April 16, 2009


Is It Still Cheating if I Don’t Get Caught? By Bruce Weinstein, Ph.D. Illustrations by Harriet Russell. Flashpoint/Roaring Brook Press. $12.95.

     Life is complex, but its ethical rules are pretty simple – that is the basic message of Bruce Weinstein, who writes about ethics for BusinessWeek.com and creates a syndicated column under the name “The Ethics Guy.” Weinstein is a “professional ethicist” – nice work if you can get it, and how exactly do you get it? (Weinstein doesn’t say.) This teen-oriented book – Weinstein’s first for this age group – starts by tracing ethics back to roots in Cicero, ancient Greece, and John Donne (booooorrrrriiiinnngg, some teens will say), then offers an example of a wrong code to live by (a “me-centric” one), and then gets interesting. First, Weinstein dispels two myths about ethics – that what’s legal is right and what’s illegal is wrong; and that if everyone does something, it must be right. And then he offers “the five life principles,” whose application to the real world takes up the balance of the book.

     The principles are pretty straightforward, but many teens may never have thought of them or seen them presented this way: do no harm; make things better; respect others; be fair, and be loving. These principles can be presented in just a few words, but Weinstein understandably feels the needs to expand upon their meaning. For example, respecting others, he says, entails keeping private things private, telling the truth and keeping your promises.

     But life does not make implementing these principles easy, because the principles can come into conflict with each other. For instance, if someone is wearing a really ugly outfit and asks your opinion of it, do you tell the truth, or do you show respect for the other person’s taste by lying, or do you “do no harm” by finding something neutral to say and then quickly changing the subject? Weinstein does a good job of raising issues that may come up in teenage life and that can make it hard to behave ethically, but he tends to oversimplify not only his explanations but also the language in which he gives advice. For instance, when discussing whether a girl should tell her friend what other people are saying about her, Weinstein writes, “you’re much better off taking the high road and leading by example.” This sort of clichéd writing comes across as preachy, which will make it unappealing to many teens.

     Still, Weinstein deserves credit for presenting real-world situations – and including “what do you think?” sections providing readers with behavior options to consider before giving his own answer. Among the subjects he tackles are breaking up by E-mail (bad idea if it violates the “respect others” and “be loving” principles); not wanting to make love to a boyfriend or girlfriend who does want to (“pressuring someone to have sex is a major violation of Life Principle #3, ‘Respect Others’”); plus handling bullies, downloading music illegally, and more. Weinstein mixes together some really serious matters (what to do about drug pushers) with much less important ones (whether to tell the end of a movie to someone who has not seen it yet), intending to show that ethics is important at all times but sometimes tending to blow minor matters out of proportion. But his chapter on “Messing Up, Fessing Up, and Forgiving,” is especially strong, although that “fessing up” wording may be a little off-putting to some. On balance, Is It Still Cheating if I Don’t Get Caught? is likely to be of greatest help to preteens and young teenagers, who will be less unhappy with its sometimes oversimplified language and preachiness. Younger readers are also likely to find Harriet Russell’s cartoonish illustrations less simplistic. Older teens may wonder how an author who writes that “my field is ethics, not psychology,” can claim as much insight into the minds of teens – both individually and in groups – as Weinstein’s scenarios and solutions suggest he believes he has. Weinstein does have good ideas and a good grasp of ethical issues, but he sometimes misfires as he tries to put his thoughts across to the audience at which this book is aimed.

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