02/26/2013 02:44 pm ET Updated Apr 28, 2013

Riding the Bus With Socrates

I wonder whether we have set the best standard for ethics in public life. As the head of a state-supported institution of higher education, I hold a rather minor office. In that role, I have seen how people are impressed -- positively as much as negatively -- by symbolism that should not be significant at all.

Whenever I exit the building for an appointment, I know that I am setting an example whether I mean to or not. I don't object to this scrutiny. It's part and parcel of the job.

Nevertheless, I worry that we focus on the wrong indicators of good behavior. For a multitude of reasons, we have decided that it is momentous to avoid not only impropriety but also the appearance of impropriety. That would seem to be a commendable exercise of caution, the dose of zealousness. But then we become confused about our goals, so we look not at impropriety but at appearance.

For example, I try to utilize mass transit whenever I can. In the San Francisco Bay Area, there are excellent systems that criss-cross the seven by seven mile square of the city: the Muni with its buses and trains, the BART exemplifying a once futuristic rapid transit grid that spread over the metropolitan area, and Caltrain, perhaps someday to be joined by high-speed rail. Whenever I embark on the Muni bus, I run into someone from school: sometimes a student, other times a staff member. Likewise, when I venture by BART to the SFO airport, I see how it is marvelously cheap, fast, and easy.

Riding the bus tends to have a vague stigma associated with it in the United States (not so elsewhere in the world). People have said to me that they are surprised to see me alongside them, clinging to the strap as we lurch along city streets. The implication is not unkind toward me so much as it is a reflection on social class.

I don't even own a car. It isn't necessary, and, if you calculate all the costs, it isn't rational either.

From time to time, I make it a point to take a Muni bus to my meeting with an alumnus or the BART line to the airport. Aware of the prevailing ethos, I make an effort to ensure that others see me boarding. Then I feel guilty about this would-be demonstration of virtue.

Almost all the time, I -- more importantly, my school -- would be better off with me taking a taxicab. I could do work en route, whether making phone calls or checking emails. I've even had the opportunity through a coupon deal to ride a limousine at a cost lower than a cab.

However, I send quite a different signal to anyone who happens to be watching, when I alight from a bus or the BART, versus a cab or limo. There is no avoiding the effect.

Yet I ought not receive credit for taking the bus or the BART, anymore than I should be subjected to criticism for hailing a cab. The emphasis on these superficial indicators of character disserves our ideals.

Philosophers have long insisted likewise. A similar issue, without the reference to mechanized public transportation, appears in Plato's Republic. In Book II, Glaucon and Socrates are arguing about who is the just person. Glaucon, who is meant to be a more thoughtful interlocutor than his predecessors who have taken on Socrates, posits that the truly just person is the individual who does what is right while being regarded as exactly the opposite. In contrast, the "just" person who has a reputation as such may be merely acting, in order to gain the benefit of "honors and rewards."

For anyone who would like to lead, the challenge is to pursue a course of conduct that is honorable without chasing appearances. In every mundane aspect of our lives, we demonstrate our character.