By David Hegg
We’ve all faced situations where each of two competing options facing us present good reasons for being chosen. What do we do? How do we evaluate the ethical choice when both options represent sound ethical footing even though they oppose one another?
Take, for example, this scenario. Let’s say a college football coach — let’s call him Ed — has been fairly successful in the wins and losses column but is convinced that having a better training facility for his players will greatly increase his success on the field. In addition, he is also a strong believer in using football to build character, discipline and good manners in his players. He stresses that the education they gain in becoming men of value will be even more important in life than winning a conference championship.
So, he raises funds from alumni and other program backers to build his training facility, hires strength coaches, and also a “character first” mentor. He enlists an architect and general contractor, signs all the contracts, and the project begins.
But, as is always the case, there are delays due to bureaucratic regulations, and changes due to architectural mistakes as well as Ed’s desire for added features. All this means many more months of construction and, inevitably, additional costs.
Finally the facility is opened, and the contractor issues a final bill to Ed. He sees that it is much more than the original contract. He remembers some handshake deals with the contractor about the additions and changes. “We’ll settle it up right when all is said and done,” he remembers saying in the parking lot on several occasions. But now he is in a pickle.
On the one hand he realizes that he needs to be a faithful steward of the donated money, which was meant not only to build the facility, but also furnish it with all the equipment the team would need. He believes his integrity demands he not use equipment money for construction costs but he also knows the overruns are a result of his shoddy planning, and failure to manage his own desires for added features.
On the other hand, the contractor has a right to be paid for the work he has done, but the changes Ed asked for were never written down and he has no way of knowing if the contractor’s bill is accurate. What should he do?
Sadly, these kinds of situations arise every day, and not just in the area of big projects and big money.
Here’s the answer. Ed has built his football program on winning football games and building good men. The only ethical path forward is for him to act in complete honesty. That is, he must honor the handshakes, and spend the time with the contractor to accurately assess the cost of the overruns. And then he must go back to the donors, admit his mistakes, and present the need for the additional money.
Here’s why: If he violates his own integrity in the areas of character, discipline and good manners in the way he deals with his donors and the contractor, his actions will shout to his players that character only matters when things go your way. Simply put, his responsibility to build good men of character will be undermined by his own unethical behavior.
The bottom line is that acting ethically, in this case keeping your word and being honest in all things even when it hurts, is the only way to live a life that truly matters.
All around us we see historical standards of ethical behavior being destroyed by selfish, pragmatic people. We are watching the very existence of right and wrong erode before our eyes in such outrageous ways that we wonder how we ever got to this place. Sadly, we’re all to blame all too often.
Here’s my message to you all, stolen from Marcus Aurelius, the great second-century emperor and Stoic philosopher: “If it isn’t right, don’t to it; if it isn’t true, don’t say it.”
And always remember, the lesser of two evils is still evil, and evil always has a large, painful, but hidden price tag.
Local resident David Hegg is senior pastor of Grace Baptist Church. “Ethically Speaking” appears Sundays.