Ethics and Compromise

The things I learned from leading TU20

In Dec 2018 I realized that we needed to have a stronger succession plan for TU20. This is chapter 3, originally written in Jan of 2019.

How we teach ethics isn’t very useful

95% of us know what’s an ethical decision when sitting down in a classroom under social pressure. We know what to say because we bend ourselves to a test. We see these classes as easy and topics as not interesting. For example, take a look at this New Zealand immigration professional ethics list.

  • honesty
  • trustworthiness
  • loyalty
  • respect for others
  • adherence to the law
  • doing good and avoiding harm to others
  • accountability.

Would you disagree with anything on this? Probably not. Ethical conduct are so generic they don’t help.

Schools of thoughts

Nietzsche — Wikipedia

Schools of thought are a little more beneficial:

Utilitarianism: Generate maximum utility to the world in the long term

Kantian Ethics: Disclose your intentions so others can make better decisions

Virtue ethics: Follow a virtue that role models have (ex What would Musk or Obama do?)

Consequentialism: Think about the consequences

Deontological Ethics: Focus on the action itself rather then consequences

And many more…

People debate sub branches for days. But who cares? You never will just leave a business decision to go think about some abstract concept that was proposed by an old guy with a moustache.


The trolley problem is a scenario where you apply different schools of thought on how to apply to a problem. Personal responsibility vs collective good. Lives of many vs lives of few.

In reality, it doesn’t matter. Under pressure, you would make a quick choice or be frozen in fear, and all your ethics go out the window. You can sit and ponder ethics for as long as you want, but many times you have to make a decision. You need to be ready to make decisions in 3 seconds, 3 minutes, 30 minutes and 3 days.

Your decisions will also have emotional consequences. Sure people can argue that we need more homeless shelters or community housing. But suddenly when one is proposed in your neighbourhood you yell “Not in my backyard!”.

If you believe nepotism is bad, but then your child or friend isn’t doing so well on the job market and you know they’re not very qualified, what do you do? Your professional and family based values are clashing.

The best way to learn is to be in a scenario where you have to make a decision and apply all the tools you know. But at the end of the day, the most important thing is giving yourself enough time.

1. Time to cool off

Usually when you have to make a decisions you’re stressed or feeling a heightened emotion. It could be anger, it could be excitement, it could be fear. But because it’s not Excited Denys or Angry Denys that has to live with the decision, it should be regular Denys who makes the decision. So try to return to a more regular mood.

These can include sleeping on a decision, or taking a shower. If it’s in the moment, it might be taking a deep breath. But give yourself sometime to think about your decision with a clear mind.

2. Time to think it through/write it out

Often we spend too much time in our heads contemplating options without getting anywhere. It kinda feels like a soup of 35 ingredients and you’ve been asked to find what the sweet flavour is inside of it. Writing your thoughts down forces you to make them (a little) more coherent and separate your concerns. It also helps to reduce your stress as you can focus on solving the problem rather than trying to keep everything in mind while making a decision.

3. Time to seek opinions

We have friends, family and mentors to help us out in life. If you, discuss the decision with someone else so you can get their perspective. They might help you get past an obstacle, or just have you explain the situation again and find a solution by yourself. Depending on how much time you have, leveraging external opinions is very helpful.

Scenario: Someone calls your work rubbish in a meeting.

You’re probably mad and want to call them rubbish back. Rather than doing so, you’re probably better off taking another route. You likely don’t have time to use technique #2 and #3, but taking a deep breath will certainly be helpful.

Scenario: You have to decide between two separate job offers in 3 days.

This time you have some time to use all 3 strategies. You can reach out to people within each team, trusted mentors, do some research, do an extended white boarding session. In this case making a decision should be easier, if you have a good frame work, otherwise, it can become a painful 3 days.

Stop thinking yes or no, think of many options.

Let’s go through the following scenario. You are the Director of a department, manage 20 people and are well regarded in your company. Your cousin asks you about needing to find a job in your company, but you think he’s not qualified. What do you do? You typically have a couple options:

1) No.
2) Sure, in my team.
3) Sure, introduce to another team.

No one wins in these situations, But you have more options that can help you stay more closely to your morals.

4) Tell him you think he needs some more work and needs to learn, x, y, z and you can recommend some resources. After that you can make some introductions.

In this case you are helping family, saving your reputation and helping your employer find qualified people when the time is right.

Veil Of Ignorance

One of the important philosophy developments is quite applicable in a non monocultural/economic environment is the veil of ignorance. The idea is to think about how the decision would affect you if the flip of a coin, roll of a dice or some random process would determine who you are.

Lets assume you have full control of the education system that you will attend in 3 years. You have an option on increasing university tuition for half of the students that are randomly selected so that the other half gets additional research oppurtunties. You must make the decision now, knowing that in 3 years you will flip a coin and be assigned a group based on the result. How much do you increase the tuition by?

Or even more generally.

You are writing a book on how you think the world should be run. All the current resources exists, but can be redistributed in any way you like. How do you do this?

The catch is that after your decision, you will be reborn as a random person on earth. How does this change your decision?

Many people have difficulty in imagining how their decisions affect others and as a result do not think about the consequences of their actions. Learning how to imagine situations from other people’s perspectives is a very useful skill!

Scenarios, come up with new solutions

So I don’t believe option A or B scenarios are useful, but those where you have free will to decide on how to modify them are much more useful. (In negotiations there is a similar approach difference called distributive vs integrative bargaining)

Scenario 1.

You are negotiating a sponsorship deal and things aren’t going as planned. Things seem too bureaucratic and the person you are working with does not seem to have too much decision making power. You have an opportunity to escalate to a higher up in the company, what do you do?

Scenario 2.

You are recruiting people to join an organization or event. You have organized events in the past and people are not signing up as you hope. You get tempted to do what some peers are doing which is “stretching the truth” in your advertisements. What do you do?

Scenario 3.

You have a presentation to executives due in a couple weeks about a new app you’ve developed. You don’t know too much about the executives, and need to stand out during a busy day. You hate using buzzwords and want to be as clear as possible, but it seems buzzwords are the only way to get their attention. What do you do?

The hope is these are somewhat-very relatable to what you are doing and are testing different types of ethical dilemmas.

Acting Ethically in an unethical world

One of the biggest frustrations in life is when people in what you perceive to be an immoral or misleading way and get way/benefit from it.


I am CEO of X company, I have a website and can’t answer basic questions about my company.

Here is a useful guide because I want to help you, but please enter your email address so I can email it to you rather than just posting it. I promise I won’t use your email for future “growth marketing”.

I tell my boss he is the best and he is always right, I blame others for my faults and do not take responsibility.

It is arguable these are not unethical, but they are definitely misleading.

In most cases, where intent and actions do not align, there is something fishy going on. First understand intent and actions (to avoid misunderstandings) then ask why? Understanding intent and actions is very important, it’s one of the main lessons of social psychology.

Peoples actions are the products of their intent, their environment, their mood, but also, your environment and your biases. Misunderstandings can happen at any phase so be cautious when making attributions (we’ll talk about this more another day).

People will try to make you feel good about yourself…

This is a really hard problem to solve. How do you deal with flattery? When someone complements you, you feel good about yourself (usually) and you (sometimes) feel nervous on why is this happening. Responding and internalizing compliments is a hard thing to do.

Two personal examples that come to mind:

  1. Back in gr 12 I went to some business camp for a weekend and during a negotiation I was told I was good at negotiating in the middle of a negotiation exercise. I said, ok, and moved on. The person looked upset and said “you can at least say thank you to a compliment”
  2. I received this message recently:
    “Thank you for your feedback! You are amazing and I cannot wait to meet you in person”

For the first one I was confused on why this person was complimenting me in the middle of a negotiation and didn’t know how to respond. In general, I’m not good at giving/receiving compliments and lean on the very skeptical side on why people say nice things when things don’t seem to be exceptional or impactful. That’s why the case of 2) is a little confusing, is this person genuinely happy, or because I’m in a position of power they are trying to flatter you.

The reason I bring this up is that it becomes easy to act unethically if you are acting egotistically or want to reciprocate someone’s’ good faith. At the same time complements are a big part of the western world and one of the ways to navigate society. You must accept recognition and give recognition in a responsible way.

The main things I can recommend are:
1) Be open until you see red flags.

2) Develop a baseline for each persons’ behaviour, because they just have different approaches

3) The most fishy people act the most genuine

4) Think about people’s incentives and how they align with their actions

5) Actions win against words, Actions + Words in alignment are the best

One of the hardest things growing up is balancing you changing and the world is changing.

You need to learn how the world works, adapt to be impactful but not change. This relates back to our conversation from last week. In ethics it’s extremely important to keep this in mind.

There was an important study done on 1st year vs 2nd year law students. People become lawyers for different reasons but many enter it to help others out. This is what the study found:

“Those with the most intrinsic motivations attained the highest grades, but, ironically, high grades in turn predicted shifts in career preferences towards ‘‘lucrative’’ and higher-stress law careers, and away from ‘‘service’’-oriented and potentially more satisfying law careers. The declines persisted over the second and third years of law school”

High achieving students changed their preference from helping people to making money. And as your goal becomes to make money, things go poorly. People become numbers, policies become ways to get a bigger bonus, the worst effects of capitalism are felt.

Staying true to yourself

The best advice I, (and researchers have) is that acting ethically means staying true to yourself. The two biggest factors that stop us from acting ethically are emotions and a separation from our values and actions.

One tip psychologists have is to look in the mirror before stepping into a scenario where your ethics and morals may be tested (for example a party). Becoming more mindful or self aware helps bridge the gap from the conversation of what you would do in philosophy class to one taking a step back and re-evaluating what you will do in the moment.

To build on that, the question that should be asked is: “Am I comfortable telling the world why I did something?” without feeling guilt in my message. If you can stand by your decision to the public and not squirm, sidestep and be calm about it, you probably made a good decision.

Obviously, there are people who can do this for immoral decisions and be unfazed, but the assumption is you have a reasonable sense of morality.


First of all, emotions are not bad. They make us human. Second of all, you need to understand your emotions. For all the emotional intelligence mumbo jumbo out there, it is important. You need to be able to step back, see your emotions in third person perspective, your own perspective, and who you’re working with perspective.

When you have control over your emotions, you will make decisions that are much better and less regrettable. It’s not a battle of rationality or emotion, is how do you align the two. This is the only way to not be torn apart by decisions and perspectives. The way to align it is difficult, often we try to convince ourselves a decisions is good or to justify it. That can be worse. Instead you need to make enough emotional decisions that are considered “good” and be in a positive environment where it becomes natural. Much easier said than done.

Don’t forget we and us.

You need to be selfish often, but not for the reasons most people are.

Bad selfish: I can’t help you right (because you can’t help me in anyway and you’re not important”

Good selfish: I can’t help you right now ( because I have 3 projects that I really care about and want to give it my all).

Good selfish 2.0 : I can’t help you right now (because I need some personal time to deal with X).

The first scenario you are being selfish because you are self centred and have an inflated sense of self importance. The second two you are guarding your time to make sure you are in good physical/mental/social/community/ect shape. Don’t feel guilty about these, but be careful in using these excuses. Personal time is important, but reflect on how you spend your time, and if your lack of time is the inability to time manage or because you genuinely need a break. Again, breaks are good, don’t forget that. Family and friends are also important. But make sure when you say no, you have a purpose.

Don’t forget where you came from and the kindness of friends, family, your community and others have shown you. One day you will be in the same position as them and the goal is you offer the same help you were once offered. Personally, I have reached out to strangers for coffee chats and many have offered their time to chat, and I plan on doing the same when I’m in their position in the future.

Putting it all together.

1. Don’t forget who you are

2. Remember those who have helped you (friends, family, professionally)

3. Harness your emotions

4. Be skeptical and ask hard questions

5. Take others’ perspective

6. Be more trusting when words and actions align


What’s are some small things you see in the world that bug you morally?

What is a morally questionable (small) decision you made and how did you move on from it?

What makes someone morally sound?

What situations do you feel in making an ethical decision?

How do you deal with complements?

What’s the best compliment you’ve received?

What’s a time you felt used?



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