critical. The issue is to make sure that these interactions do not compromise the academic integrity of institutions.

Many books, theses and conferences have addressed the issue of conflicts- of- interest. Google has 28,300,000 entries about conflicts-of-interest. Most corporations include conflict-of-interest in the code of ethics.

The business dictionary defines conflict- of- interest as a:

"Situation that has the potential to undermine the impartiality of a person because of the possibility of a clash between the person's self-interest and professional-interest or public-interest."

Certain professionals such as judges, politicians, physicians and public relation executives are particularly exposed to conflictions- of- interest situations. These professionals exercise power on the lives of others. They can be therefore tempted to exercise that power to their personal advantage.

However we all can face conflicts of interest in both our private and professional lives because we have many interests and limited resources and options. Ethics is very often about dealing with conflicts between legitimate values, in "right versus right" situations.

What are the tools that can help us resolve these issues? It is never easy and each situation has its own challenges.

Below are some ideas or guidelines that can help us resolve a conflict-of-interest situation.

1. Disclosure or Transparency:
We should disclose a potential conflict-of-interest to the parties involved. They will better determine if such a situation exists.
2. Removal:
We should consider removing ourselves from the decision making process in a potential conflict-of- interest situation.
3. Third party evaluation:
We should consult with people of experience that we trust and that are completely independent and that have no stake in the issue.
4. Legality:
We should inquire from legal counsel whether the action we are about to take is legal.

Clement Stone, the author and founder of EON, once said:

"Have the courage to say no. Have the courage to face the truth. Do the right thing because it is right. These are the magic keys to living your life with integrity."

He lived to be hundred years old!

 

 

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March 10, 2009

Ethics & Humor

Dean Grose, the mayor of Alamitos, a suburb of Los Angeles resigned last week for forwarding by email a humor photo of the White House bordered by a huge watermelon patch with the caption that read: no Easter egg hunt this year .

The New York Post and cartoonist Sean Delonas were heavily criticized for publishing cartoon depicting a Chimpanzee shot by the police with the caption: "They will have to find someone else to write the next stimulus packaged." Some people saw it as a representation of President Obama, comparing him to a dead monkey. Robert Murdoch, the owner and publisher of The Post, apologized for the cartoon.

A few years ago, a Danish newspaper published a cartoon depicting the Prophet of Islam, Mohammad. The cartoon led to massive protest by Moslems worldwide. The demonstration escalated into violence that led to the death of more than 100 people.

Humor plays a very important role in our lives. Humor is often a release from something that is wrong, painful or incoherent. Psychologists believe that being able to laugh about ourselves is a very good indication of good mental health. I believe that a sense of humor is also the mark of high intelligence. I have noticed that people that are able to instantly capture the incongruity or comical aspect of a situation are usually also very bright.

It can be sometimes difficult to know where to draw the line between what is acceptable healthy humor and what is unacceptable and offensive.

Different people have different sensitivities. It is a very personal matter. Insensitivity or indifference can often be the fruit of ignorance of someone's (or a community's) past hurt and trauma.

We should avoid making fun of peoples' race, gender and religion. We should also not mock someone's infirmities and hurt. Humor should not be divisive but inclusive: all parties should be able to share in the joke.

Our personality is often revealed by the jokes we tell and what makes us laugh.

As Goethe said:
"Nothing shows a man's character more than what he laughs at."

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February 23, 2009

Shame

The publication AM New York had on its cover last week the words Hall of Shame with the framed photographs of the athletes Barry Bonds, Michael Phelps and Alex Rodriguez accused of having using illegal steroids.

Time Magazine in its February 23rd, 2009 issue lists 25 people to blame for the present financial meltdown. Their photos are aligned in front of a white background, very much like a wall of shame.

Shame is a very powerful emotion. We always remember instances in our lives when we were shamed and we have difficulty forgiving whoever humiliated us in the past. We fear hearing the words "shame on you" or "you should be ashamed of yourself."

The words of Joe Welch, the Boston attorney to Senator Joe McCarthy on June 9th 1954, "Have you no shame, Senator?". still resonate in our collective historical memory. Overnight, McCarthy's immense popularity disappeared. It was the beginning of the end of his career.

In our present Western culture, shame is often seen as a sentiment to be banished. In a highly tolerant culture, where almost "anything goes" there is very little left to be ashamed of. Who today blushes? The absence of shame in our society may be one of the reasons for the general decline in civility.

However in other cultures, such as the Mid-Eastern and Oriental societies, shame or rather avoiding shame, plays a crucial role. In those cultures, it is of utmost importance to avoid losing face not only for oneself but also for the other.

The fear of shame can protect us from doing something unethical.

Aaron Ben-Ze'ev, professor of Philosophy at the University of Haifa, says in his book The Subtlety of Emotions that: "Shame is probably one of the most powerful emotions for moral behavior. Shame is closely connected with self-esteem and self-respect. Its emergence indicates that some of our most profound values are violated."

Shame or the fear of shame can be a very good indicator that we should exercise caution before taking an action that we think may cause us shame.

As the Roman first century philosopher Seneca once said:

"Shame may restrain what law does not prohibit."

 

 

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February 10, 2009

How Many is Too Many?

The news that a woman in California gave birth to octuplets surprised many and shocked some. Nadya Sulemane, the 33-year old single mother of 6 is now mother of 14. Nadya planned or rather engineered the multiple births by having the six embryos, conceived in-vitro and placed in her womb. All of her 14 children were conceived that way and all have the same "father."

Nadya appeared on a number of television shows and seemed composed, apparently rational and totally dedicated to being a good mother. However, Nadya does not have a job and lives with her parents in a small apartment in Los Angeles. Her mother is the caretaker of the six older children. Nadya also assumes that her church will be willing and able to support her.

Her situation and how it came about has raised many questions among ethicists and the public in general.

There have been numerous cases of women taking fertility drugs because of their inability to conceive who found themselves pregnant with multiple babies. In this case however, the issue is one of shared responsibility.

1. Responsibility of the mother who took enormous health risks for herself and her children as well as the risk she took of not being able to provide both the emotional and financial support these children will need.

2. Responsibility of the medical profession that allowed or rather facilitated the multiple births. The physicians that performed the in-vitro fertilization share the risks taken by the mother and imposed on the children. Arthur Caplan, director of the Center for Bioethics at the University of Pennsylvania said: "Medicine is not a restaurant, and doctors are not waiters, they need to have some professional responsibility when it comes to patients."

3. Responsibility of society that should have laws in place to prevent Mega-multiple engineered births. I am often wary of creating more laws to regulate ethical conduct, because it is difficult to legislate morality and because, I believe society should not necessarily criminalize unethical behavior. However in this case, I believe we need new laws. We already have laws that determine who is fit to be an adoptive or foster care parent, why not apply the same criteria to biological parents who plan on having multiple births as well? The American Society of Reproductive Medicine, which set national standards, recommends that no more than two embryos be transferred at one time.

The etymology of the word "responsible" comes from the Latin word "respondere" which means giving an answer to, or being morally accountable for one's action.

As Victor Frankl once wrote:

"A man who becomes conscious of the responsibility he bears toward a human being who affectionately waits for him, or to an unfinished work, will never be able to throw away his life. He knows the "why" for his existence, and will be able to bear almost any "how."

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February 2, 2009

Undue Influence

Governor Blagojevich was impeached and ousted last week by a unanimous vote of the Illinois State Senate. He now is facing many Federal charges and among them the one of influence peddling.

Don't we all exert some influence on people around us whether a spouse, a child, or in our social and professional lives? Our experience, knowledge, skills or function give us some authority on those we are in contact with.

One of the roles of public relations is to influence behavior of targeted audiences to either purchase the products or services of a client or to adopt a point of view on a particular issue that is favorable to the client.

How do we know that influence we exert is within the boundaries of what is acceptable and good ethical conduct?

Different cultures have different criteria. For instance in some cultures fathers have, what we consider in our culture, excessive influence on their daughters as to who they should or have to marry.

To prevent the abuse of our influence or authority, we should first check our motives and make sure that we do not benefit personally from the influence we have or at least that our potential benefit is not the primary motive of our action.

Secondly we have to make sure we are not using coercion, forcing someone to do something they do not want to do.

Thirdly, we have to be very careful not to manipulate. That is not always easy when you believe that the action you are trying to get others to take is the right one. David Rosen, a friend, the former Chief Rabbi of Ireland has a superb command of the English language and is a great speaker. He once told me that he was always aware of the risk of manipulating his audience by his oratory skills.

What ethical value can prevent us from using undue influence?

I believe it is respect.

Mark S. Putnam, the founder and president of Character Training Inc. and the author of the Business Ethics Advisor says that: "Ethical success depends on understanding the profound impact that respect has on your ethics and character."

As Immanuel Kant said:
"Act in such a way that you always treat humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of any other, never simply as a means, but always at the same time as an end."

 

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January 26, 2009

Change

This week's inauguration of the 44th president of the United States may very well bring many changes in the way we live and conduct our selves as a Nation. President Obama's campaign promised us just that.

One of his very first steps was to impose a new ethics code for White House staff.

The topic of one of our discussions at "Cafe Philo" (a group discussion I have organized that meets monthly to discuss life issues) was: Is change always good? Each participant was asked the following question? "If someone came to you and said that he had some news that will change your life (assuming that you believe him or her), would your reaction be one of fear or one of joy? Most of the participants had a positive attitude and were optimistic about the hypothetical change.

Change, however, can provoke anxiety. We are never truly comfortable with uncertainty. Yet there are very few things in life that are absolutely certain except of course for death and taxes.

How should we then face unfavorable change?

Here are some ideas:

1. We should recognize that change is inevitable. There is an ancient Chinese proverb that says: "You can never enter the same river twice, because it is no longer the same river and because you are no longer the same person." T.S. Eliot said: "What is actual is actual only for one time, and only for one place.

2. We should be prepared for it, both psychologically and practically by making some contingency plans.

3. We should be alert and not miss opportunities that may rise from the change.

4. We should be willing and ready to learn some lessons from the events that provoked the "negative" change.

5. We should also be aware that we are not totally helpless in change. We also can be agents of change both in our lives and in the lives of others.

As then candidate Obama said:

"Change will not come if we wait for some other person or some other time. We are the ones we've been waiting for. We are the change that we seek."

 

 

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January 12, 2009

When in Doubt....Report!

Last week Central Florida News reported that a boy had been missing for 10 years. He was 11 years old at the time. His adoptive parents never reported him missing. The police are investigating.

The question is why did others such as neighbors, friends or anyone not report his missing either? Surely someone must have known or been suspicious.

It is a fact that most of us are reluctant to report abuse. There may be a number of reasons why.

  1. We may be afraid to "get involved" because of the consequences such as making enemies, having to testify or even being sued.

    These are selfish reasons. Furthermore, many do not know that all 50 States have passed some mandatory reporting law. Medical practitioners, social workers, law enforcement officers, school administrators, school counselors, psychologists, audiologists, teachers and clergy have a specific legal obligation, in most States, to report suspected abuse. Many states have broad statutes requiring "any person" to report. As to the fear of being sued, Federal law, (Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act-CAPTA) gives absolute immunity, against both criminal and civil liability for anyone reporting abuse in good faith. However, failure to report may result in civil liability.

  2. We may be afraid of reporting false allegations.

    We should not worry about it. It is not for us to determine the veracity of the allegations but for the authorities. In 2006 approximately 6 million children were reported for abuse and of those 6 million reports, only 0.1 % was intentionally false.

  3. We may also be afraid of being the cause of a monumental disruption in someone else's life.

    However such a "life" absolutely needs such a disruption.

Once a suspected crime is reported to whatever authority, whether it is social services, clergy or even the police, we are no longer individually responsible.

Basyle Tchividjian, a former assistant State Attorney and chief Prosecutor of the Sexual Crimes Division is now the executive director of GRACE, (Godly Response to Abuse in the Christian Environment.) He says: "We all have an innate duty to make known evil which thrives in secrecy and whose young victims are longing for us to step forward."

It will take courage but we all have a moral obligation to report such a suspicion. We should remember that we are "our brother's (and sister's) keeper" and that by reporting a suspected crime we may actually stop an on-going crime or even prevent a worse crime.

As Maya Angelou once said:

"History, despite its wrenching pain, cannot be unlived, but faced with courage, need not to be lived again."

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January 5, 2009

Reputation is NOT Everything

Reputation is NOT everything.

That is true for two reasons.
1. It can be lost
2. It can be false.

Two of the many painful lessons of the Madoff scandal are that a good reputation can be lost and or false.

It is hard for me to imagine that Mr. Madoff started out with the firm intention to defraud his friends and clients. The investigations and trial will reveal whether I am correct. I can imagine that at one moment, when some investments incurred a loss, he covered those losses by illegally depleting accounts of other investors, most probably expecting the market condition to improve and to be able "correct" the fraudulent transactions. Instead he must have found himself having to continue covering larger and larger losses until his operations became a Ponzi scheme.

Anyone's reputation that may have taken years or even a lifetime to build can be lost in one instant, by one single action. We are human and subject to errors in judgment and temptations to stray for the right path.

The fundament question for each one of us is who can we trust? Mr. Madoff had the best reputation one could imagine, yet it was not based on truth or reality. How do we know if someone's reputation is true? The cynic will say that you can trust no one but this is not a way to live and totally unrealistic. If we did not have some trust, we would never take an elevator, follow our doctor's advice or buy a product.

We should trust and verify. We should demand transparency even when we trust. I have a friend and attorney who told me that he was representing the managers of a multi-million dollar fund. They considered investing with Mr. Madoff and went to see him with specific questions as to how and where investments were made. They were not given the answers they were looking for and decided to walk away. I am sure many of Madoff's victims wished they had done the same.

George Henrik von Wright, the Finish philosopher was right when he said:

"Society is becoming less and less transparent. People no longer know where decisions that substantially affect their lives are taken, nor by whom, nor how."

 

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