Benchmark Ethics: Navigating between Moral Cowardice & a Rush to Judgement

As a long-time teacher and writer on ethics I often get asked for my opinion on various hot ethical issues. People don’t just want to hear me describe the historic meaning of “justice” — they want to know what would be right and morally justifiable to do to Osama Bin Laden, if we could get our hands on him. And they wanted to know that by the afternoon of September 11.

The Osama question is still posed often enough, but a new hot question has risen to the top of the list: what moral judgment should we put on Ken Lay, Jeffrey Skilling, Andrew Fastow, the Enron Board of Directors, Arthur Andersen, and their alleged political cronies in Washington?

“What would be just punishment for these crooks?” I am asked.

Frankly, I wish more people felt more deeply and passionately about the cruelties and injustices of life in our world. Moral lethargy is an affliction to be avoided.

Moral cowardice cannot be an option. Because life is so complex, it offers endless possibilities for the ”paralysis of analysis.” We can decline to answer the hard questions because they are too complex. And because our world has been so savagely harmed by intolerance, we might opt out of any moral judgments.

The other extreme to be avoided is the “rush to judgment”. Mindless, rapid-fire moralistic attacks usually only contribute rhetorical fuel to keep the fires burning. By their suddenness and rigidity, they harden, rather than enlighten or help, people on all sides of an issue.

So what is to be done? How can we navigate our way forward while avoiding the threats of moral cowardice and the rush to judgment? Here are the five navigation points I depend on:

First, we must commit ourselves fully and passionately to a quest for truth and for the facts. This takes some time and a good deal of effort. It takes some listening — a listening to all the sides, all the players, all the observers involved. Any strong moral judgments of people and organizations that are poorly or partially-informed are suspect. Any individuals or organizations that shred or silence the sources of knowledge and the facts are guilty, at least, of an attack on the truth. Lots of passionate feeling and action can be channeled into a quest to know the truth. Until the facts are clear (not just to me and my side!), our moral judgments about people and organizations must be cautious and provisional.

Second, we must commit ourselves fully and passionately to an embrace of high ethical values and principles. There is nothing wrong and everything right about being passionately, intransigently committed to justice and fairness, to compassion and generosity, to honesty and loyalty, and so on. Here, though, we need to focus on the core meaning of such values. It is to the core value itself, more than to a specific local, historical, contextual application of the value, that we are passionately committed.

Third, we must be passionately committed to bringing these core values to bear on the true facts (i.e., connecting the preceding two paragraphs) in a courageous but careful way. We can’t leave our facts and values in two separate compartments. We must live in a sort of “dialectical” relationship, going back and forth, back and forth, between our core values and the facts, as we understand each pole better and apply our understanding to our choices and actions.

Fourth, we must experience a second dialectic between our individual moral conscience and the collective, group conscience within which we are living and working. I add my convictions and input to the group discussion; I listen and learn from the other voices. We strive to find the highest common denominator consensus on what is right. We go back and forth between individual and group. Ethical wisdom requires both.

Fifth, and finally, we must think of a third dialectic between the current, immediate ethical crisis and the broader, deeper moral context. It is easy to rouse our passions about Osama or Enron right now. But we must press hard to address the deeper, longer-range contexts that have given rise to Osama as well as Enron. The hard work in the trenches is the reform and renewal of our organizations and communities, of our missions and visions, of our cultures and practices. It is precisely here where our business world (to say nothing of politics and other areas) is most in need of a new cadre of passionate, ethical reformers.

If we keep these five tasks in mind, we are likely to avoid the twin perils of moral cowardice and rash judgmentalism. We are likely to contribute positively and long term to the solution of the crises and challenges of our time. And in this approach both our passion and our reason will be fully expressed in constructive ways.

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.