Every year for the past decade I’ve taught a college course on Ethics. Two years ago, in the middle of a semester in which I was teaching Ethics, I was hired to speak at a massive conference attended by several thousand people. As a speaker, you get a wide range of accommodations. Some conference organizers will put you at a motel next to Denny’s, refuse to reimburse you for mileage, and insist on paying you with a Starbucks gift card. Others, like the organizers of this massive conference, treat you like royalty. So much so, in fact, that I actually started to panic when I arrived at the hotel lobby, which was dripping with marble and mirrors.
The hotel was adjacent to the massive event center where I would take the stage the next day. I walked up to the reception desk and gave them my name. As the man across the marble slab typed, his eyes suddenly went wide, and then he quickly regained his professionalism and looked up at me—sleepy, gross, and in sweats from the plane ride. Was it doubt in his eyes? What did he see on the screen that he couldn’t see in me?
“Ma’am,” he cleared his throat. “It looks like we have you in one of our suites on the top floor. The conference organizers have arranged for you to have access to the VIP lounge, which includes bottomless cocktails and gourmet breakfast.”
“Uh, okay?” I said, confused. “For Meg Myers Morgan, right?”
“Yes, it appears so,” he said, smiling through what I could only assume was his own confusion.
“Okay, wow,” I said. “Well that’s a treat!” And with that I handed over my credit card, one of the most routine transitions during hotel check-in—even when your room is comped, you’re responsible for incidentals. I believe this is true even for dignitaries and celebrities.
But the man across the marble put up his hand. “Your incidentals will also be covered by the conference organizers.”
I blinked three times, my face unable to change its expression.
“That means,” he said with a smile, accurately assessing my confusion, “that you can order room service or movies or eat from the mini bar to your heart’s content.”
“You must be a big deal.” he smiled.
“No, I don’t think it’s that…” I said, my arm still extended across the marble with my card between my thumb and index finger.
“Well, this is the set up for people who are.” His smile remained.
“Okay, but like, is there a daily limit on what I can charge?” My brow was furrowed in consternation. “I mean, what’s my allowance?”
He cleared his throat, perhaps uncomfortable with my ignorance, perhaps uncomfortable that he was standing in the presence of my obvious greatness. “In a situation like this,” he said, nodding toward his computer screen, “I think the organizers just want you to have whatever you need to make yourself comfortable.”
With that, I quietly thanked him, put my card back in my wallet, adjusted my unkempt ponytail, grabbed my beat up luggage and walked toward the elevator.
And for three solid days, without proof of a daily allowance cap, or any idea what would offend the conference organizers when they saw my bill, I refused to charge anything to the room. Not even the bottle of water I got after giving the hour-long keynote in front of hundreds.
I had my Ethics class the day after I returned home from this trip. And I was ready for class, knowing I now had a personal example of how, when limits are not explicitly set, better behavior may result.
“Who here drives above the speed limit?” I asked as I walked into the classroom. All but a few hands shot up. “How far above?” I followed up.
“Between five and 10 miles,” quipped one.
“At least 15. Unless there’s construction,” volunteered another.
“I just always go the speed of everyone else,” shrugged one. “Flow of traffic and all.”
“And if the speed limit were raised another 15 miles an hour,” I said, “would you respect that limit?”
The class went silent.
“I’d probably go an additional 10 miles over that,” one said to finally break the silence.
“And if there were no speed limit posted?” I pressed.
“I might drive slower…” one said softly.
And with that I explained what happened to me on my star-studded trip to speak at the conference. I explained that, without a daily allowance for my incidentals, I didn’t have a ballast to spend just under, or even just over. Therefore, I just didn’t spend any of the conference’s money. “Essentially, if they had told me I had a daily allowance of $100, I might have thought nothing of spending $110, because, close enough, right?”
Silence. A group of blank faces stared back at me.
“Dr. Morgan,” piped up one of the quieter students. “No offense, but you should have spent some money.” The room was filled with agreement. “They gave you permission and you spent nothing?”
I was hurt that they didn’t look remotely close to standing on their desks and calling me Captain. Instead, it seemed as if any respect they had for me had just disappeared.
“Hey, hey,” I interrupted them. “I’m trying to suggest that when we write down an ethical code—when we supply rules—we think it’s a way to keep people in line. But in actuality, it often serves as a starting point. A standard against which people will fudge.”
Heads around the room shook.
“So imagine us asking our civil servants and our elected officials to follow a set of rules like we ask you to follow the speed limit.”
“Not the same,” one student spoke up.
“Oh?” I said, crossing my arms and smiling.
“This isn’t about ethics. This is about a perk you received for doing a job.”
“Right,” I nodded once. “But aren’t the ‘perks’ where we see the ethics unravel? People in positions of privilege believing they have somehow earned a kickback?”
The student shrugged. “I get your point. But I still would have at least ordered myself a glass of champagne and not worried one second about it.”
With that, we began class.
Six months later, I was invited back by the same conference organizer to another city, in another marbled hotel, with the same glorious inclusion of incidentals. After I gave my keynote and got back to my room, I picked up the phone to order room service. And as I dialed, I wondered if I only felt good about ordering because a group of students had seemed to think it was okay.
They had given me permission to order champagne.
So I did.
Then I added a big slice of cake to go with it.
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