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Struggling with ethics

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My wife has long disapproved of the hillside gallery at the Red Butte Garden concerts. Her years as an elementary school teacher have left her with an unwavering respect for rules. To her way of thinking, a rule is as inviolate as the multiplication tables her students struggled to memorize.

I am less rigid in my approach to life’s quandaries. When I encounter a rule or policy that is nonsensical, I am able to skirt it without troubling my conscience. So I have often joined the crowd outside the Red Butte Garden fence, despite our disagreement about the propriety of doing so (even for a sold-out concert). This year, for the sake of marital harmony, I suggested a consultation with an ethicist. The only one I knew worked for The New York Times Magazine, so I drafted a careful summary of the Red Butte circumstances and e-mailed it to him. To be ticketless on the hillside or not to be, that was the gist of the question I posed. He didn’t reply.

I offer that anecdote as an example of the unresolved ethics questions that swarm around us like yellow jackets at a picnic. Like the bees, some sting and some don’t. Not a day goes by that we are not forced to choose between two courses of action—one right, one wrong. The choice is made without internal debate, and too many decisions are merely expedient. We blab on cell phones while driving, even though the distraction puts others at risk. We download music from BTJunkie.com instead of buying it from iTunes. We read the SparksNotes version of Hamlet, not Shakespeare’s iambic pentameter. Many secretly indulge in fantasy football at their desk. Politicians pander. There are so many dodges and so many dilemmas. Not all are nuanced. A guy buys a pair of corduroy pants from L.L. Bean. He wears them a few times, but after a rapid weight gain, he can no longer zip up the fly. He takes advantage of the company’s liberal return policy to get new pants in a larger size—as unethical as crude network-marketing schemes, in my view.

Thanks to the scrutiny of newspapers like this one, we are more attuned to ethical lapses by government officials than to our own. Steve Turley, a Provo city councilman, was forced to resign because of allegations he had parlayed his public position into personal gain. In the wake of Turley’s resignation, Sen. Curtis Bramble, R-Provo, harrumphed that Utah’s notoriously lax ethics laws might need tweaking. Closer to home, the governor expressed “grave concern” after the news media reported a board member of the Utah Transit Authority had turned a multimillion-dollar profit from a land deal that smacked of insider information.

My concern is that the state of ethical decision-making is so grave that remediation is urgently needed. We have GPS to show us where we are and where we are going, but no app to help us chose the “right” way to proceed from here to there. Herein lies opportunity for the Deseret News, the struggling, LDS Church-owned newspaper: Publish an ethics advice column (not by the unmasked Richard Burwash!). The title could be adapted from a popular LDS hymn: “Do what is right, let the consequence follow.” Ethics and religion are congenial bedfellows, after all, and heaven knows the newspaper needs more readers. I don’t ordinarily read the Deseret News, but had it been dispensing ethics guidance, I would certainly have turned to it on the Red Butte issue. I think many people would do the same. Most of us are in need of a daily dose of ethics. One of my friends has just become a consultant. As such, he is adjusting to being paid by the hour instead of being salaried. Here is how he would explain his dilemma to an ethicist: “I have found that my total billable hours are sometimes inflated because I spend time correcting my own mistakes. May I bill for incompetence?”

Confronted by a flood of such questions, an ethicist would have to be selective, publishing only those with broad interest. One that interests me is the ethics of calling out impropriety. Should I report a business that employs undocumented workers? A fellow airplane passenger with child-porn pictures on his laptop? A friend’s misdeeds, a la Penn State? The easy answer is “mind your own business.” However, I can’t help but think of West Point’s honor code, which reads, “I will not lie, cheat or steal or tolerate those who do.” No mistaking the imperative of reporting violations at the academy. Failure to do so is a violation in its own right. Would that we had such clarity in Salt Lake City and beyond.

My wife welcomed the announcement of a fence on the hillside north of Red Butte Garden. I found it a costly, bureaucratic decision based on flawed reasoning. Whoever made it does not understand the hillside experience. People gather there—many with dogs and children—to socialize and listen to the distant music. Most make no effort to see the stage. I enjoy the hillside aesthetic: the music, the setting sun, the city lights, the crowd. This summer, I watched a Coldwater Creek mom dance nonstop with her 5-year-old Gap daughter for an hour of Sheryl Crow. Another night, I sat by a guy who played counterpoint on a clarinet to a succession of Jerry Jeff Walker’s songs. All things considered, a fence is irrelevant. While it will cause the hillside crowd to move a few yards north or west, chain-link will have no effect on dancing, music, picnics, sunsets or marital harmony.

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