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Know Thyself

It's the time of year when sticky situations seem to crop up all over. Never fear, the Holiday Ethicist is here!

Dear Holiday Ethicist,

The company I work for gives out holiday cash bonuses based on employee performance. I usually do pretty well in these bonuses, and every year I put my extra money into a fund I have started, the purpose of which is to start a rival company. Is this ethical?

Bert Luaka, Palo Alto

Dear Bert,

We haven't had a cash-bonus question since the late '90s, so I was surprised to get your query. (Where do you work anyway? I'd like you to stop by and deliver a pep talk to our human-resources people. They just stared and stared into space when I tried to explain the concept of the "cash bonus" to them, until we finally had to hire a hypnotist to get them to snap out of it.)

Anyway, I suspect that you are trying to trick the Holiday Ethicist with one of those so-called "hypothetical" questions, because it would take about a century to accumulate enough in cash bonuses to start anything bigger than a hot-dog stand in this economy. But assuming for the moment that you aren't a cruel hoaxer bent on ruining my holidays, let's examine your dilemma.

On the one hand, the money you intend to use to start a competing company wouldn't exist except for the extraordinary generosity and Lincolnesque largesse of your munificent employer. Using that money to cause harm to said employer would be a really low and despicable thing to do, now wouldn't it? You should be ashamed for even entertaining such a base and downright un-Ten-Commandments-like thought during this season of peace on Earth and goodwill toward all non-Muslims. I'm ashamed for you.

On the other hand, those cheap bastards have been grinding you down for years, cutting your medical benefits, diluting the coffee, forgetting to refill the water cooler, denying stapler requisitions, blocking porn sites and manufacturing a product so malignant in its effects that a legion of lawyers is needed just to stay one step ahead of a new record for punitive damages in a class-action lawsuit. They deserve everything they get and more. If someone, anyone--you!--could drive them out of business, the American public would be eternally grateful, and to hell with your methods.

On the third hand, maybe you're actually a highly placed political appointee in the Bush Administration, in which case your cash bonus is a form of protected free speech, and you can spend it on the Republican candidate of your choice without troubling what's left of your conscience in the slightest. Besides, with the windfall you're going to reap from the next round of tax cuts, you won't need to start your own company--you can just retire to the Hamptons.

Dear Holiday Ethicist,

I have never liked one single gift my boyfriend has given me. We've been together for seven years, and I have dropped hints, emailed photos, left Post-Its on catalog pages, yet he still insists on doing his own shopping and buying me things for which I have no need or appreciation. Some of these gifts I have surreptitiously returned, but most of them sit in their boxes in my closet, taking up space. Is it unethical of me to pass these on as gifts to co-workers or distant relatives--people I know my boyfriend will never see?

Min Savill, San Jose

Dear Min (if that is indeed your real name),

Your simple question conceals a truer issue. You ask whether you should redirect your boyfriend's gifts. The ethical answer is: No. You should not give people useless presents that you do not like.

As I indicated, the dilemma you raise has several levels. What is important to point out in your question is the fact that you would entertain giving away your boyfriend's gifts after apparently judging them on practical and aesthetic merits, rather than on their sentimental value.

I can identify with your trepidation. After all, no one likes to look for problems when they are hidden under the surface of a familiar system. But for you, the trouble is not so hidden that you don't notice it. What is more, it will grow, and you are better off facing disruptions in your relationship before they become insuperable canyons and you are forced into ever more perplexing ethical questions.

But I digress.

It is a favor to no one to ignore your unease, as it signifies the temperature of the relationship. You mus confront the riddle of the faulty giving. Ask yourself why it matters to you that your boyfriend does not understand your needs in gift receiving. Are those really the needs that you want him to understand? That's the wrinkle.

They are not. You could live with an extra ugly sweater or an "as seen on TV" potato-chip maker that only makes four chips at a time as long as your boyfriend still makes you laugh and massages out your aches. These latter expressions of connection are the things that cement a deep bond without which a healthy and happy relationship cannot thrive.

The gravest concern for you, therefore, should be whether you know yourself. What do you really want? Are you happy? To read your letter, one would think not. But this is a topic you might want to explore with help--say, with the added insight and guidance of professional counseling. Call 1.800.Therapist Referral Service (800.843.7274) to find a San Jose counselor. Alternatively, you could contact the Almaden Institute on Speak Lane at 408.266.7826. Almaden offers the services of a psychotherapist whose specialties include individual and couples counseling.

Perhaps you could tell your boyfriend that counseling is what you want for the holidays and a session or two with or without him could be his present to you.

Dear Holiday Ethicist,

I am deeply aware of the energy crisis facing this state. I've said as much to my neighbor, but once again this year he has insisted on decorating his house with an outrageous amount of lights and moving figures that must use an astronomical amount of electrical juice. Moreover, he leaves these lights and doodads running all night and all day from late October to early February. Would it be unethical of me to sneak over nightly and unplug the whole shebang?

Joe Makrhi, San Jose

So Joe,

If you're so concerned with energy consumption, why did you use a personal computer to compose, edit and email me this question? I assume a desk lamp was on and a microwave oven heated the hot cocoa that you sipped while composing this thoughtful question. Who's the gas hog here?

In my experience, sneaking over in the middle of the night to unplug a neighbor's Christmas display is a good way to lose friends, which is a far more valuable resource than energy. The ethical dilemma--saving the state electricity--is overshadowed by the passive-aggressive nature of your solution. It speaks more to your fear of confrontation than concern about your neighbor plunging California into another round of rotating outages.

But your question is not without merit. For many months, PG&E has inundated us with a slick campaign to guilt everyone into saving energy. There's the cute Chinese-American boy running through the house shutting off the lights. It's as if the boy is doing the state a favor. Truth is, according to the latest PG&E statistics, California's energy consumption has actually gone down since the summer of our VCR-resetting discontent. There are a lot fewer high-tech companies around--meaning less humming fluorescent lights and monitors to suck up all that precious energy. Have you also noticed that traffic is lighter these days? The majority of local companies have sent everyone home for the holidays.

Trespassing on your neighbor's property and unplugging a holiday display would barely make up two tears in a bucket. The Ethicist's suggestion would be to lighten up, literally. Go to Wal-Mart, get some icicle lights and the reindeer with the kicking legs and Rudolph's blinking red nose. Plunk them down on your lawn, plug in and spread some animatronic joy this holiday season.

Dear Holiday Ethicist,

For the third year in a row, I have been asked by a dear friend to accompany him to his company holiday party. He is gay, but since he has not come out to his co-workers, he prefers not to bring a male friend which might arouse suspicions. In the past two years, I have been perfectly comfortable attending with him. (And my husband is fine with it as well--we are all friends.) This year, however, I am six months pregnant. I am certain that this will arouse the interest of the party-goers and, if I dare say it, the busybody ladies in attendance at his office. What should I do if the questioning becomes too direct? Should I just cancel altogether?

Leeza Lupchek

Dear Lisa,

Well, my, my, my, you lend a whole new meaning to the term "a girl in trouble." First of all, canceling is out of the question. The Holiday Ethicist would never want you, your friend or any other casual observer to miss the potential for hilarity in this situation. In fact, if you wouldn't mind bringing along a digital camera, I'd like very much to see the facial expressions on the office busybodies when you walk in the door in your maternity frock, holding the arm of your bachelor friend.

I think you are wise to be concerned. Lying is wrong, and a very bad thing to do in front of children, even very small ones. But fortunately, I believe you may be surprised by how few people actually approach you with direct questions. The more likely tack will be that they will hover around the wassail bowl, wide eyes cast asunder, dishing their speculations and pronouncements in whispered tones and mouthed words to each other. The more bold in the pack will likely swirl in your direction with general queries like "When is the baby due?" and "Are you two excited?" to which you can answer truthfully with your due date and the simple answer "yes," as I assume your friend is.

Regardless of the question, it is safe to repeat simple truths. "We're very close"; "We've known each other for many years"; "I just love these events"; "He is so sweet," etc.

If someone is so pernicious as to directly ask, "Is this so-and-so's child?" My advice to you is to laugh and, again, utter a complete truth, which is "Oh! Didn't he tell you?" after which you have my permission to laugh hysterically. This is, in ethical terms, a "nonanswer" to a question that belongs in a soap opera and not a dignified social setting.

You are allowed, even advised, to give a nonanswer when the question warrants it (ditto for your age, your income, the price you paid for your house or the number of times you have been married). Remember, Socrates once said: All that I know is that I know nothing at all. And people have let him get away with it for thousands of years.

If someone asks you if you and your friend have wedding plans, you need only smile shyly and say, "You'll have to ask him!" Your friend, who has asked this favor of you, is probably skilled in replying to such assumptive queries.

And remember, this is a party, not the Inquisition. Many people will be drinking, and you won't, so you'll have an intellectual advantage. Not to say that it will be a bad time for you; I suspect there will be plenty to keep you laughing for many years to come.

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From the December 19-25, 2002 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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