Review: Ethics (and Other Liabilities): Trying to live right in an amoral world by Harry Stein(1982)

Harry Stein was offered the assignment of writing a regular column on ethics for Esquire Magazine. His editor wanted it to include some humor, but also be about real ethical issues. No pressure.

Stein succeeded so well that as soon as I’m done writing this review, I’m going to Amazon to check whether he has written any more. So the chapters of this book are essentially the columns he wrote. They are human, humane, and humanist. The include real-life examples of ethical dilemmas, some humorous, some quite serious, some in between. Some, perhaps most, are just the sort of issues ordinary people do face, and can identify with, and perhaps learn from the analysis of the issues and possible consequences. Stein is no dogmatist; he’s aware of the fact that ethics requires a look at the circumstances, the possible consequences, the personal values and the social values. He understands the psychology of decision-making better than most, for all he is not a professional. Like most good writers, he knows where to find experts when he wants to get facts. And he knows how to gather the stories of ordinary people in such a way that they can be useful to all of us.

Some chapters include “Kiss, Kiss, Grovel, Grovel” deals with the burning question of whether you have to kiss ass to get ahead. “Uncommon Decency” is really about little more than good manners, but that’s really quite a lot. “A Life in Crime” asks the question “Can’t you guys even imagine someone not stealing?” Some chapter titles are self-evident, such as “Racial Slurs, Ethnic Jokes,” “Psst! Heard the Latest?” and “Living With Lies.”

If I had a kid going off to college, I think I might make this a going-away present. Even though it was written 27 years ago, very little of it is dated. And ethical standards never really go out of date.

Statements in this review do not necessarily express the thoughts or opinions of the Ethical Society of St. Louis or its leadership.