Yes, You Can Be Too Generous

Righting a wrong is appropriate, but going overboard is unfair to oneself. Plus: Think twice before firing off that nasty e-mail to a pundit

Dear Ethics Guy: I run a bed-and-breakfast and am fairly new to the hospitality industry. A guest recently checked in for three days and left early on the last morning. He wrote to me when he got home and said that he was quite upset that we did not have breakfast available for him on his departure day. Apparently one of my employees told him that he could dine anytime between 6 a.m. and noon, so he assumed that he could grab a meal before his early flight out.

However, we do not begin serving until 7 a.m., so it was not possible to meet my guest's needs on his last day with us. I decided to make an unfortunate situation better by refunding him a full night's fee. My husband thinks that I should have simply given him back the cost of the breakfast. He says that being too generous is just as bad as not being generous enough. What do you think?

Your husband is correct. It is possible to give too much of oneself (which isn't just unfortunate; it's a violation of Life Principle No. 4, Be Fair, and is thus ethically objectionable). However, I don't think your response fits this category. Although the ethical principle of fairness did require you to right the wrong, your going above and beyond the call of duty is praiseworthy. It also happens to be a wise business decision, because your largesse may very well prompt your disgruntled customer not only to have a change of heart but to give your establishment positive word of mouth.

There are many creative ways to get clients to speak well of your goods and services, but the surest way is to provide excellent customer service, which means, first and foremost, treating customers fairly. Although the reason to do the right thing in business is simply because it is the right thing to do, taking the high road also happens to be the profitable thing in the long run. This is yet another example of why taking ethics seriously benefits everyone, including us.

A Rant for a Rant?

A television pundit takes a position that you disagree with in the strongest possible terms. Would you:

A) Write him an angry e-mail and call his expertise into question

B) Write to him and focus on his argument and why you find it mistaken

C) Ignore the matter altogether

D) Write to the president of the network and threaten to boycott the channel unless it fires the pundit

"A" is not only disrespectful, it's an ineffective way to give criticism that will be taken to heart. It also won't make you feel any better in the long run—and if it does, it might be worth considering why that is the case. After all, isn't a mark of emotional maturity the ability to rise above the impulse to return nastiness with more of the same? "C" doesn't do either of you a service, and "D" violates Life Principle No. 4, Be Fair.

After all, the punishment should fit the crime, and banishing someone from the airwaves simply because you disagree with that person is an extreme and unjust response to the situation. Only "B" will both meet your need to express your concern and possibly persuade the pundit to rethink his position, or at least consider seriously what you have to say. Also, our democracy is based on the idea that the way to fight troubling speech is with more speech, not with stifling those with whom one disagrees.

Bottom line: Life Principle No. 3, Respect Others, applies to how we treat not only our friends, family members, and co-workers, but the pundits we see on television—and everyone else for that matter. Temper that impulse to get the nasties out through an e-mail rant, and everyone—including you—will be the better for it.

You might wonder whether it is too strong to say that there is an ethical obligation to do something rather than nothing. What's the problem with just ignoring the matter altogether? There's nothing wrong with that, but I am tempted to recall the saying on a poster I saw in the '70s that, for all its kitsch and sentimentality, applies perfectly here:

"Ships are safest when in their harbors. But that's not what ships are built for."

Finally, there are countries in the world where you don't have to worry about being confronted with noxious, objectionable, or unpopular speech—because the government prohibits it. Would you really prefer to live in such a culture over one in which the marketplace of ideas is unfettered?

Editor's note: This is a revised version of an article previously published elsewhere.

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