A quest to tame technology-driven interruptions and distractions in my daily life.

Subjective Ethics

Do what is right.

Seems simple enough when I’m contemplating this question to myself. But as I’ve moved through life, it seems the definition of ‘right’ has become increasingly subjective. It’s both troubling and fascinating. Why and how do we see something that is so absolute to each of us… so differently from one another?

I grew up in a house where I felt like the difference between right and wrong was pretty clear. My mom referred to the Bible from time to time when looking to back up her case on morality, although we were never particularly churchy. She is a good person and her belief system seems to be based on what her parents taught or demonstrated—by extension, we were to follow her example. In any case, it was hard to follow as a kid.

My dad was what I would consider extremely principled. By no means infallible, he certainly had my respect and in the years since his death, I’ve reflected back on why. I think it is because he knew who he was and what he needed to do and there was simply no doubt. What was right was obvious and the whole world revolved around that. It wasn’t so much spiritual as it was just fact—like science—one abided what was right because it was. The end.

As I’ve grown up, vegetarianism, courtesy, and even The Off Switch are to me demonstrations of doing what I believe is right. They are their own reward, and often living in support of their tenets brings hardship, but they are still worth it. As an example, I consciously limit my use of technology because I believe the unbridled use of technology is wrong. It can supersede other people’s needs, my needs, and clouds my judgement in many situations.

This week, I’m participating in a panel organized by a group called the Austin Emerging Arts Leaders on “Ethics and Conflict Resolution”. When I agreed, I thought that I might have something to say about those things, but didn’t give it a lot of consideration. As the event got closer, however, I really started thinking about it.

I came up through nonprofits before starting a business with my wife. As anyone that has ever run their own company knows, it is a path fraught with peril, harrowing decisions, and myriad opportunities to tuck away one’s scruples for the sake of profit or survival. Over the past 8 years since we opened our doors, I’ve learned some hard lessons. Key among those are about ethics and human nature.

This may sound horribly pessimistic, but I really just mean it pragmatically: I’ve come to believe that most people do not operate from a concrete sense of right and wrong. Rather, the majority of people I encounter seem to rearrange the universe or situation according to 1) what they feel like they should be doing due to appearances, 2) what they can get away with, and 3) what makes them feel good about themselves. Sometimes they rationalize behavior based on religion, business or organizational rules, or even precedents, but my observation is that they actually boil down to the aforementioned drivers. Certainly, people want to think they are doing what’s right, but rarely see people do what is ethical if it doesn’t uphold one of the above points.

Furthermore, and this totally relates to this blog’s core purpose, I see people’s sphere of obligation (that’s what I call the distance around us in which we feel responsible for preserving other people’s rights and considering their needs) shrinking to the point where it’s practically arm’s length. Think about it. It used to be when you were out in the world, it was Society with a capital S and that meant you spoke with certain people, left others alone, and you belonged to those with whom you were sharing space. Cut to present day, we’re all so wrapped up in our devices, we have come to disregard those standing by us. If they don’t like us bumping into them, talking loud by them, ignoring them, and generally being absorbed… well, too bad.

By extension, and maybe even as a correlation, we are not mindful of boundaries when it comes to ethics . This is troubling as a business owner in that I try to treat people right and always be ethical in my dealings. That most people do not reciprocate is disappointing, but not a deterrent. You’d think that I would give up, but to me there’s no pleasure or meaning in getting ahead in business or life if you’ve done so by cutting corners on ethics (—so I guess my motivations are as selfish as any).

Doubly troubling is a lack of ethics in the nonprofit realm, where there is a reasonable expectation that people act as stewards of public, donor, and stakeholder trust. Everyone involved is purportedly there for the mission. That’s what I thought when I went to work for my first nonprofit in 1999, but quickly learned that nonprofit staffs are often split into two, roughly equal camps: those who are upstanding, ethical people there in the service of the mission and those who are in nonprofits because of less than benevolent reasons. It’s a dicey dynamic to be sure, because while the latter group isn’t actively cheating, they are a little looser with the do’s and don’ts of nonprofit ethics. Often times there’s a sense of “eh, nobody’s going to notice so let’s just let it slide.”

This dovetails with conflict resolution (the other half of the panel’s topic) which is another aspect of our work lives muddied by technology. How many times have we written or read something in an email that is contentious that never would have been spoken face to face. Or what about the ‘cover your ass’ mentality of putting something in writing vs. agreeing face to face. We’re all guilty of it, but it’s a real problem—in business and in life. To the extent technology keeps us from doing what is right, we should not be leaning on that technology.

As I think about this panel and I think about business and as I think about being an adult in general, I marvel at how with so many motivations and senses of right and wrong—and as each of us struggles to survive and to find our place in things—we manage to honor one another at all. I suppose it’s a natural evolution of our caveman days to the Wild West through mutually assured destruction:

Be as good as you need to be so that something bad doesn’t happen. We all just have a different tolerance for “bad”, I guess.



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