COMMENTARY: The Struggle Between Wants and Shoulds

As a full-time ethicist – can you believe there is such a thing? – I spend most of my time talking about right and wrong with parents and politicians, kids and corporate managers, journalists and generals. One thing I’ve learned is that ethics – being a good person and doing the right thing – is easier said than done. Ethics, …

COMMENTARY: A Person of Character

Let’s face it, it’s not easy to become a person of character. It takes a good heart, but it also requires wisdom to know right from wrong and the discipline to do right even when it’s costly, inconvenient or difficult. Becoming a person of character is a lifelong quest to be better. A person of character values honesty and integrity …

COMMENTARY 987.1: A Short-Haired Role Model

A popular way to encourage charitable donations is to invoke people to “give till it hurts.” Mrs. Rosario Rivera, an elementary school teacher in Puerto Rico, takes a very different approach, urging her students to “give until it feels good.” Mrs. Rivera teaches English at the José Ramón Rodriguez Elementary School in the town of Coamo in Puerto Rico. Her …

COMMENTARY 986.4: Self-Control

A frazzled mother with a fussy child caught the eye of a grocery store manager. He overheard her say, “Lily, you can do this. We just have to get a few things.” Moments later, when the child became more upset, the mother said calmly, “It’s okay, Lily. We’re almost done.” When the child became hysterical in the checkout line, the …

COMMENTARY 986.2: “I Didn’t Want the Janitor to Lose His Job”

The primary responsibility for instilling good values and building character is with parents. This doesn’t mean, however, that teachers and coaches don’t have a critically important role. The unfortunate fact is that far too many kids are raised in morally impoverished settings that foster lying, cheating, and violence. If we don’t give these children moral instruction, many of them will …

COMMENTARY 985.5: A Call for More Civility

When George Washington was 16, he discovered a booklet of 110 maxims describing how a well-mannered person should behave. He was so convinced that these maxims would help him become a better person that he set out to incorporate them into his daily living. Among Washington’s many virtues, his commitment to civility marked him as a gentleman and helped him become …

COMMENTARY 984.5: Do I Have to Tell Everything?

Should a job applicant properly withhold information about a criminal record or termination from a previous job? Should a woman starting a new relationship say nothing about a previous marriage or abortion? These are problems of candor: When does an ethical person have a duty to reveal negative information about his or her past? First, let’s reinforce a basic premise: …

COMMENTARY 984.4: Is It Really Only About Winning?

Long ago, I entered law school wanting to do good. I left more concerned with doing well. In an atmosphere dominated by raging competitive instincts, persuasive rationalizations, and real economic pressures, cynicism drowned out idealism. My notion of the legal system as a grand forum for the pursuit of truth and justice was reduced to the idea that, in the …

COMMENTARY 984.3: The Scorpion and Human Nature

Terry and his dad Glen were walking along the shore and came upon a scorpion struggling in the tide, trying to get back to the sand. Glen tried to scoop the creature up, but the scorpion stung him and fell back into the tide. Glen tried again and was stung again. Terry said, “Dad, leave him alone! He’s not worth …

COMMENTARY 982.4: Five Birds and Good Intentions

Five birds are sitting on a telephone wire. Two decide to fly south. How many are left? Most people would say three. Actually, all five are left. You see, deciding to fly isn’t the same as doing it. If a bird really wants to go somewhere, it’s got to point itself in the right direction, jump off the wire, flap …

COMMENTARY 982.1: Do a Little More

In 1964, a young woman named Kitty Genovese was stabbed to death outside her apartment building in Queens, New York. She was attacked repeatedly over the course of an hour and despite her screams, none of the 38 neighbors intervened or called for help. Some were afraid. Some didn’t want to get involved. Some thought someone else would do it. …

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COMMENTARY 981.5: The Disease of Low Expectations

The serious damage done to our economy, social institutions, and personal relationships by widespread cheating and dishonesty is bad enough. But widespread acceptance of such behavior as inevitable threatens to make our future a lot worse. In effect, our culture is being infected by a disease: the disease of low expectations. The disease is manifested by the corrosive assumption that …

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COMMENTARY 979.1: Surviving Grief and Tragedy — The Spark Within

Here’s the bad news: Virtue isn’t a golden ticket to a pain-free life. Bad things happen to good people as often as they happen to bad people. It seems unfair, but in the natural order of the world, suffering is random. To expect otherwise is to sentence oneself to despondency, disillusionment, bitterness, and anger. Here’s the good news: The magic power that …

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COMMENTARY 978.4: The Parable of the Carpenter

A master carpenter who had worked for the same builder for nearly 50 years announced he was retiring. The builder told him how much he appreciated his work and presented him with a $5,000 bonus. Then he asked if he would build just one more house. He owned a magnificent lot with a spectacular view and wanted to build a …

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COMMENTARY 977.4: Coaching for Character

I’ve spent lots of time with some of the world’s most successful coaches. I discovered that many of them think about character a lot, especially traits that are important to winning – like self-discipline, perseverance, resiliency, and courage. They pay less attention to virtues like honesty, integrity, responsibility, compassion, respect, and fairness — aspects of character that make a good …

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COMMENTARY 976.5: The True Meaning of Our Lives

I saw a cartoon showing an old king checking in at the gates of heaven. He introduced himself as “Edward The Good.” The gatekeeper with a large book in front of him said, “Well, Eddie, we’ll be the judge of that.” The point is that, in the end, generous self-appraisals won’t matter. Our epitaphs will be written and eulogies delivered …

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COMMENTARY 976.4: How Honest Are You?

Yesterday I marveled at the honesty of Patrick and Catherine for going to great lengths to return my wallet. Perhaps you would have done the same thing, but being scrupulously honest in all things is more difficult than it seems and more rare than it should be. Here’s a little quiz to test your honesty. Now be completely honest. I’ll …

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COMMENTARY 976.3: The Saga of the Lost Wallet

I suspect it’s an indication of low expectations that I was so delightfully surprised when I found a note on my door Saturday afternoon from a person who said they found my wallet a few hours earlier. Apparently, after pulling out my credit card to get gas, I put my wallet on the top of the car for a moment …

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COMMENTARY 976.2: Motive, Tact, Tone, Timing

Trustworthiness is essential to good relationships, and honesty is essential to trustworthiness. Being honest isn’t simply telling the truth, though. It’s also being sincere and forthright. Thus, it’s just as dishonest to deceive someone by half-truths or silence as it is to lie. But what if honesty requires us to volunteer information that could be damaging or hurtful? For example, …

COMMENTARY 975.5: What Is Character?

Here’s a riddle: You can hardly ever find it anymore — especially in politics or business. Lots of schools don’t teach it anymore. We want more of it in our children and in all the adults who interact with them. We want it from our bosses and the people who fix our cars. And most of us believe we have …

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COMMENTARY 975.1: Are Cynics Right? Is Lying Really Necessary?

What do you think? In today’s society, does a person have to lie or cheat at least occasionally to succeed? The question isn’t whether occasional liars and cheats sometimes get away with dishonesty; we all have to agree with this. The question is whether you believe people can succeed if they are not willing to lie or cheat. Those who …

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COMMENTARY 974.2: Dying From the Cold Within

One of the great challenges to our humanity is acknowledging and overcoming our natural tendency to think less of and discriminate against people who are different from us racially, ethnically, religiously, or ideologically. Despite persistent rhetoric about prizing diversity, political debates often reflect disdain and contempt for those we disagree with, and prejudices of all sorts are more readily stated. …

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COMMENTARY 974.1: Testing Your Integrity

In the past year, did you keep the money if a cashier gave you too much change? Did you lie to your boss, a customer, or a significant other? Did you use the Internet for personal reasons at work? Did you distort or conceal facts on a resumé or in a job interview? Did you inflate an expense or insurance …

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COMMENTARY 972.1: Confessions of a Lincoln Groupie

I am an Abraham Lincoln groupie. He is my biggest hero. I have a huge collection of books and Lincoln memorabilia, my daughter, Abrielle, was named after him as was one of our family dogs. And by blind chance, my son Justin was born on his birthday. I often visit the Lincoln Memorial and stand in awe of his magnificent …

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COMMENTARY 971.4: A Parable About Integrity and Rationalizations – How Much Do You Want It to Be?

The founder of a company needed to choose his successor. He studied resumes and talked to references, but he decided to ask only one question during the final interview: “How much is 2 + 2?” Ann, the first candidate, worried that there was a trick but she answered straightforwardly. “There’s only one correct answer: it’s four.” Terry, who had an …

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COMMENTARY 971.1: HOW AND WHEN TO CONVEY HARD TRUTHS — Motive, Tact, Tone, and Timing

Trustworthiness is essential to good relationships, and honesty is essential to trustworthiness. Being honest isn’t simply telling the truth, though. It’s also being sincere and forthright. Thus, it’s just as dishonest to deceive someone by half-truths or silence as it is to lie. But what if honesty requires us to volunteer information that could be damaging or hurtful? For example, …

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COMMENTARY 970.3: Loopholes and Slippery Slopes

As a former law professor, I know all about loopholes. I trained students to find omissions and ambiguities in wording — a perfectly legal way to evade the clear intent of laws and agreements. After all, that’s what lawyers are paid to do. And, despite commonly expressed disdain when lawyers do this, that’s precisely what most clients want and expect when …

COMMENTARY 970.2: A Government Program That Is Working

I was pleasantly surprised that my visit to detention camps for juvenile girls run by the Los Angeles Probation Department turned out to be encouraging and uplifting. Instead of finding a cadre of angry and hostile girls in a punitive prison setting, I saw clean classrooms attended by very

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COMMENTARY 969.4: 12 HARD-WON LIFE CHANGING INSIGHTS

Perhaps the only major advantage of getting older is the prospect of getting wiser. I think I’ve learned a great many things over the years but here are a dozen of my most treasured insights. I am still a work in process; that as long as I can think I can learn. I still have a lot to learn but if …