Category Archives: Ethics & Values

How to Insure Your Greatest Achievements Are Yet to Come

On Memorial Day I finished listening to Citizens of London: The Americans Who Stood with Britain in Its Darkest, Finest Hour. The activities of Edward R. Murrow, Averell Harriman, and John Gilbert Winant during World War II were brought to life and contextualized within the greater war effort. As is the case with many such biographical histories, the end of the book briefly summarizes the rest of the lives of each person.


How to Insure Your Greatest Achievements Are Yet to ComeWhile the first two men were household names for at least half a century, Gilbert Winant is virtually unknown. Yet it was his story that struck me most profoundly. Deeply loved by Britishers of all walks of life and universally acknowledged as having played a crucial part in the Allied victory, nonetheless, in 1947 he committed suicide.

As I was listening to this I entered Naval Base Point Loma and saw the American flag waving in the breeze. For a moment I was struck by the idea that I will never do anything as great as being a part of the United States Navy’s effort to defend our country. Did Gilbert Winant, who clearly was not a part of President Truman’s inner circle the way he was FDR’s, despair of ever achieving anything as important as his instrumentality in the victory over Nazi tyranny?

I quickly disavowed myself of the idea that my best days are behind me. But the thought that some of my fellow service members may draw such a conclusion impelled to write this post.

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Your military service is and was noble. You made sacrifices that more than 90% of Americans cannot understand but appreciate. Most significantly you took a risk to serve your country, especially if you saw combat. Sadly, some of your comrades did not survive. But thank G-d you did. Hopefully, the risk paid off in several ways including achieving your mission and gaining greater self-knowledge.

Here is the rub: If you want to do even greater things you will have to take risks again. They probably will not be life threatening, but they could temporarily crush your mind and spirit.

Yet this is the greatest training the military gives you: the ability to assess risk, mitigate it as much as possible, act in spite of the remainder, and recover no matter how it turns out. Consider the value this gives you as a spouse, parent, and provider. If the enemy could not deter you, how can friends?

While military service gave you an opportunity to be involved with greatness, the world still abounds with opportunities to surpass such eminent achievements. Will you dare to be greater than ever before? Will you take the risk?

Question – What great accomplishments do you want to pursue?

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Sticks and Stones . . . But Words Will Never Harm You. Really?

Sticks and stones will break your bones but words will never harm you. Once held to be true, in the age of speech codes and sensitivity to the feelings of others perhaps it is time to retire this axiom. Will doing so benefit you and your loved ones?Sticks and Stones . . . But Words Will Never Harm You. Really?

My daughter is a sensitive little girl. A stray look or elevated voice often reduces her to tears. She was upset for several weeks because someone called her a crybaby. While it pained me to see her distressed, I used this situation to explain to her that when a person says something mean about her such a statement means nothing – about her. It may, however, provide important information about the person who made the remark.

Movies of the 1930s and 1940s showcase a rich vocabulary of nicknames, many of which would be considered rude today. To call a fat boy Fatty or a smelly boy Stinky would raise howls of protest. But how does protecting a child from such epithets impact his ability to handle mental stress?

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Being given such a nickname can help a child learn to distinguish between good-natured ribbing and true invective. If such names are said in jest or a spirit of camaraderie, they help a child to learn humility and can serve to bind him to a group. When said to wound, like with my daughter, they teach a child how to deal with people of questionable or poor character. In either case, the child is more emotionally resilient and thus better prepared for the rigors of life.

What happens when speech is prohibited? Merely because someone is forbidden to utter something does that changed his attitude? Clearly, it does not. Is it better to know the character of a person with whom you may associate or have it hidden from you? Indeed you are probably wasting your time dealing with someone who is prejudiced against you.

While you cannot always control your feelings, in most cases allowing them to be hurt is a decision you make. Whereas if someone attempts to strike you it may be difficult or impossible to avoid or ward off the blow, you can ignore a rude remark, especially if it is false. A remark that is harsh but true can be reframed as an inspiration to change.

Sticks and stones will break your bones but words will never harm you. Time to write its obituary? For the sake of your and your loved ones' mental fitness, an extension of tenure is in order.

Question – How do you respond to someone who has spoken to you harshly?

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Now, You Can Understand When to Be Aggressive

“Therefore say: Behold! I give to him my covenant of peace.” (Bamidbar/Numbers 25:12). Pinchas has just killed two people and he is given a settlement of peace. What sense does this make?

Now, You Can Understand When to Be Aggressive

The parsha for this Sabbath is Pinchas. It discusses Pinchas’s reward for his zealous act, the censuses taken prior to the Children of Israel entering the Land of Israel, the petition of Zelophehad’s daughters, the laws of inheritance, the appointment of Joshua as Moses’s successor, and the offerings that were brought daily, on the Sabbath and on holidays.

The Netziv, Rabbi Naftali Tzvi Berlin observed that the kind of impassioned act that Pinchas did could cause a person to become aggressive all the time, even when it was not appropriate. To prevent this G-d made him a kohen, the covenant of peace, so that in all other areas of his life he would act with equanimity.

Parshas Pinchas shows that your normal state should be one of peace. You will, at times, find it appropriate or even required to be aggressive. But because you can do so much harm when acting this way, you must be very careful not to let it become a part of your nature. Behavior molds you: for good or for bad. To direct your character properly, whenever you have to be combative you should go out of your way to be very kind and caring in all other areas of your life.

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Strive for the ideal of the Chazon Ish who was supremely gentle and always avoided quarrels. Even when he had to be stern, inwardly he was calm. Thus his aggressive behavior was always under control and available to be called upon only when absolutely necessary.

Life will sometimes demand that you act aggressively. The best course of action is to train yourself to do so out of kindness and with self-control. In this way, you can be sure that you will be quarrelsome intentionally and for the good of you and the other person.

Question – How do you act outwardly belligerently while remaining inwardly calm?

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Do You Make the Mistake of Equating Legal and Moral?

How do you distinguish between legal and moral? Burning ants with a magnifying glass: is this okay because it is not illegal? Taking a drug not approved by the Food and Drug Administration that may save your life: is this wrong because it is illegal? You probably answered no to both cases.Do You Make the Mistake of Equating Legal and Moral?


Over a two-month period, I monitored many sessions of the navy’s latest training on sexual assault prevention known as SAPR-F. While the presenters, both live and on video, mentioned numerous times that sexual assault is a crime, only with my urging did one presenter say that it is wrong to sexually assault a human being.

I emphasized this point when I gave my remarks at the end of each session. My question to those being trained was: how would you feel about someone who attacked your sister or mother? Do you want people to feel that way about you? The posture and attitude of those listening visibly changed. The pronouncement of the immorality of sexual assault more starkly exposed as futile whatever legal shilly-shallying they might have been considering,

Tim Cook recently testified before Congress about Apple Inc. not paying any taxes on its foreign-based profits. Yet everyone agreed neither American nor foreign laws were broken. Were the questioners implying Apple has a moral obligation to pay taxes?

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Internal Revenue Service employees targeted certain groups for greater than typical scrutiny. No adjudication as to laws broken has been made. Nonetheless, people across the political spectrum have made accusations of misconduct. Is it reasonable to conclude that those involved acted immorally?

None of the above would be troubling if it were clear that the standard of moral conduct expected from people is different than the standard of legal conduct. But with the proliferations of laws and the inclusion of codes of ethics in statutes the impression is given that the law trumps all. If that is the case, there is no reason to be concerned about ethical behavior. Further, and more important for the future, children need not be schooled in the difference between legal and moral.

Most damaging about the equating of legal and moral is it teaches you to suppress your conscience in favor of an external source. Bereft of an internal gyroscope, your ethical decisions are more easily manipulated. You do not need to search far to find societies that, their people having relinquished their moral compasses, are convinced that murder, assault, and destruction are defensible, even meritorious.

Finally, when legality and morality are deemed the same, there is no standard by which to judge the justice of the law. The law cannot simultaneously establish the benchmark for right and wrong and be adjudicated by this criterion.

Instinctively you know there is a profound difference between what is legal and what is moral, and that the latter must guide the former. This correlation needs to be sustained for the maintenance of your mental and spiritual fitness and that of society.

Question – Which do you think is the higher arbiter of good: law or morality?

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Want to Really Be Free?

Freedom. The entire history of the United States is wrapped up in this concept. Given its importance periodically we should take time to consider its nature.

Want to Really Be Free?

When I talk to young people about freedom usually they tell me it means being able to do whatever you want. Often they will qualify this by saying as long as it does not hurt anyone else. This is a good working definition as far as it goes. But as people mature perhaps their concept of freedom needs to develop.

All politics aside, in the United States we have agreed to be restricted from doing a great many things. For example, despite the First Amendment, we cannot call out fire in a crowded theater as a joke. It is considered contemptible to use bigoted epithets. While it is true that people retain the freedom to do these things, in the former they could be criminally prosecuted and in the latter fired from their job or shunned. The penalty for exercising such freedoms is very high.

Another aspect of freedom that I rarely hear addressed is whether people are truly free if they are dominated by the animalistic or addictive sides of their nature. Are incessant womanizers really free or are they captives of their baser instincts? Can non-recovering alcoholics or drug addicts actually act in freedom or are they slaves?

Pippin, in the eponymous show, identifies the dichotomy after realizing that pursuing his hedonistic instincts has led to a hollow life: “If I’m never tied to anything, I’ll never be free.” To be truly free you must be able to make decisions unimpeded by ignoble desires and uncontrolled passions. Put another way, you need to understand your values and be able to act in accordance with them. Running your life on autopilot is not freedom but captivity and dependence.

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Some might say that such an ideal is emotionally stunted, lacking in spontaneity, devoid of joie de vivre (joy of life – sounds better in French, no?) But freedom lies in between the sterile existence these criticisms imply and the decadence of a complete lack of control. To paraphrase an old expression: act in haste with lack of self-restraint, repent in leisure having done considerable self-harm.

This mature concept of freedom requires introspection and self-discipline. It is the essence of living intentionally. If your want to benefit from the fundamental rights enumerated in the Declaration of Independence: Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness, it is worth considering their order. The antecedent to liberty is life. What kind of life do you want to lead: one committed to doing anything you want (as long as it does not hurt anyone else) or one in which you are free to pursue that which you have consciously chosen and value?

Question – What does freedom mean to you?

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