Did I Do the Right Thing?

One of the problems with writing an ethics blog is the need to live up to a very high standard—to practice not only what I preach, but also what others might preach. It’s like someone is always looking over my shoulder to make sure I do the right thing.

That’s not a bad thing. It’s a question of having a conscience and being willing to be frank with myself.

And with my readers.

Which leads me to ask your advice on something I did this week.

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Reparations and Ethics

My wife, who has published two books on slavery, recently gave a presentation to a local group interested in exploring the parallels between slavery and today’s movement for racial justice. One of the first questions was whether reparations were justified and useful.

The question spoke directly to one of the main points my wife had made—that slavery has persisted since ancient times because those who had the privilege of owning slaves were reluctant to give up that privilege. As Americans struggle today with how to begin correcting for our history of racism and inequality, a key question is what and to what extent are the privileged willing to give up their privileges.

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A Good Day to Hail Good Ethics

We spend most of our time on this blog pointing out ethical lapses, but let’s use America’s birthday to celebrate a very important collective good deed:  Charitable donations are at record highs since the start of the pandemic.

It’s heartening to note that when the coronavirus shut down the economy, leaving millions without jobs and in desperate need, Americans stepped up to help, setting records in both the number and size of contributions.

While much of the increased giving has come from foundations, companies, and institutions, a great deal has also come from individuals. Exact numbers are impossible to calculate at this point, but grants to food banks and other safety net programs, were up 667% as of June. Thirty-two community foundations that reported their giving to June provided more than $200 billion. And Fidelity reported that donor-advised funds (a tax-advantaged charitable-giving tool for the wealthy) have given $3.4 billion, up 28% from 2019.

This is a reversal from 2018 and 2019, when charitable giving declined after the 2017 tax cut act eliminated the tax deduction for millions who no longer had the incentive to itemize. Congress reversed some of that damage in the CARES Act by loosening rules for large donations and by permitting a deduction of up to $300 for those who don’t itemize.

There’s still a lot more to be done. One survey shows that America’s 50 richest people have together donated $1 billion to coronavirus relief, just 0.1% of their net wealth. And with cases of the virus surging and some states going back into lockdown, it’s obvious the need for assistance is going to remain high for some time to come.

Some Companies Still Don’t Get It

J.C. Penney, a department store with 840 retail outlets in 49 states, filed for bankruptcy this month, 118 years after it was founded. The company hopes to reorganize, but 242 of its stores are closing for good. The company, hit hard by the coronavirus shutdown, won rent relief as it tries to stay afloat, but thousands of employees have lost their jobs, investors have lost millions, and consumers in many poor areas will lose valued retail outlets.

But the pain only went so far, and it certainly didn’t reach the executive suite. Just prior to filing for bankruptcy, J.C. Penney paid its chief executive, Jill Soltau, $4.5 million, while the chief financial officer and the head of human services each got $1 million in bonuses.

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When It’s Unethical To Be Thrifty

In a recent post, I suggested that people who receive a government stimulus check even though they are not suffering any economic hardship should try to donate the money to charities overwhelmed by those who have lost jobs and income. When asked a related question, The New York Times Ethicist, Kwame Anthony Appiah, suggested those who can should spend more to stimulate the economy and resist the urge to be thrifty despite these uncertain times. (See the second question in this column.)

Now there is strong evidence, that those most able to spend are pulling back, just when low income workers need the economic jolt the most. Please take the time to examine their research here.

Democrats’ Tricky Ethical Issue: Is It Okay to Hope Trump Fails?

Ethics is about doing the right thing. It’s primarily about actions, about how we behave when we interact with others. But it also involves how we think about others. Having racist thoughts, for example—believing someone else is inferior just because of skin color—is clearly unethical. That’s because such thoughts end up influencing our behavior, whether we realize it or not, and because they likely make us more tolerant when others act with prejudice.

But what about hopes, especially when politics is involved? Can a hope be unethical?  If you’re a Democrat or Independent who pines for President Trump’s defeat, is it okay to hope that he’ll fail in dealing with the coronavirus, the economy, or anything else because you know that will hurt his re-election prospects?

That kind of question has always been in play, but the Covid-19 crisis raises the stakes considerably. As red states like Florida, Georgia, and Texas reopen their economies, Republicans and Democrats disagree in almost every poll. Republicans are far more likely to support a relaxation of restrictions, usually arguing that the economic damage is just as bad or worse than the health risks. Democrats tend to be more cautious about reopening, fearing a spike in deaths that would outweigh the harm from a deep economic recession. The divide has the awful effect of building on pre-existing polarization to turn the pandemic into a blue vs. red phenomenon.

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Book Review: The Good Ones by Bruce Weinstein

Good onesThis is a book that anyone concerned with ethics in the workplace—and we all should be—needs to read for a number of reasons and on a number of levels. It’s packed with practical information and telling anecdotes that together provide an easy, informative and enjoyable read. Most important, it explains not only what “the good ones” do to earn the title, but also how we can learn from their success and why we ought to try to emulate it. That will help us become better people and, yes, will  help create a better and more profitable business. Continue reading

Family Values: Not What You Think

family valuesI wish Harry Brighouse and Adam Swift hadn’t called their new book Family Values. The title makes it too easy to pass over this important examination of the ethics and morality of family relationships in the mistaken assumption that it’s just another empty contribution to what passes for political debate. I hope the subtitle, The Ethics of the Parent-child Relationship, will catch enough eyes to bring the book to the fore because this work has something important to say, and whether you agree or not, it’s worth a healthy debate.
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In Defense of Lying

On more than one occasion, Talking Ethics has looked at the ethics of telling so-called white lies that may seem like they’re not doing much harm—“Dinner was delicious.” “I like your new haircut.” In doing so, we found that our readers (a self-selected group who take their ethics seriously) generally frown on lying of any kind, though most reject the absolutist view of Immanuel Kant and others who insist lying is always wrong because it undermines trust and constructive discourse. Now comes a new study suggesting that not only is lying sometimes okay, but it actually can be the right thing to do.
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The Redskins Need a New Name

The NFL season is still more than a month away, but here in football-crazed Washington, the Redskins already dominate the sports pages. And with that kind of coverage staring me in the face every morning, I can’t help thinking anew about the team’s controversial name—specifically, whether its continued use constitutes unethical behavior.
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No Free Pass for Lying Politicians

When we conducted an informal survey last year asking people when it’s okay to tell a white lie, a large majority, 71%, came down hard on politicians, saying it’s wrong for them to shade the truth, even when it’s just a matter of emphasizing facts that support their point of view and ignoring those that don’t.

But lying by politicians remains rampant. Continue reading

Five Ethical Failures in the Sterling Affair

The NBA’s decision to ban Donald Sterling, the owner of the Los Angeles Clippers, is a reasonable first step, but it doesn’t begin to deal effectively with the underlying problems – or even address some of the ethical failures by the too-many actors involved.

Five separate failures immediately come to mind.
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Getting Help With Ethical Issues

Most of us know the difference between right and wrong, and can easily decide what’s ethical in a given situation if the problem is simple and straightforward. But when a complex dilemma leaves you uncertain, there are some tools that can help you work your way to a good decision. They can’t tell you what to do, but they can certainly help you figure it out for yourself.
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