Doug Samuelson

The OR/MS analyst had decided to branch out from his usual professional activities and attend a seminar on religion and ethics. Of course there were a priest, a minister and a rabbi, but also a Muslim imam, a judge and a professor of philosophy. And, of course, a lively discussion followed everyone into the adjoining room where some light refreshments were offered.

The analyst found himself near the rabbi and struck up a conversation. And in due course, the analyst asked, “What did you mean when you said evil impulses can lead to good deeds?”

The rabbi smiled: “It’s an old Jewish teaching. Both the good and evil impulses – or the unselfish and selfish impulses, to put it maybe a bit more accurately – are of divine origin,” he said. “Without the selfish impulse, the sages tell us, a man would not take a wife or build a house. And the sages also tell us not to give so much to charity that you become poor and end up needing charity. Balancing the selfish and unselfish impulses is what we’re supposed to do, not all-out pursuit of virtue.”

“This seems weird to me,” the analyst frowned. “It seems impossible to be all virtuous, but if you could do it, how would it be bad?”

Then another thought struck him. “Oh, wait!” the analyst exclaimed. “I think maybe I see it. I worked for the federal government some years ago, auditing the major oil companies for violations of price controls, and this agency had really strict ethics rules. If you had ever worked for an oil company and stayed in touch with anyone there, you were considered to have a conflict of interest and couldn’t work for this agency. So when we needed to know how an oil company might handle a situation we were thinking about, we had nobody on staff who could tell us! I see now that what we had was too much virtue – trying too hard to be pure kept us from being effective in the good cause!”

“That’s a good example,” the rabbi agreed. “I might use that myself in the future. Would you mind?”

“Of course that’s OK,” the analyst said. “But I’m still not sure about how vices can be good.”

The rabbi elaborated, “Any selfish impulse can be just what’s needed in certain circumstances – in moderation. For instance, lust is selfish, but without it it’s hard to have and sustain a marriage and you most likely won’t have children, who are essential to sustaining civilization. The all-out pursuit of power is bad, but you need some power to accomplish anything. In politics and business, you have to thwart someone else’s advancement and achievement in order to reach your own goals. Even the kindest, more caring leaders sometimes have to do nasty, self-serving things to retain the power to do good.

“And not just to retain power,” the rabbi went on. “Remember how the congress, a few years ago, abolished ‘earmarks,’ money designated for pet projects in representatives’ districts, to cut down on ‘pork barrel’ spending? The people who pushed for that thought it would make government more honest. But earmarks were the currency in which deals could be made. That’s one of the reasons congress has so much more trouble now reaching any kind of consensus to do anything. Hardly looks like an improvement, does it?”

“I think I’m catching on,” the analyst affirmed. “I suppose there’s something like this at the individual professional level, too?”

“Have you ever gotten stuck writing something, or gotten stage fright when you needed to give a speech?” the rabbi prompted.

“Yes!” the analyst nodded vigorously. “Lots of times! I’d love to know what to do about that!”

“Well, there’s a sure cure for writer’s block and stage fright. Did you know that?” the rabbi continued.

“Tell me!” the analyst responded eagerly.

“Arrogance, just simple arrogance,” the rabbi told him. “Arrogance is a vice, of course, but this is where it’s a virtue. If you can convince yourself that you know something the world just has to hear or read, and they’ll be delighted to receive your wisdom, then the words will flow pretty easily. And if you’ve maintained a proper balance between that arrogance and the modesty to check carefully what you’re about to say, then you end up doing good. See?”

“But how do you maintain that balance?” the analyst demurred. “Too much arrogance would breed even more arrogance, and turn you bad – right?”

“Right,” the rabbi concurred. “And the way to maintain the proper balance is to keep studying ethical questions – regularly, frequently – with a group of people who are also devoted to improving themselves and the balance in their lives. You belong to a professional association or two, don’t you?”

“Yes,” the analyst acknowledged.

“Well,” the rabbi suggested, “why don’t you organize some sessions at your conferences on the ethical questions in the practice of your profession? Such as how you recognize when a sponsor or client is subtly, or maybe not so subtly, leading you to the answer they’ve already decided they want? Or how you decide who should pay for something you’re doing, when you’re combining tasks? Or when data shouldn’t be used because they were obtained by coercion?”

“Intriguing, but I’m pessimistic about attracting much of an audience,” the analyst shrugged. The rabbi eyed him skeptically, and then the analyst broke into a grin. “So maybe this is the time for a bit more of that arrogance,” the analyst added. “OK, I’ll try it! Would you like to be a speaker? And is there anyone else you can recommend?”

Doug Samuelson ( is president and chief scientist of InfoLogix, Inc., in Annandale, Va.