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Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Situational ethics...

It's time for another rant about this topic. I walk my dog every morning, usually between 5:30 and 6 AM. That means that I'm out walking him in the dark these days. But, dark or light, it seems that motorists at that hour of the day (if the truth be told at almost any hours of the day) seem to think that the stop signs of Milford are under some sort of sundown rule - that is they don't matter is it's dark.

Now, there are two stop signs on the two block between Union St and Main St - the one at Union and Summit has a street light and a large, illuminated, four-faced stop sign over the intersection, with a flashing red light. The other, at Main and Summit, just has the four signs on the corners, with no illumination or flasher. Perhaps I could understand if someone did not see the signs on that corner and ran the stop; but, they also run the stop at Union and Summit. Just about every day I see people just barely slowing down enough to see if there is traffic approaching from the side street and then bombing on through the intersection. In many cases at the other corner they don't even slow down

I see this as just one indicator that many in our society have become enamored with situational ethics. They don't see it as right and wrong, black or white; they just see it as "what's in it for me and what's the chances that I'll get caught?" In Milford the chances of getting stopped for a traffic violation are extremely low. Our gendarmes are apparently all busy dealing with the major crimes that happen in the community or perhaps still engaged in the search for Jimmy Hoffa

I think this is really just an indicator of a larger social problem...the rise of situational ethics. It would seem that more and more people see the laws of the land as something to be evaluated within a personal context and some determination be made if they are going to obey those laws at that time and in that situation. The premise that our laws would be obeyed by the citizenry was never really based upon the presence of police to enforce those laws...there just aren't enough police available to do that. Instead, our laws are based on the assumption that the citizens will voluntarily obey them, once enacted. Our tax code is based upon much the same principle; although the IRS has done a better PR job of building fear of getting caught if you cheat on your taxes. In truth the IRS has little enforcement capability and relies heavily on computerized models to try to spot scofflaws.

Aside from those examples, where I run into situational ethics the most is in the business world. In real estate we have all sorts of unethical behaviours, usually associated with people who are taking advantage of those already down on their luck and in trouble on their mortgages. Of course, some of those homeowners got into that position by lying on their mortgage applications in the first place and that was another case of applying situational ethics. I hit lots of cases of "don't ask...don't tell" situational ethics in real estate. Usually it's the homeowner asking me if they really have to reveal some secret that they know about their home on the Seller's Disclosure (the answer is YES) or a buyer trying to game the Fannie Mae preference for owner-occupied sales (YES, you do actually have to live there, if you claim to be buying it to live in or face a $5,000 fine).

I learned long ago that situational ethics is a quagmire to be avoided. Like lying in general, situational ethics immediately puts you in the mode of having to remember whatever story you made up to justify to yourself or others what you just did. It's not worth it. Honesty and transparency are the best way to a good night's sleep every night (not that I believe that the guy who ran the stop sign this morning is going to lie awake tonight thinking about it, but the guy who cheated a client today or lied to his/her boss today might

So, if you call me to be your Realtor, don't ask me if you really have to reveal that you made improvements to your home without the proper permits. You already know what the answer is and what I'm likely to tell you. If you're a buyer, don't tell me that you don't plan to tell the mortgage company that your wife just got laid off but you plan to go ahead with the purchase anyway. If you're another agent, don't ask me to reveal my client's financial situation so that you can better help your client in the negotiations or don't tell me about your client's "little white lies" and expect me to keep the secret. I just don't work like that. I actually stop at the sign (well, most of the time anyway).

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