During orientation I learned one of business school’s most valuable lessons. I learned the first step in resolving all ethics problems.
Orientation included a case study on ethics. The case involved a guy who witnessed someone else breaking a rule at a company. If he told on the employee he would escalate the problem, possibly identifying himself as not a team player, no matter how justified his actions. Remaining silent would make him complicit, and who knew how many other rules the person he observed might be breaking?
The details were relevant to the case, but keeping things at a high level reveals what I call the classic ethics problem:
The Classic Ethics Problem: You have to choose between something you agree with that will hurt you and something you disagree with that will help you.
That’s it. A huge class of ethics problems boil down to that problem. Many that don’t still resemble it.
As an aside, a guy with a background like me can’t help but see the problem from a game-theoretical perspective. You have two options, both of which result in you losing.
If one choice clearly stands out as superior, you don’t have a problem. Just choose that one. If the stakes are low you also don’t have a problem. If you’re stuck and the stakes are high, then you have a problem.
Some people at this point say “I’ll always do the right thing.” That sounds great in theory, but ignores that people can always construct situations that confuse what the “right” thing is. People who believe otherwise are kidding themselves. And the world can construct more situations than people can imagine. Besides, others will disagree on what you consider right.
So what do you do when you feel you have to choose between to losing options?
The solution to the classic ethics problem: When you have only two options, both losing, create more options!
Create more options!
Change the game.
If you believe you have no other choices, you’re wrong. It’s easy to accept the situation as you first saw it, but you don’t have to.
Look at the problem from a new perspective. Find other people who have solved similar problems. Learn from them. I guarantee creating other models for the situation will reveal different options.
I take my hat off to my professor who gave that solution, Michael Feiner.
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