Benchmark Ethics: Collaboration, Integration, and the Alternatives

Courage and self-control were two of the four “cardinal” virtues of character Plato emphasized in his Republic, twenty-five hundred years ago. In our contemporary sea of unrelenting waves of change these two fundamentals of good character and leadership don’t change. Courage and self-control are benchmark values, i.e., standards by which we should measure ourselves and our organizations.

Courage has been defined as bravery or fortitude. The ancients thought of it as the “readiness to fall in battle.” Our terms “guts” and “determination” are about courage. Aristotle explained courage as a “mean” between two undesirable extremes: cowardice (too little “courage”) and recklessness (too much “courage”).

I define courage as the capacity and the inclination to do the right thing even when it costs you, even when it hurts. Moral courage is the habit of saying “yes” to the right thing even when everything inside you is screaming “no, I don’t want to do that.”

Self-control has been defined as temperance or moderation. If courage is the power to say “yes” to the right thing, self-control is the flip side, the power to say “no” to the wrong thing. Even when our appetites (for money, power, or whatever) are screaming out for satisfaction, even when we could “get away with it,” self-control is the capacity to say “no” to it if it is wrong.

Aristotle explained that the undesirable extremes are self-indulgence (too little self-control) and self-denial (too much self-control — rarely a threat in our era!). Self-control is what keeps our ambition, appetites, and desires from destroying us — and those around us.

One of the standard proverbs of our technological time is “if it can be done, it will be done.” If we don’t do it, someone else will. This kind of thinking may have some short-term realism in it but it is certainly not leadership (because it submits to, and follows, the crowd and the facts). This may be pragmatism but it is not human values and ethics.

On the other hand, to simply, mindlessly oppose what is happening or what is possible is not courage but recklessness. Courage does what is right — but in a wise and appropriate way, not a blind, rash reaction.

Whether we look at biotechnology or management of our workforce or setting up shop in a precarious third world location, the need for both courage and self-control is clear. Short-term cost-benefit analyses and technological forecasts are not enough. We must put human values and ethics on the table up-front and factor them into our decisions with courage and self-control.

This brings us to “hope.” Hope can be defined as “confident expectation.” Its extremes are “despair,” on the one hand, and “wishful thinking” or “fantasy,” on the other. Hope is a forward-looking, positive disposition toward life. Our understanding of hope as a benchmark value owes more to Jewish and Christian tradition than to the Greek philosophers.

There is a critical relationship between courage, self-control, and hope. It is hope that undergirds and empowers courage and self-control. Without hope, why risk the courageous choice? Without hope, why exercise self-control?

Hope envisions a future that is both desirable and possible. Courage and self-control have importance because they help us achieve our hope. Leadership helps envision and articulate a future worth pursuing and helps galvanize a community and culture around that envisioned future. Leaders both teach and exemplify the benchmark values of courage and self-control in pursuit of that hope.

David W. Gill was co-founder of IBTE and author of Benchmark Ethics, a regular article in the first 32 issues of Ethix. After eight years of writing, speaking, teaching, and consulting in the Bay Area of California, he joined the faculty of Gordon-Conwell Theological Center (South Hampton, Mass.) in 2010, where he is also Director of the Mockler Center for Faith and Ethics in the Workplace.