From time to time we hold a session to which members bring along ethical problems to discuss and the rest of the group try to come up with answers. When discussing ethical problems it's important not simply to think of what you think the answer should be but also to identify the 'grounds' on which your answer is based.
To kick off I thought it might be interesting to discuss this letter that received recently:
I understand that your group discusses ethical and other philosophical questions at your meetings and I was wondering if you would turn your considerable minds to a small problem I have recently encountered.
I work for a large public organisation that is entirely funded from UK taxes. I will not mention the organisation by name for reasons that will become clear later on. Those of us who work for the organisation in question are highly qualified professionals who could command very considerable salaries in the for-profit sector. However, we are all of us largely driven by a desire to render public service and so we are content to accept a much lower salary than the one we know we could earn if we were otherwise motivated.
In addition to the low salary we receive we are expected to personally cover a large number of incidental expenses incurred in the course of our duties. These include hiring secretarial support, travel and, in many cases, running a second home as we work long hours in London and it is difficult to commute back and forth to our family homes. We receive a generous expenses allowance but as we have not received a rise for some years many of us have come, we feel quite reasonably, to think of the allowance as, in effect, part of our salary. Consequently, we frequently charge as much as we can to our expense accounts in order to boost our meagre salaries a little. OK sometimes we may stretch the definition of what is a legitimate expense but is that really dishonest? Surely it's just a little grey area of business practice that we all turn a blind eye to? How could the business of the world go on at all if we did not all mutually cut each other a little slack?
I have worked in private business as well as in the public sector and it was common practice amongst all of us to "massage" our expenses. Anyone who didn't was regarded as a sucker (or worse, a self-righteous sucker). The management knew exactly what was going on as they had come up through the system themselves and had done in the past exactly what we were doing now. I can't see anything wrong in this kind of activity as everyone knows what's going on and it's in effect institionalised. And it's not just at the top that this kind of thing happens. Supermarkets lose a proportion of their stock to staff who are augmenting their wages and "shrinkage" gets built in to the pricing as a result. No one complains and everyone is happy.
The trouble is that just recently the press discovered that one or two of us had been a little greedy and started charging for expenses they hadn't really incurred at all. Now I don't want to defend these colleagues but I think the whole press frenzy about what we have been doing has gone way over the top. I ask your members to question themselves -- have you never ever claimed expenses that were a little more generous that strictly justified? So why are we being judged so harshly? I can't help smelling a whiff of hypocrisy here?
What does the team think?
(Name, address and occupation witheld)
This article from The Independent raises the question of what value is reading the wisdom of the ancients. Poor old Alain de Botton, who has set himself up as something of a modern day sage has let lose his spleen on a critic only to show that he has failed to learn his own lessons. Reminds me of the fall from grace of Roger Scruton in 2002 when it came to light he was writing apparantly independent op-ed pieces against smoking bans while all the time being paid by Japan Tabacco International.
The lesson is -- don't lash out at the critics
by: Terence Blacker
from: The Independent, Fri 3 July 2009
There is a new attraction at Latitude, the London Literature Festival and other hip gatherings this summer. Eminent writers from The School of Life, the social enterprise specialising in thought and ideas set up last year by the popular author and thinker Alain de Botton will be offering literary and philosophical advice on everyday problems. As de Botton himself once put it: "The words of others can benefit us not only by giving us practical advice, but also -- more subtly -- by recasting our confusions and griefs into eloquent communal sentences. We feel at once less alone and less afraid."
Doubtless the timely theme of work and careers will be much discussed at this year's School of Life sessions. Not only has de Botton just published a book on the subject but he's also, less happily, provided a useful lesson in how not to deal with a small professional setback.
Reviewing de Botton's ~The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work~ for The New York Times, a critic called Caleb Crain suggested that the book worked better as entertainment than analysis. The problem, he argued, was that the author's attitude towards those whose work habits he studied, which was sometimes mean-spirited, occasionally spiteful, fatally undermined the project.
The author's reaction was some way from the subtle recasting into eloquent communal sentences to which he has referred. "I will hate you till the day I die and wish you nothing but ill will in every career move you make," he wrote on Crain's website. "I will be watching with interest and schadenfreude."
It was a horrible blunder on every possible level. Bad reviews hurt. They feel personal because, almost always, they are personal. The business of reading is intimate and impassioned. The literary world is riddled with jealousy, and seething with ambition. Critics make their mark on the world with the blood of authors.
An old hand like de Botton would normally realise that telling a reviewer that he hates him, throwing what looks like a teenage tantrum, will merely advance the career of his enemy. Weirdly, he explained that his words were in a private blog, as if such a thing ever did or ever will exist. Nothing will have pleased Caleb Crain more keenly than the fact that his review caused a great public row.
Yet the incident provides its own little lesson for ~The School of Life~. The implication that those who write and think for a living can draw on a deeper well of worldly wisdom is flawed. Someone who can quote Seneca's essay on anger has no reason to be more sweet-natured than anyone else.
Not only are those who live in the public eye not wiser than the rest of us but, when it comes to dealing with the pleasures and sorrows of work, authors are clearly and provably less competent than almost any other profession. De Botton's freak-out rates at the low end of recent writerly huffs.
The American novelist Richard Ford, enraged by something his fellow-writer Alice Hoffman had written about his new novel, took the Colt 45 given to him by Raymond Carver, shot a hole in one of her books and mailed it to her. Last week Hoffman had her own red-mist moment and went into a very public Twitter meltdown after her new book was roughed up in a review.
Authors' words may, as Alain de Botton claims, make others feel less alone and afraid. Sadly, the therapy works less well closer to home.
You can also download this set of ethical problems and dilemmas for discussion. They are all quite practical problems and some are based on real cases. See what answers you come up with.