November, 2012 | Bottom Line Ethics

One of the most frequently encountered questions for an ethics professor is the basic one: “Can you teach ethics?” This, of course, is mildly threatening if you are a self-interested prof whose very role depends on the answer to that question being “yes.” How can anyone teaching ethics answer that question objectively? I think that there are good reasons to believe that you can teach ethics. First, if you cannot, it is virtually the only realm of education that is held to be unteachable. Second, if you examine the argument, what people are really saying is that you cannot teach ethics “up”; everyone knows that you can teach ethics “down,” as evidenced by the extensive cheating reported in colleges and the failures in business ethics that insure that I always have a job doing what I do.

I find myself in the awkward position of saying that ethics are not fully formed when students get to college, so they can be taught. That makes me uneasy, because I would prefer that they would be fully formed. But if they are not fully formed, it is quite possible that they are well formed when they get to college. By that I mean that a student is sensitive to what is right and wrong, and that student reaches informed judgments based on a defensible structure for ethical decision-making. I also mean that person has the moral motivation to do the right thing when it would be easy to choose otherwise, and then has the strength of character to follow through and actually do the right thing.

The best evidence of that to me is the picture above, which includes the three men in my life who are most important to me, my father and my sons. My dad, Ken, is an Iwo Jima veteran, and at 92 is still my hero. He taught me many things, but two of the most valuable were that hard work and commitment to my calling was my daily responsibility, and that there was no substitute for honesty. I wish that I could say that I saw those two things reflected in my life. But somehow, for all my shortcomings, I see them reflected clearly in my sons.

Kenny, my father’s namesake, is six years out of college and on the fast track with his multinational corporation. In fact, he is about to launch out on a significant career opportunity overseas that will take him far from us. Of course, I am happy for his successes. But I admire his quiet determination to work with uncompromising excellence, and to lead in the same way. I know that, day after day, he rises early in the morning to meet his commitments, and I have never heard him make excuses in the midst of trying circumstances. In fact, he has spent a good piece of his young career supervising people my age and trying to help them adopt the same commitment to excellence that he pursues. In all of this, he adds energy to any group of friends with his happy spirit and sense of humor. When he comes home, he demonstrates tremendous compassion and kindness to his younger siblings and his parents, and he takes a genuine interest in our lives.

Nathan, ten years younger, works just as hard. But I admire his focused search for truth, and his willingness to confront hard questions and to be uncomfortable in that search. He does not accept things at face value, and he has a habit of examining his own motives for why he does things. I think that will serve him well in the long run as he tries to maintain his character when he leaves home. He looks up to Kenny for many things, including his work ethic and his energy. No foosball table is safe when those two are on opposite handles, and Thanksgiving has been a stream of shouts and laughter as they have played together.

We will send Nathan off to the college classroom of someone like me. Nathan’s values, if not fully formed, are very well formed. And he is teachable. My hope is that his ethics professor will activate that search for truth and not undermine it.

But as I look at the picture above, I see the imprint of my father in my sons. My Dad was not a perfect guy; neither am I, and neither are my sons. But he is a man of integrity who has demonstrated lifelong commitment—to his family, to his work, to my mother. He has given my sons a great gift of which they are only partly aware.

Can you teach ethics? Yes. My father is living proof. It may not come with an assigned catalog number or classroom. But, life on life, we change those who are important to us. And I am grateful that one more time, last night, my sons were able to hear his voice and see his face.

I only hope he has a sense of how his life will reverberate in the generations to come.

Categories: Family

Would you like a recipe for driving yourself crazy if you are a control freak? Then follow your fantasy football team on the Sunday before a national election. It is hilarious for me to think that I have any control over how anyone on my fantasy football team will perform. Not only do I get incensed when Philip Rivers throws another interception, I somehow attribute it to his character, as if he was a bad guy. (By the way, I will never play him again unless, of course, that no-good Josh Freeman fails me today against the Raiders.) It is equally useful for me to read every story on both Fox News and MSNBC about how the latest “most important election of our time” will turn out.

When I was younger, I thought that I had a lot of control over my environment, and I pushed forward with decisions as though I did. This often works out well, because in areas of a person’s environment where no one is actively intervening, there is little resistance to imposing your will. For example, people will allow you to be slightly impolite or endure your mild insults that help you to get your way. In the short run this leads to the belief that you have more control than you do. In the long run, it can lead to habits of thinking that can drive you slightly bonkers. It also leads to unrequited anger, which includes muttering short syllables under your breath in traffic, random honking, and yelling at referees.

I have had multiple experiences in the last year where I have felt that my life was completely out of my control. I move from challenge to challenge, and I start noticing that more people are asking me about how I am feeling, which is never a good sign. Though I acknowledge their concern, I quickly move on to the next assignment, the next event, the next class. In a cause-and-effect world, it makes sense for me to do what I know to do. Where I can choose, I want to choose well. It is in the times that I do not get to choose that I am concerned about my response.

I am not suggesting that I should just lie down and let the world roll over me. Though my faith is central to me, I have a responsibility to act. What scares me a bit is that I can consciously recognize that a situation is beyond my control, and yet still emotionally react as if it ought to be something I fix. I think that this is unhealthy, and I see it reflected in a number of scandals in the business world.

Insider trading is an attempt to control the uncontrollable, or at least to control what is not justly supposed to be controlled. Raj Rajaratnam was a master of the game in his years running the Galleon Group, mining all the information he could regardless of the legalities that might be barriers to obtaining it. He used many people, including the former Goldman Sachs director, Rajat Gupta, to help provide him with the ability to control the uncontrollable. And after his conviction last month, Gupta will be joining Rajaratnam in federal prison as a result.

Corporate executives are often expected to control the uncontrollable. Public companies receive annual opinions not just on their financial statements, but on their controls. Of course, the quality of their planning will impact the company’s results. But pervasive economic trends, taxing structures, and commodity prices can only be planned for to a limited extent. There is no way to eliminate all of the uncertainty, despite marketplace expectations. Many corporate executives have crashed their companies by misleading investors, trying to give the impression they were overcoming forces beyond their control. (For those of you who are concerned, I am currently tied in my fantasy football game because two of my players are totally worthless.)

As a father of five, I see this tendency manifested in my attempts to control my children in areas where I ought to give them choice, even though they are transitional adults closing in on independence. When children are younger, we can control much of their environment, and we make many of their choices for them. We cannot protect them from every harm, but it is reasonable for parents to intervene and make choices that will help prevent serious damage. We can control where they go to school, who they play with, and what they eat. But we have to transfer that control to them, and our attempt to retain control beyond the days they are entrusted to us can only lead to long-term dysfunction and their inability to stand on their own. Even though our youngest son is a high school senior, we are still learning in this area. (While I was writing this paragraph, Josh Freeman completed two passes totaling 84 yards to Vincent Jackson, who is also on my fantasy team. I am now ahead by 21 points, and I am, by the way, a genius for having them both on my team. Sit down, Philip Rivers!)

If I am convinced that it can lead to various negative outcomes, how do I stop trying to control the uncontrollable? I would love to hear from you on how you have learned to let go of those things that you cannot control. Meanwhile, I need to go check and see what the polls say about the swing states so that I can question the credibility of the sources that disagree with me.

Categories: Athletics, Business, Politics

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