We often hear from faculty members who assert that they don’t have to think about teaching ethics because their subject doesn’t include conversations about values. However, like it or not, every faculty member teaches ethics—either intentionally or unintentionally. All educators talk about the ethical potholes of their discipline, model a (hopefully) civil and respectful environment in their classroom, and advise students who come to them for wisdom and guidance.
The most basic ethics conversation involves warning students of the ethical potholes of our discipline. Often, we will showcase exemplars who have made unethical decisions because of a lack of self-awareness and hubris.
These cautionary tales alert students to the types of problems that will land them in legal trouble. During these conversations, we can also discuss the ethical issues surrounding emerging technologies and research. Whether we teach biology and explore the ethics of gene editing or IT where questions of how to handle big data arise, all of us can use our experience and expertise to flash warning lights for students.
Many of us shy away from these conversations because we don’t feel qualified to teach ethics. Without training in behavioral ethics and psychology, we may not feel comfortable probing into the reasons people strayed into unethical behavior. However, all of us have considered how greed, blind loyalty, a desire for power, or just not paying attention can get someone on the wrong side of the law. And, often giving a concrete example of a universal problem is enough to make an impression on our students.
The second type of ethics conversation is inherent in the structure of our classrooms. With a modicum of awareness, we can all learn how to facilitate conversations with people with different ethical perspectives and disparate value priorities. We begin by modelling respect for students who hold ideas and express positions with which we don’t agree. Our task is to help them think carefully and articulate their positions clearly, not to have them agree with us.
My college-aged grandchildren talk about considering the risk of writing a paper with which their faculty will not agree and then perhaps getting a lower grade than if they had agreed with the biases of their prof. They debate about when to bring forward to a dean the behavior of a faculty member who has disrespected or silenced members of the class—always, by the way, after they are certain to never encounter that teacher again. Each of us can examine our own practices to ensure that we are not one of those teachers who is roasted over Christmas dinner.
A recent Harvard study found that 51% of students feel comfortable sharing political opinions at their college “without fear of censorship or negative repercussions.” However, 8% of those who identified as Democrat, 14% of those who identified as Independent, and 21% of those who identified as Republican said that they were not comfortable sharing their ideas. The tension for each of us is engaging in interesting conversations that will gently widen the viewpoint of both conservatives and liberals without making anyone feel silenced. With thoughtfulness and practice—and a willingness to learn from our students—we can create an open and inviting space for true learning.
Finally, all of us have students who come to us for wisdom and guidance. In these conversations, students often struggle with how to balance a desire for accomplishment with treating people with whom they work and study with respect and care. They are getting early glimpses of a common ethical problem in organizations where people are focused on their own career and are rewarded even if they don’t consider the impact of their behaviors on others. Charges of harassment or bullying, or a concern about a toxic culture, often result from this type of ethical blindness and the leadership’s failure to address the goal of civility. Students can begin to learn strategies for not making that ethical error and dealing with those who are not kind or civil.
In these conversations, we can explore with our students how to have the moral courage to make those big decisions that can shape or derail a career. Because those choices are not obvious, we may find ourselves sharing our own stories of making a tough decision that impacted our career. In a recent blog, Matt Reed talks about how his decision to be an involved dad and to write frankly about issues in higher education in his blog led to a glass ceiling in his own career. Those moments of vulnerability not only help students see us as real people, but they can begin to believe that they can make the hard decisions when needed.
None of us needs a degree in philosophy to help our students learn be an effective and ethical person in a complex, rapidly changing environment. We can model how to harmonize personal values and organizational values as we teach and do our research. The only question is whether those lessons will be taught from a space of mindfulness, where the learning can be highlighted, or from a position of oblivion. A beginning step toward mindfulness is to acknowledge that everyone does in fact teach ethics and to then search for ways to more thoughtfully engage the conversation about ethics. Your students will thank you.
Over the past month, I’ve been privileged to visit more than five universities and speak with several hundred students and faculty about ethics and ethics education. No matter the size of the group or the announced topic, at some point the question was asked: What did you think about the hearing for Judge—now Justice—Kavanaugh? Did he do it (it doesn’t matter)? Should we really be held responsible for things we did 30 years ago (maybe)?
What disappointed me as the hearing unfolded was that Justice Kavanaugh missed an opportunity to demonstrate moral courage and ethical maturity. The question for me was not whether the event described by Dr. Ford actually happened—the Senate hearing was not a court of law. The question was about Justice Kavanaugh’s character and judicial temperament. As he became defensive and combative, he failed the test.
In my perfect world, he would have said something like this: "I don’t remember the event Dr. Ford described, and I don’t remember ever engaging in that kind of behavior. However, I do know that in high school and college, I abused alcohol and was cavalier in my treatment of women. Since then, I have dealt with residual substance abuse issues and have changed the way that I treat women and others without voice or power. If I hurt anyone by my behavior in the past, I am really sorry. I have worked—and promise to continue to work--diligently so that doesn’t happen again."
Moral courage includes reflecting on our behavior and admitting when we are wrong. That reflection provides a space for humility. Ethical maturity includes noticing that over the course of a lifetime people change. And that acknowledgement gives all of us the space for forgiveness and grace.
So, should we hold people accountable for what they do in college? Maybe. In many situations, we already hold people accountable for their actions in their youth. For example, people who were incarcerated for a drug-related offense or were subject to an involuntary civil commitment for a sexual offense, find their eligibility for financial aid for college limited, even after release. Those found guilty for financial misconduct or other crimes and infractions find their opportunities for employment and ability to participate in civic life limited—sometimes for a lifetime.
And, as the #MeToo Movement has shown, men in power can be held accountable for acts of sexual harassment and violence that took place decades ago. At this writing, more than 200 executives have lost their positions because of accusations of sexual misconduct arising over the past year or so, even if those accusations did not result in convictions. Actions do have consequences.
Perhaps the greatest virtue of true leaders is humility. Each of us has a past—actions and behaviors that we wish we could expunge from our record but are part of our own story. We can, however, acknowledge that our ethical self includes both the ability to act from our core values as well as from our ethical blind spots. We can notice that often ambition, fear, or anger causes us to stumble. As we reflect on our past, we can ask forgiveness of those we have hurt, forgive ourselves for those actions, and resolve to do better.
Then as we seek forgiveness, members of the community can show grace. In the last election, Florida changed the law prohibiting felons from ever voting again to allowing them the franchise. Floridians embraced forgiveness and grace by giving people a second chance at being good citizens. Citizens of many states are allowing their officials to forgive and expunge the records of those convicted of marijuana possession or other minor drug crimes in order to open up opportunities for employment.
Unfortunately, Justice Kavanaugh did not exhibit humility thus precluding grace. Instead, he reminded me of those times as a lawyer when I appeared in front of judges who did not acknowledge their own power and behaved like him. I can tell you that those experiences are not fun. The high value we place on judicial demeanor is well-placed. If those on the bench do not have the humility to acknowledge that they might be in the same situations as those who appear in front of them, if they are unable to evaluate the circumstances with compassion, they run the risk of abusing their power.
Now, many have attested that Justice Kavanaugh never behaved on the bench as he did in the Senate hearing. That is good news. However, his behavior in that moment when he was under pressure showed a lack of humility and ethical maturity.
Those of us watching can use Kavanaugh’s misstep as an opportunity to reflect on those places where we fail to show humility and restraint. We can take a small act of moral courage and admit to ourselves and others as appropriate where we fell short of the mark. And, we can seek to develop ethical maturity by continuing to set the trajectory of our life toward living into values of principled living and justice instead of self-serving actions and self-justifying excuses. The cumulative effect of those small acts of moral courage may be the creation of a more humane community for all.
I’ve spent the past week cruising the upper Rhine in Germany. At one of the stops, we not only had the chance to explore a Museum of Medieval Torture but also visit the dungeon of a local castle with its sampling of the tools used to encourage ethical behavior. In addition to the pillories (wooden structures designed to embarrass people who were caught violating the laws and norms of the community by putting them on display in the city square with their heads and wrists in constraints), other specific punishments—primarily iron masks—were used to punish people for particular ethical violations: cheating, lying, stealing, gossiping, and so on.
While those of us who teach ethics sometimes fuss over what kind of behaviors are actually unethical, we would be wise to remember that every community in recorded history sets thresholds for ethical behavior for their members, and that the categories of unethical behavior are remarkably similar. While we recoil at the medieval methods of ethical nudging, we should acknowledge that the fear of shaming is alive and well. We have just replaced a fear of being put in the stocks with the “newspaper test”—would we be willing to have this action splashed across the front page of the Wall Street Journal or New York Times?
Behavioral ethicists, those who study how our biological and social programming informs our ethical sensibilities, are giving scientific shape to those early medieval intuitions: without constraints imposed either through our own self-discipline or fear of humiliation, we will be tempted to behave in ways that do not contribute to a healthy community. I remember being struck by Jon Haidt’s assertion in The Righteous Mind (2012) that as communities grew and people could not keep track of their neighbors, the notion of an all-seeing God was brought forward to make sure that people knew they were being watched, even when far from home.
To reinforce that idea of being watched, every culture has some method for teaching its children expected behaviors. Whether through the European story of Saint Nicholas, who as the popular Christmas song reminds us “knows if you’ve been bad or good,” or through cautionary tales of witches and goblins who would find naughty children, we have our ethical intuitions shaped by the expectations of our communities. Once we move past the idea of Santa Claus, the next task is to be shaped by personal and societal expectations for adults.
A primary function of ethics education at the collegiate and corporate level is to make learners aware of the set of behaviors that will lead to public shame and expulsion from the professional community. We begin by noticing where ethics touch compliance: if one violates the particular norms as outlined in professional codes of ethics and the law, one will be disciplined in some way—from prosecution to public shaming. We then move into the ethics of leadership, being expected to exceed the ethical minimum set by law and regulation
The perennial problem of being ethical is learning to exercise self-control. With a propensity to quick thinking and reflexive action, most of us will inadvertently lean toward gratifying our desires rather than moderating our behavior to allow us to thrive while meeting the expectations of the community. As Eugene Soltes found in his interviews with white-collar criminals, the universal theme was that people framed their decisions as business decisions rather than ethics, and thus didn’t consider that their actions would actually hurt anyone. So, we learn that a critical step toward becoming an ethical adult is learning to exercise self-control, stopping long enough to remember not to indulge our desires and passions.
Mindfulness—that practice of stopping, becoming aware of our feelings and then our thoughts—is essential for self-control. The key for learning to pay attention to our thoughts and desires is to develop strategies to move from what Daniel Ariely calls Type 1 thinking, which is fast and reflexive to Type 2 thinking, which is slow and reflective. Practices such as thoughtful reflection and mindful breathing help us get in touch with our bodies, reduce adrenaline surges, and prepare ourselves for the next practice: evaluation of options for action.
Those of us who have tried to tease out when a “business” decision becomes an “ethical” dilemma know that the line is hard to draw. To avoid the ethical blind spot of mis-framing an issue and inadvertently violating personal or community ethical standards, many suggest that the antidote is to slow down and engage in a practice of ethical discernment for every major decision—no matter whether labelled a business decision or an ethical decision. As we are reminded, the engineers who gave the final OK to the launch of the Space Shuttle Challenger reframed the problem from an ethical dilemma to a management decision—and then made a choice with disastrous results.
The implication is that those who teach ethics should include two facets to their curriculum. The first is to teach what behaviors are expected in the profession. That skill includes strategies for resolution of ethical dilemmas, including situations where people have different notions of appropriate behavior. The second is to teach strategies of self-control, practices that students can use to provide a check on their own ethical blind spots that nudge toward self-serving behavior.
The strategies may be as old as the examen, a method of self-reflection taught by St. Ignatius, the founder of the Jesuit Order, or as new as various body/mind techniques taught to center oneself before a decision. Whatever the method, including these strategies in our classes better equips our learners to discover their own preferred method of self-control, a discipline that might just save a career.
Many of us anxiously awaited the Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission, 584 U.S. ___ (2018) decision, crossing our fingers that our particular position would be validated. Surely the Supreme Court would see that the principle of freedom of religion was more important than the principle of accommodation for all—or perhaps tilt the balance the other way. But all were disappointed. No one scored a win except the arena of public discourse. The Justices reminded us that as we balance these two core values in our public policy actions, both sides must be respected and given a thoughtful voice.
But as recent passions around immigration issues and what to do with children brought across the border have erupted in the mainstream media and our own worlds of social media, it became clear that living into the vision of the Supreme Court for respectful discourse is very difficult. And, like many, I began singing the ethics blues.
The conundrum is not new. Even St. Paul sang the blues: "I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do. And if I do what I do not want to do, I agree that the law is good." (Romans 17:15-16, NIV)
If we struggle to live into the vision of civility laid down by the Supreme Court with our friends and neighbors—and are also expected to teach the behaviors and model them in the classroom—how do we avoid slipping into either monologues or avoiding all controversy? If the law is that we are to respect both sides of a policy dilemma and, after respectful conversation, we are still supposed to act, how do we avoid being disrespectful as we discern what action to take?
Here, philosophy becomes a wise teacher. The philosophers have given us a series of strategies for avoiding the pitfalls of careless thinking and mean-spirited conversation. Two temptations that seep through our social media and stoke the fires of anger and fear are illustrative.
Even as I review the lists found in every primer on critical thinking, I notice what delight I get from breaking the rules. As the passions flame higher, rather than acknowledging the values on the other side and the frustration of trying to solve a wicked problem—one where the problem is multifaceted, and we don’t know which strategies will actually resolve the problem—careless thinking, name calling, and mean-spirited conversation seem much easier. And, as I rehearse my comments with those who think like me and reinforce my beliefs and passions, the fire burns brighter. Maybe I need to step back and with some humility acknowledge that I don’t have all the facts and am not always right.
Ethics is the place where we decide what beliefs and behaviors will help us live productively with others. As we fashion our individual and communal understandings of ethics, we compete and cooperate with others from many different walks of life and work together to create communities where all are respected, and systems are put in place for all to have a fair opportunity to thrive.
Those of us who include an ethics component in our classes know that modeling the respect and humility envisioned by the Justices is difficult. Creating a place where we can safely examine and calibrate the knowledge and beliefs of all members of the community is hard work. To create an engaging classroom, we each have to acknowledge our own tendencies to stoke the flame of passions rather than exercise restraint with thoughtful dialogue. So, we do the hard work of knowing ourselves, watching our own behaviors, and continuing to hone our skills.
And, at the end of a difficult class period where passions flared and feelings were hurt, we come home and sing those ethics blues. But, all is not lost. Those of us who love the blues note that in the end the songs are hopeful: relationships are mended, lost love is found, and people are resilient. We pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off, and remind ourselves that tomorrow is another day. As we commit ourselves to being civil and practice respecting people, we become better at building those bridges. And, little by little, we notice that stoking the fires of discord is no longer satisfying.
Anger and fear—the source of the vitriol—turn out to be thin gruel. Martha Nussbaum in The Monarchy of Fear (2018) provides an antidote as she encourages us to engage in the politics of hope: loving imaginative vision and a spirit of deliberation and rational critique that leads to the action and commitment required to produce anything that is good or useful. Nussbaum reminds us that hope is the opposite of fear, and that by embracing hope we can create, as Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “a world where men and women can live together.” Even when we disagree.
It all started innocently enough with a student inquiry about one of our simulations. The dilemma asked the learner to identify the most ethical option if a long-term, valued employee gets angry and throws a fire extinguisher at another employee while off his meds for being bipolar. The student made a good case for the most ethical option being termination, rather than sending him home for two weeks to get his life back in order and then giving him another chance—the option determined most ethical by the EthicsGame writing team.
As is the custom, when EthicsGame gets a question from a student, I poll the leadership team (conveniently, we all look at the world through a different ethical lens). One of us with a long history as a HR executive wanted to protect the other employees and the company and so would terminate the employee. One of us with a long history in the corporate world—who also works with the police—advocated for calling the police. I was taken aback. That would be the last action I would take.
I then got gently schooled in how, with a decline in mental health services, police departments have resources available both to make sure that the person doesn’t hurt themselves or others and also gets the help they need. And, the employee would be terminated.
As I began to sort through the different approaches, I noted that all of us were in agreement about the facts as presented. The importance of starting with an agreement about facts cannot be overstated. Many of us become committed to the facts as we want them to be, instead of as they are, diminishing any hope of working together, as Michal Blake details in a provocative article entitled “Why bullshit hurts democracy more than lies.”
The problem is that none of us ever has all the facts we want before we have to make a decision, especially if we are responding to an emerging situation. Then the aha: each of us filled in missing details and, in the moment, gave the benefit of the doubt to either the employee or the manager based on our own experience and ethical perspective—based on our implicit biases and preferred value priorities. Faced with incomplete or imperfect information, we act based on our previous experience and preferred world view.
Most of us do not want to believe that we have implicit biases, which the Kirwan Institute (2015) defines as “the implicit associations we harbor in our subconscious [that] cause us to have feelings and attitudes about other people based on characteristics such as race, ethnicity, age, and appearance.” However, a fact of life is that none of us can get rid of biases (nor would that eradication of learned behaviors and information about life be particularly useful, as we see the plight of those with dementia who no longer have access to memories).
Our biases are learned as we make sense of our world in childhood and either reinforced or rebutted as we evaluate our lived experience and learn more about others and ourselves. While these biases can help us sort out our value priorities, they also can hinder us from respecting people and making the best decision possible. An antidote to inappropriate action is to become aware of our own biases, test them to see if they make sense (noticing when a situation has become unsafe and getting out of compromising situations are still useful skills), and work to change the biases as appropriate (which is a long-term process). Most importantly, we can learn to notice when our biases come into play, and then test our proposed action against a different set of biases, a different framing of the experience.
I had a chance to test the theory about identifying implicit bias by exploring who got the benefit of the doubt in a conversation about the recent Starbucks incident where two African-American men were arrested for loitering while they said they were waiting for a colleague. One person I spoke with, who had a long history of living among and working with the homeless, defended the barista who made the call because the men looked like they were homeless—and loitering in the public space. One person, a DA, defended the police because their ability to exercise discretion has been greatly reduced in order to reduce arbitrary actions. One person, active in civil rights issues, was outraged because of the perceived targeting of the men. Each person filled in details and gave the benefit of the doubt to a different stakeholder in that situation.
I then tried to look at the situation from the vantage point of my conversation partners and realized how hard it was to shift my gaze from my preferred world view. To even try, I had to use my imagination and envision myself as those other people. It turns out that our imagination and learning tools, such as simulations, can prepare us for that sliver of time where a choice has to be made. As we become aware of our own implicit biases and rehearse what we might do in a particular situation, we begin developing strategies to master the game of life—to live effectively and ethically with other people.
As the anger and outrage for the latest school shooting has begun to subside into a search for strategies to reduce the number of deaths caused by people using firearms, the articulate courage of the students at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School provides a flicker of inspiration in the shadows of grief.
Turns out that those students had been equipped to have a voice through the debate training program that is part of Broward County’s curriculum. Beginning in the third grade, students were taught how to evaluate evidence, develop a position, and articulate their ideas. Many probably had no idea that those skills would be used to launch a national movement to reconsider our collective response to gun violence.
Martha C. Nussbaum’s book, Creating Capabilities, provides a powerful challenge to educators about our responsibility to equip our learners with a voice and a sense of personal agency as they prepare to engage with the world. Nussbaum argues that creating capabilities includes helping individuals develop the vision and skills required for a good life as well as equipping them to work toward creating a political, social, and economic environment that gives people meaningful choice.
Faculty often complain that engaging students in conversations designed to build those personal and communal capabilities is hard. Yes, yes, it is. But by thoughtfully structuring classroom experiences that minimize the opportunity for knee-jerk reactions to difficult problems, students can develop the capability to engage in careful ethical reasoning. One effective method is practicing the five core skills underlying the Baird Decision Model™ —a process that helps transform passion and anger into meaningful action.
Be Attentive: Core to critical thinking is the ability to separate facts from assumptions and to evaluate the strength of the assumptions put forward in support of or opposition to a particular course of action. Stubbornly holding on to uninformed ideas is one of largest barriers to critical thinking in ethics, as one’s very identity is tied to their beliefs about what particular actions are right or wrong.
In the debate about the responsible use of firearms and constitutionally guaranteed freedoms, asking students to do research and evaluate the quality of the information before coming up with solutions can help move the conversation away from closely held—but often unthoughtful—opinions to informed, more nuanced opinions. This strategy does require that the conversation take place over more than one class period, so students can prepare. But having the initial conversation be about the quality of the evidence for various positions reduces the intensity of the exchange and teaches students to evaluate facts and ideas rather than judge people.
Be Intelligent: Rather than focusing on right answers, this step of inquiry asks salient questions. What are our obligations in this situation? What consequences am I willing to have as a result of my actions? What is required to care for those with no power and get a fair result? What does my role require that I do in this situation? Each of these questions comes from a different ethical perspective.
Through asking questions, the core ethical tensions are exposed. For the conversation about guns, the tension is between protecting individual action and right to self-protection at the same time that community concerns for safety are addressed. What are appropriate limits (if any) on an individual’s ability to own and use firearms? What are the limits (if any) on community action to create and maintain a safe and secure environment for its members through limiting activities that might cause danger or death?
Be Reasonable: As students move to the next phase of reasoning, different approaches are evaluated. The goal is to put forward a set of policies that promote as much individual freedom as possible while creating as safe and secure of an environment as possible. Resources such as the Washington Post article, “How strictly are guns regulated where you live?” that outlines seven types of gun control legislation, or sites that give background on state gun laws such as Guns To Carry, help learners think outside of the proverbial box. Students learn that different options or combinations of options may be available for resolution of the tension.
Be Responsible: Through learning how to analyze an ethical dilemma with a bias toward action, learners have a strengthened voice and a sense of agency. Armed with information, a sense of what ethical action requires, and a vision for what options for action are available, individuals as well as the community as a whole are ready to make a difference.
The students from Broward County who had been through debate training and had researched the issue of gun violence were prepared and equipped to speak up when the unthinkable happened, a person came to their campus and used a firearm to take innocent lives. They were able to speak to those responsible for shaping the law. They were able to share their pain and anguish with others to get action from mobilizing national rallies to incenting businesses to evaluate their policies.
Be Reflective: No one wants innocent lives to be lost. However, not everyone will agree with the banning of certain firearms and other actions advocated by those students. Some may advocate more nuanced action with a different set of policies to resolve the tension. But, regardless of our individual position on how to effectively address violence caused by the irresponsible use of guns in our country, I believe that as educators, we have the responsibility to equip our learners to engage the conversation about violence and other difficult conversations, so they can effectively participate in the shaping of our life together, whether as citizens or members of a company or organization.
Ethics education at its best prepares learners to be thought-leaders who courageously take action as they work through the perennial issues of being persons-in-community. EthicsGame’s mission is to design engaging simulations and educational content that build learners’ capabilities in ethical decision making. We are also committed to equipping faculty members to effectively facilitate these important conversations. As all of us work together to develop opportunities for quality ethics education, we know that we are building the capability of the next generation to effectively navigate this world. What work could be more rewarding?
Over Christmas, my granddaughter wheedled me into watching The Lego Movie—an aminated film released in 2014 that I had somehow missed. When asked why I should watch it, Catie said she liked its message: that an ordinary person could make a real difference in the world. She got my attention.
After a delightful romp through Legoland, with obligatory fight scenes with flying Legos, I realized that the movie was a new iteration of the old story of the conflict between order/structure and freedom/creativity. When the movie ended, I enticed Catie into an exchange about the challenge of resolving problems by creating teams that blend the best traits of those who know how to follow the rules with the imagination of those who bend them—the enduring stuff of conversations for those of us who teach ethics.
Now, I’m not quite ready to recommend The Lego Movie as an assignment for ethics classes (although having students compare the role and activities of the villainous Lord Business with our revered business titans might be fun). But the whole exercise caused me to think about one of the core challenges of teaching: finding fresh ways to engage our time-challenged tech-savvy students into discussions about how to effectively live and work with other human beings—the time-tested realm of ethics.
We know the questions haven’t changed. How do we choose goals that can both allow us to be the best expression of ourselves while creating work environments that allow other people to do the same? How do we balance competing ethical principles when we’re stressed or under pressure? How do we use our personal power wisely, so we don’t abuse or oppress others? How do we model ethical leadership in a rapidly-changing world?
One of the hardest tasks for a faculty member is enticing people into a thoughtful exploration of those perennial questions within a contemporary context and avoid having them toss half-thought ideas out as foregone conclusions. Movies and YouTube videos can provide rich conversation starters. However, using current media offerings as a wormhole into a deeper exchange requires skillful Socratic dialogue because students are used to viewing instances of popular culture only for their entertainment value. And in online or blended classes, engaging the deliberation is even more difficult.
But, the payoff is worth the effort; educators can inform world-views and change lives. And, as together we find ways to help our learners explore eternal dilemmas in a new light, we may even help them discover their own interior Emmet Brickowski—an ordinary Lego figurine who by believing he has been called to save his community courageously acts and makes a difference—against all odds.
Turns out that a person riding a bicycle in China is only responsible for creating a twelve-inch bubble of safety around them. In the US, the bubble of trust is larger, because we expect the rider to make eye contact with others, signal their intentions, and navigate in a way that maximizes safety for riders, pedestrians, and drivers.
While many believe that safety standards are intuitive and universal, Veronique Greenwood discovered when she moved to China that safety standards are definitely cultural. Within a few months, she began adjusting from the communal safety standards of the US to the individual safety standards of China: clean your own air, check food supplies for purity, and ignore everyone and everything outside of your twelve-inch bubble when riding a bicycle.
As I go around the country speaking to students, faculty, and corporate leaders about ethics, a common refrain is that people should “just do the right thing.” But what Greenwood’s article clearly demonstrates is that “the right thing” is culturally determined. Shared understandings of who is responsible for safety must be continuously articulated and reinforced. Those shared understandings and congruent behaviors create trust.
During the past several months, the American community has had robust conversations about the social contract and expectations of trust. Can women and minorities expect to be free from harassment in the workplace? Can citizens expect that companies will not put toxic chemicals into the water? Who is responsible for research into product safety? What are the limits of political speech? What is our responsibility to work toward civil discourse? What should be the acceptable economic spread between those on the top of the economic ladder and those on the bottom?
The way that individuals, key stakeholders, organizations, and the various government bodies answer these questions over the next months will determine whether our bubble of trust expands, contracts, or implodes so we operate in a culture of no trust. Alasdair MacIntyre in After Virtue talks about the importance of conversation to establish expectations of trust. In addition, Karen Adkins in Gossip, Epistemology, and Power talks about how those without power have informal networks of information that also work to give people the information they need to determine the size of the trust bubble.
The shape and size of the trust bubble are determined by the ethical norms of people in the community and the legal and regulatory structure of the community. Legislation about harassment, food safety, pollution, and a myriad of other social behaviors let each of us know what behaviors can be expected. And, as shown by recent testimony about the responsibility of social media giants to monitor ads that impact elections, Congress can’t legislate an algorithm. We depend on industries and individuals having enough integrity to live into those expectations.
Our ethics are judged by how well we—individuals and organizations—adhere to the stated rules, how vigorously we monitor our behavior, and, in the absence of regulation, how we exercise our discretion as we build social capital, the currency of trust. The revelations of sexual misconduct in the entertainment industry demonstrate that everyone knew that men with power were behaving badly but the companies chose to ignore the behavior to bolster the bottom line. Women knew which power players were the predators and who were the accomplices, but individuals didn’t believe they had enough power to speak up and so depended on an informal network of gossip—that often excluded men—to warn others of the danger. And, those who were supposed to protect those being harassed, the human resources and legal departments, became allies with the harasser through silencing and confidentiality agreements, further reinforcing the culture that no one was taking the sexual harassment laws very seriously.
During the first ten months of his tenure, President Trump has signed forty-nine executive orders. Many of the orders loosen existing regulations, giving companies more leeway in issues ranging from obligations for clean water and air to requirements for equal pay. The question now is whether companies will live into their posted core values, which often hold them to higher standards than the law, or will follow the relaxed letter of the law.
The choice will determine the size of our shared bubble of trust. As Brené Brown states in Braving the Wilderness, “Standing alone in a hypercritical environment or standing together in the midst of difference requires one tool above all others: trust .” Will we have the courage to have those difficult conversations with each other, exploring and establishing shared expectations of trust? Will we be honest with each other about when we expect individuals to care for themselves or when the community will rally together for support?
Developing the skills to engage the conversation can happen in a classroom or seminar. But living into the commitments rather than vacillating based on what is politically and economically beneficial requires integrity and courage. Living into our shared ethical values is an individual choice: a choice made over and over again as we each choose whether to expand or contract the bubble of trust around us, our organization, or our community.
I love football. I’ve been known to annoy family and friends in July as the countdown to the season’s opening begins. And so, as the conversation over whether or not athletes should be able to kneel or absent themselves from the national anthem escalated over last weekend and spilled into basketball, baseball, and even golf, I wondered how I’d facilitate a conversation about the events in my classroom. The answer: a Structured Controversy.
Not wanting to lose any teachable moments, especially when learners cared about current ethical events, I was excited to discover Structured Controversies as a teaching tool at a critical thinking workshop some twenty years ago. The notion is that a class is divided into two opposing camps, considers the strengths and weaknesses of the opposing value priorities, and then engages in conversation to seek a policy resolution that harmonizes the values without discrediting either position, and thus builds trust accross ideological divides.
This tool can be used in a face-to-face or online classroom and for any academic discipline when the value priorities are clear. In this situation, you have some professional athletes (and their fans) who want to kneel or absent themselves from the national anthem to draw attention to racial inequities. On the other side, you have some professional team owners (and their fans) who want to demand that athletes stand for the anthem as they believe that an athletic event should not be politicized. The overarching perennial question: when an employee has a high-profile position, what limits (if any) can/should an employer place on their First Amendment right to political speech?
Using teaching strategies such as Structured Controversies is important if we are actually going to teach and measure learners' abilities to think critically. Derik Bok wrote a telling essay on improving the quality of higher education where he stated that “although 99 percent of professors consider critical thinking an 'essential' or 'very important' goal of a college education, fewer than 20 percent of the exam questions actually tested for this skill.”
Testing for critical thinking can include writing assignments that follow exercises like Structured Controversies where learners actually get practice in formulating policy arguments, explaining them to colleagues, and then drafting resolutions that honor both positions. And, as EthicsGame has shown, web-mediated learning experiences and exams can also effectively teach and measure the skills of critical thinking.
Key is being intentional, doing our own work of thinking carefully about naming the differing value priorities, and then structuring a learning experience that does not require that one side be silenced. Our best teaching happens when students can explore and articulate deeply-held values—even if those values might not be popular. The skill of respectfully harmonizing competing ethical values is invaluable in a world where polarization is more prevalent than ever, exacerbated by social media where we can just participate in our own echo chambers.
Feel free to contact EthicsGame for more information about how our learning tools can help you teach—and measure—a learner’s ability to critically evaluate ethical values in tension and resolve them.
As we’re all still trying to make sense of the explosion of racism and violence in Charlottesville, Virginia last week, the question asked over dinners and drinks is how—how in this time and place can such public displays of hatred exist?
Joshua Greene, in his seminal book Moral Tribes, has one answer: biology. Greene argues that our brains are wired for tribalism that provides a fertile ground for racism. Our instincts prompt us to marginalize the “other,” someone who doesn’t look like, dress like, or otherwise resemble us.
A second answer is socialization. As children, our parents and those around us taught us how to navigate the world so we could be safe and successful. Often, subtle cues of racism are given in those early years, planting the seeds for later action. And, as James Hawdon has found, the internet and other social media outlets fertilize those seeds which grow into fireweeds of racism.
What is insidious, however, is that racism can be covert as well as overt. Many of us who disavow racism fail to see where, through what sociologists call inattentional blindness, we unintentionally support structural racism because we aren’t paying attention. And that’s where resilience becomes critical.
According to researcher Diane Coutu, to be resilient requires a staunch acceptance of reality. We must all be honest enough to watch for where instinctual seeds of racism that are cross-pollinated with tendencies for self-interested action are dormant or beginning to sprout, both within ourselves and our communities.
And then grit comes into play: the commitment to engage in the work of ethical growth. As discussed in our book review of Grit by Angela Duckworth, once we identify an area of growth—identifying and eliminating racism—we have to practice weeding our gardens with an intention of contributing to the well-being of others. What does it mean to practice being ethical? Don’t we all just know good from bad? Unfortunately the answer is, not so much.
Racism exists because one core value—protecting one’s self and the tribe—takes priority over another core value—inclusion of all. Both values are important and both can be taken to extremes that are hurtful to one’s self and others. Thus, the values have to be harmonized. What set of beliefs and behaviors will support individual action and team cohesiveness as well as inclusion of all? To reach that goal, we have to be willing to have the criteria for inclusion be something other than a gut feeling of being comfortable with someone. All that comfort means is that our amygdala and our instinctual bias for tribalism were not triggered.
The purpose of the tribe is safety and support. But alignment of values and purpose, creating communities of safety and support, doesn’t depend on putting together groups who look like us or even only hanging with people who share all of the same beliefs. In the case at hand, we have to pay attention to where our own beliefs and behaviors reinforce tribalism and where acting in self-interest undermines individuals and the group.
LaDainian Tomlinson’s 2017 speech on being inducted into the NFL Hall of Fame said it well: “Football is a microcosm of America. All races, religions and creeds living, playing, competing side by side.” In advocating for “Team America,” Tomlinson invited us to evaluate others on their willingness “to compete and take whatever risks necessary to work hard, to succeed.”
Tomlinson harmonized the opposing values of tribalism and inclusion. We still have a team, a community that works toward safety and success. But, that team doesn’t depend on an accident of birth. That team is comprised of those who come together to work toward a common goal, a goal that will help others. That team looks at the gifts of all and doesn’t presuppose that one biological tribe is superior to another.
Telling the truth requires acknowledging that all of our gardens have weeds. Moral courage, the last element of ethical grit, requires a commitment to explore both overt and covert patterns of racism and patiently weed our own garden, pulling up the fireweed sprouts as soon as they are spotted. As we all work toward well-tended individual and community gardens, the displays of virulent racism that rocked our country last week will become fewer in number. We’ll have more situations like Boston where the public outpouring of support for all overshadowed those who wanted to sow more seeds of hate. Resilience and grit will win out over racism.
During the 40 years I’ve been teaching ethics, we moved from a shareholder analysis (where the owners of the companies got all the attention) to a stakeholder analysis (where we focused on the various stakeholders that were impacted by our decisions). However, the stakeholder approach turns out to have a major flaw because we haven’t given our students the critical thinking skills or the ethical will to transcend the interests of the stakeholder groups to move to a holistic, systems approach to both ethical analysis and thoughtful, coordinated action.
Dr. Deb Bennett-Woods, a colleague from Regis University, made a presentation to my neighborhood group entitled “Health Care 101.” In that presentation, she asserted that none of the health care bills currently floating through Congress address the fundamental issue: all of us want Lexus coverage but we only want to pay the Ford Focus sticker price. Deb went on to say that for health care to be truly reformed every stakeholder will have to give something up. She proceeded to discuss a systems approach to health care ethics where we focus on the goal of affordable appropriate health care and consider measured, long term initiatives to deal with the inevitable disruption to the system.
The same problem exists as we consider the “America First” conundrum. As explored in my recent blog, “Which Hat: Employer, Employee or Consumer?”, when we make decisions, we put ourselves in the position of one stakeholder without considering that in fact at one time or another we are all the stakeholders. And, for justice to be done and ethical action to flow, every stakeholder must be willing to give something up for the good of the whole.
A systems approach to ethics education begins with students being able to clearly articulate the values in tension in a particular situation. We are fond of saying that to be ethical people must be willing to live into their values, to choose actions that match their core commitments. But what do we do when those values are in tension?
I was leading a workshop for a group of executives. I began by having them identify their core values as a leader. Honesty and transparency won. And then, because I’m mischievous, I asked whether they would share with an employee organizational salary information in order to either confirm or refute a perception that women were being persistently paid less than men. To a person the answer was no: the values of confidentiality and loyalty to the company won the day over the stated value of honesty.
I then asked how they would describe to one of their managers when honesty trumped confidentiality and vice versa. They had never thought about it. Rather than thinking of the values of the company as being a set of complementary ethical commitments that could provide guidance when values were in tension, they thought of each of the values as stand-alone commitments that helped them be “right.”
For educators, a systems approach to ethics means that we have to abandon one of our favorite pedagogical techniques—playing devil’s advocate. We have all had the adrenaline rush of reducing a class to total confusion as we challenge them (in the name of teaching critical thinking) on their preferred position by presenting carefully-reasoned arguments for the other side. And then the time for class is up and our students are no closer to being able to make a thoughtful choice than they were before the class began.
Rather, we need to consider how to harmonize the competing values so that the system as a whole can flourish. How can we move beyond the default position of analysis from the stakeholder whose interests take priority in that particular class to a systems approach? For that approach to succeed, neither the individual nor the community—the classic value tension between autonomy and equality—should have more than their fair share of power and perks. People also need to learn self-discipline, both in their intellectual search for truth and in the management of their emotions and passions—the classic value tension between the head and the heart.
Most importantly, students need to learn to identify the values in tension from a systems point of view and then be given strategies for resolution and action that contribute to the good of the whole without unduly impacting the free will or autonomy of individuals. Shifting our pedagogy to a systems approach means completely rethinking how ethics education is delivered.
We’ll be looking at some very concrete strategies for facilitating that transformation over the next months. Stay tuned!
One of my favorite end-of-the-day mindless TV shows is Beat Bobby Flay. Last night, as I watched him take out a skilled chef a-gain, I found myself thinking about the TV editing process. Even though we all know that what we see can’t be done in half-an-hour, we have this sense that the cooking and cleaning process is a seamless whole. Continuity—making sure that the images flow in an expected order—is crucial to maintain the illusion. Continuity is broken when a sequence with Bobby not wearing his apron is put in after we’ve seen him mixing up the blackberry sauce with his apron protecting him from splatters.
As I noted the continuity error, I found myself reflecting on how we edit our lives. As we recount our day to ourselves, pour out our woes to our friends, and position ourselves to seek a redress from wrongs, we are as skillful at only noticing what supports our cause and reinforces our image of ourselves as the Flay crew is at building suspense and keeping us intrigued with the cooking process.
Interestingly, our mind, which is supposed to be the impartial arbiter of reality, conspires to create our alternate reality TV. First, according to Lisa Feldman Barrett in How Emotions Are Made: The Secret Life of the Brain, our minds anticipate what we are going to see and begin to fill in the details for us—even before we experience the event. Thus, if we are not really paying attention, we may “see” details that we expect but aren’t really there. The only way we snap back to attention is when we see something we don’t expect—like Bobby without an apron after he ostensibly put one on.
And then, to add insult to injury, our minds will reinforce what we thought we saw until we are absolutely convinced that up is down, even when we see a video clip showing us we are wrong.
A core skill for ethical maturity is being able to fully pay attention and neither unfairly edit our experience nor our response as we retell our stories. A core component of this skill is compassionate detachment. If we had no skin in the game, what would we see and how would we name the event? As we evaluate our emotions, to what degree are we really responding to the actual event, and is the response appropriate?
Our ethics—how we treat ourselves and others—flow from beliefs that inform behaviors. If our beliefs are based on an interpretation of life that omits key details or recounts events out of their actual sequence, we will not respond appropriately to our environment. And, we might miss the opportunity to contribute to a world where people can thrive.
Compassionate detachment is tricky. We can’t be too harsh or we’ll fall into a cycle of blame and discouragement. Nor can we be too optimistic or we’ll miss an opportunity for right action and reconciliation. A useful technique is to begin by asking what we really saw or experienced. What details did we add that we expected to see but weren’t truly there? What details did we omit that didn’t match our expected picture?
This morning, I watched a short video where a young man tried to set up a homeless man by giving him $100. The man was then followed and filmed. Predictably, he went to a liquor store. The filmmaker was not surprised. But then the man began seeking out other homeless people and giving them—food. He had gone to the liquor store, bought food, and was handing out lunch to others stranded at park benches and picnic tables. Those filming did not see what they expected and were schooled in compassion when they asked the man why he shared. He stated that he ended up homeless after caring for his mother who recently died. He had quit his job to be her full-time caretaker and then realized that he did not have money for rent and couldn’t quickly get a job. He said that those on the street often had one turn of bad luck that landed them at a soup kitchen or shelter.
That story reminds us again not to fill in the details of the story without doing a bit more investigation. What we expect to see may in fact be far from the actual truth. From seeking out the unseen details of an event, we can move to evaluating what we saw and choose an appropriate response—often one that is kinder and more effective than our usual knee-jerk reactions. The young man who watched the homeless person buy food for others gave him another $100 to continue the good work. In our professional life, leadership guru Kendall Lyman calls this process learning to be creative in our response instead of reactive. But we cannot creatively respond unless the foundation upon which we act is based on fact and not fantasy—or prejudice.
Give it a try! Take one day and practice looking carefully at what is happening. When you think you have seen clearly what is going on, go back and look again. And then with compassionate detachment carefully evaluate your response rather than editing your personal TV show as you go. You might be surprised at what you see—and then how you behave.
One of our hardest tasks is to listen with an open heart and an open mind to someone whose opinions and beliefs are diametrically opposed to our own. And yet, if we’re going to be successful in an organization or in the fashioning of public policy, we have to listen to each other to at least understand the other side.
In this age of social media polarization and trigger warnings, faculty members sometimes shy away from engaging conversations about differences—especially ethical differences. Finding teaching tools to move students beyond the black and white, “that’s what I think and that’s all there is to it,” can be challenging.
EthicsGame’s updated and expanded version of the Ethical Lens Inventory (ELI) is designed to help breach that divide. The ELI demonstrates how differences in behavior and expectations flow from different prioritization of values—whether to follow the head or the heart, for instance. In this way, students are introduced to notions of ethical plurality—we have more than one way to be with each other in community.
So, whether you’ve used the ELI in your classes forever or you want to try something new, we invite you to take a peek at the 2017 version of the ELI.
First, the ELI has a spiffy new look. While the questions in the instrument are the same, the participant interface is easier to navigate and the questions flow more logically.
Next, the descriptions of the ethical lenses are more robust. Instead of just two or three pages of information, the learner now has up to ten pages not only describing the strengths and blind spots of the ethical lens but also providing tips on how to become more ethically mature and work with others in different ethical lenses.
Another difference is more nuance in the results. As students complete the ELI, they learn which ethical perspective is their home lens. In addition to learning their ethical strengths, they now can consider the implication of intensely held beliefs rather than mildly held preferences. Often, someone with a strong preference for autonomy—some of our favorite libertarians—may approach restrictions on individual freedom more viscerally than someone who on the surface is in the same ethical lens but has a mild rather than intense commitment to principle-based ethics. Exploring the differences in intensity can help explain differences in policy and practices.
The final update brings clarity to the Center Perspective. As we conducted workshops and seminars, a consistent question was, “What does it mean if I land in the middle.” My flippant response was often that the person just didn’t have an ethical backbone. However, a young philosophy major challenged me by asking about the existential philosophers. Turns out that Simone de Beauvoir, in her provocative book, The Ethics of Ambiguity, provides a compelling argument for being authentic first and then thinking about ethical norms. De Beauvoir reminds us that while we can be principled, we can’t presume others will agree with or even respect our principles, because people have free will and we don’t know how they will respond. Thus, learning how to effectively deal with ambiguity can provide ethical strength.
The EthicsGame team would like to thank the more than 500,000 faculty members, facilitators, and learners who have completed the ELI since its launch in 2010. Your thoughtful critiques and enthusiasm for the accessible information about chewy ethical theory informed the updates as we rolled out our new, improved version. We know that you’ll find the ELI a wonderful way to springboard the conversations about ethical diversity and how we can all respect each other and learn to get along. Thank you all for participating in the conversation about how we can each bring our best ethical self to our communities and workplace environments.
In an interesting slide-share, Netflix Culture: Freedoms and Responsibility, this fast-rising company presents its core values. as in many tech companies, one of the primary values is hiring the “brightest and the best.” and, if people don’t maintain that standard, they are “given a generous severance” and sent on their way. ouch!
Reflecting on that statement, I had a familiar tightening in my stomach: Could I measure up to that standard? I have no confidence that I am part of the “brightest and best” cohort. And, then I noticed that the belief that being number one is the only goal worth pursing can lead to some interesting, unintended results.
For example, the uproar about sexism that permeated the Uber culture, which hit the blogosphere and then mainstream news, highlighted some of the consequences. Aubs they strove to reach the top of the ladder, Uber was accused of not only engaging in predatory pricing but allowing a culture of bare-knuckle competition to create a dysfunctional work environment—causing wall street financiers to finally sit up and take notice. Clearly, Uber’s fixation on pursuing market position resulted in a de-emphasis on the ethics of the organization, both in allowing the mistreatment of their employees as well as shortchanging their other stakeholders.
Another consequence of “be the best or go home” thinking can be seen in the Academy with the focus on being published in A journals. Andrew Hoffman argues in a provocative article entitled In Praise of B Journals that a fixation on publishing in A journals has resulted in academic publishing “becoming more about establishing a pecking order and less about pursuing knowledge.” This narrow focus results in a limited audience, less creative and diverse research, guaranteed irrelevance, and questionable impact. Hoffman believes that valuing B journals and alternate methods of disseminating academic research will result in more vibrant research agendas and allow researchers to make a greater impact.
Maybe leaders need to acknowledge that most people—including them—are not the “brightest and the best.” Maybe, those leaders and employees would be better served by being content with being “good enough and growing.” That mantra allows business leaders to strive for the business goal of thriving and growing in a competitive environment and the ethical goal of embracing personal growth, treating employees with respect, and building trust with their primary stakeholders.
An intriguing new management book, Mastering Leadership by Robert Anderson and William Adams (Wiley, 2016), asserts that unless a leader attends both to the culture of the organization and their own personal growth, they will not be effective leaders. the claim is that as leaders learn how to be both more effective and more ethical, they will then be able to leverage that learning into creative leadership rather than being reactive to external circumstances.
So, if the CEO of Uber, Travis Kalanick, had paid attention to early warning signs of a toxic environment by looking at his own lack of interpersonal skills—his deficit in ethical acuity—he would not have had the bad press and then the fallout from yelling at an Uber driver. Kalanick finally admitted that he needed to look at his own behavior and the culture of the organization. With more ethical awareness, his realization could have come sooner.
The bottom line is that for organizations to thrive, they must attend both to organizational values leading to success and interpersonal values that support a healthy, productive culture. The ethics of an organization—the way that they translate values into behavior—will help them bridge those two value sets. That bridging and ongoing reflection lets them avoid arrogance, which is the blind spot of those repeating the mantra of only seeking the “brightest and best,” to the more modest but realistic stance of welcoming and developing those who are “good enough and growing.” And, that grace and expectation could be extended to those in the C-Suite as well.
Ethics is about how we translate our values into action. During periods of rapid change, we have to be especially mindful of rocks in the river of life. Otherwise, we may lose our ethical center and capsize—finding ourselves floundering as we make decisions that aren’t our ethical best.
For those who want to kayak down a Class VI river, where violent whitewater presents a constant threat of death, one of the first skills to master is how to roll over in the craft and re-center. As the skill is learned, and then practiced on increasingly difficult stretches of water, paddlers are coached on how to be attentive to the water conditions and mindful of their own capabilities, strength, and balance.
Self-deception can be a powerful tool for becoming more ethical if we are willing to honestly describe the gap between what we do and what kind of a person we really want to be. Dr. Albert Bandura and others who research behavior modification report that if we pretend (a powerful form of self-deception) that we are the person we want to be, with the desired beliefs and behaviors, we can become that imagined person.For educators, our learners practice rolling over their kayak to discover their ethical core. We coach them on how to regain their balance when thrown off by the challenges of a class’s ethics component. Through conversations, case studies, and simulations—through engaging their imagination—learners discover what values are important to them, where they might encounter ethical boulders that can hurl them into the churning water, and how they can regain their ethical center. Faculty members can facilitate ethical growth by teaching students the same two critical skills taught kayakers: being attentive and being mindful.
Being attentive involves two different capabilities. The first is knowing ourselves, what values are important to us and how we want to translate those values into everyday behaviors. This knowledge also includes a healthy awareness of our ethical blind spots and weaknesses so when faced with a difficult situation, we can call on our strength instead of ending up on the rocks.
The second capability, learning to be attentive to others, allows us to understand and be attentive to those who are part of our team and riding the rapids with us. Often, we get so busy trying to ride our own personal rapids that we forget that others are on the journey with us. As we attend to both our own ethical journey and that of others, we will be able to safely navigate the whitewater of change.
Being mindful is the next competence. Being mindful involves not only paying attention but also having some sense of where we are going so we can complete the journey with ease and grace. To be ethically mindful, we need to be aware of four different aspects of our ethical self and keep them in balance.
One aspect is always remembering the kind of person we are and what we want to become. Another is being clear about the principles that guide us in life and how to use them appropriately in ever-changing situations. Another aspect is remembering that we live in community and need to consider whether our actions will support and strengthen the community or weaken it. Finally, we should identify our roles and strive for ethical excellence in each of those positions.
The dual skills of being attentive and mindful allow us to transform our ethics from mindlessly following rules and social conventions to thoughtfully discerning what beliefs and actions are the best in a particular time and place. These twin capacities also allow us to realize the power of personal responsibility and choice as we determine how we will ride the rapids of our personal, professional, and community life toward the safety of still waters.
And, like those who become exhilarated as they navigate a set of Class VI rapids, churning waters that terrify most of us, we can equip ourselves and our learners with the ethical skills to embrace and celebrate times of turbulent change. This ever-increasing set of competencies will give all of us the confidence to maintain our own ethical center as together we navigate the whitewater of life.
“What would it look like if…?” That phrase is the mother of all creative thinking. When puzzling over a problem to be solved, asking the question “What would it look like if…?” allows our creative juices to flow and new solutions to persistent problems to emerge. Often, however, we forget to ask that question when considering our ethics. We often think that following our instincts or loosely-defined shared norms is sufficient, even when faced with complex ethical issues.
Our ethics—the way we translate our values into action—determine what behaviors we embrace or avoid. Interestingly, asking the same question about our ethical behavior helps us imagine a path to ethical maturity. And then, self-deception—a healthy self-deception—can help us develop the capacity to resolve complex ethical issues and become a more effective ethical leader.
Self-deception can be a powerful tool for becoming more ethical if we are willing to honestly describe the gap between what we do and what kind of a person we really want to be. Dr. Albert Bandura and others who research behavior modification report that if we pretend (a powerful form of self-deception) that we are the person we want to be, with the desired beliefs and behaviors, we can become that imagined person.
For example, if we notice that we are not as kind, honest, or fair as we would like to be, we can ask the question, “What would it look like if I was…?” We fill in the blank with the virtues we want to embody and the principles we want to live into, as we pretend we are the more ethical self that we imagined. We then begin choosing beliefs and behaviors that help us become the ethical self we created.
The same process can be used to create a more ethical culture. As we imagine a community where all can live and thrive while individual dreams and preferences are honored, we can again identify concrete beliefs and behaviors that nudge our reality toward that imagined future.
For example, we may reluctantly notice that we’re working in and contributing to a toxic culture. We can then imagine what a non-toxic culture would be and notice where our own and others’ beliefs and behaviors have to change. Then, we begin acting as if—pretending—the new culture already exists. For example, rather than fret because we believe someone is being rude, we can respond to them as if they were polite, as we have imagined ourself and them. They will have to respond to our new behavior—and may surprise themselves by choosing new, cordial, behaviors as well.
Strategic thinking is the process by which we think about, assess, view, and create the future for ourselves and others. As we consider what we want to do and have, we also have the opportunity to think about the kind of person we want to become and the kind of community in which we want to live. Often, the strategic process focuses on actions and outcomes, not our ethics—the values we want to prioritize and the behaviors that would follow from that prioritization. Using our imagination to envision all three facets of the strategic plan allows us to engage in values-infused strategic thinking, an exercise that will ensure that we not only are outwardly successful but effectively live into our values. And then we can fake it till we make it!
As the Wells Fargo saga continues to unfold, those of us who teach ethics in business schools are mystified. We know that we discussed fraud and misrepresentation—and their consequences. As those who responded to EthicsGame’s 2016 survey reported, teaching ethics is very important. So what happened?
The New York Times headline tells all: employees needed a paycheck. Under ordinary circumstances, many employees are honest and ethical. However, when the culture promotes unethical behavior and punishes ethical employees by firing them, people begin to do as they see, not as they’re told. And then, when the reporters and regulators start sniffing around, those in leadership claim innocence by pointing to the ethics training and not noticing their behavior.
Over a period of more than five years, Wells Fargo put aggressive sales metrics in place and fired people for failing to meet their numbers. At the same time, they spent thousands of dollars in ethics training telling people not to set up fake accounts and gave them a hotline to report manager’s misconduct. Employees reported the misconduct; nothing happened. Those low level bank managers and tellers who did not meet their numbers continued to be fired. One wonders exactly what the top management of Wells Fargo expected. Had they never studied the relationship between living into ethical values and the actions of leadership?
Our ethics classes tend to focus on helping individuals avoid unethical behavior such as falsifying signatures and participating in fraud. American businesses like to peddle the notion that unethical behavior is the result of one or two bad apples.
However, those who have studied ethical failures know that an unethical culture—unchallenged bad behavior on the part of leadership and a system that rewards unethical action—will trump all the ethics education in the world. People—especially those at the middle and bottom of the economic system—don’t want to risk their paycheck by raising ethical concerns. Economic fear quickly quenches any fervent flames of ethical desire.
As the dust settled for Wells Fargo, the former consumer banking chief, Carrie Tolstedt, who was in charge of the region with the most flagrant abuses, was allowed to retire with a $124.6m payout and praise from the company’s leadership. At the same time, the bank paid out $185m in fines. The regulations put in place after the latest financial crisis were supposed to stop this kind of behavior. But the reality is that without suspending business line licenses and holding the top executives to the same standards as the rank-and-file, change will not happen.
Yet, those of us who teach ethics, whether in a university or an organization, cannot give up the battle. Without us raising the possibility that both leaders and managers in organizations can be ethical and successful, the vision of an ethical organization will not be seen.
We can remind our learners who are or will become entry level employees that they are the ones who will take the fall for unethical behavior. They can then develop the moral courage and voice to overcome their fear of a loss of income. And, those of us who teach executives can help them strategize on systemic approaches for their businesses that will both meet the requirements of Wall Street and result in an ethical organization.
Finally, those of us who are watching can vote with our feet and our voices. As we let businesses know that we will not patronize companies that are unethical and will tell our friends and neighbors to avoid them, executives might pause before allowing unethical systems to fester and thrive. What we cannot allow is for unethical behavior to be unchallenged or tolerated as the status quo.
In the EthicsGame 2016 Survey of Ethics Educators, 80% of the more than 2300 respondents who include an ethics component in their courses said that teaching critical thinking is the most important learning outcome for their classes. Now, one component of critical thinking is determining the facts and assumptions in the dilemma at hand. Another part is determining the ethical issue to be resolved.
But, for those who blend ethics education with teaching critical thinking, the focus becomes teaching moral reasoning: helping students determine standards for ethical behavior and analyzing ethical failure. John Harris, in Be Good: The Possibility of Moral Enhancement, claims that those of us engaged in ethics education have as a primary task teaching our students how to both recognize and avoid moral failure, those times when
compassion, altruism, and basic decency fail or when those who take actions in the world fail to think about or feel for those whose lives will be impacted by their actions.
Over the centuries, people have brought forward many theories to allow them to escape responsibility for their actions. All of them provide some version of determinism, where the limits of individual free will and responsibility for action are showcased in order to deflect blame because somehow acting badly was outside of our control.
But, from Shakespeare reminding listeners in Julius Caesar that
The fault…is not in our stars, But in ourselves, to current day behavioral ethicists who encourage us to mindfully become aware of the biological and social nudges that keep us from being our best self, the message is the same: by knowing ourselves, evaluating the situation, and pausing to consider the best options for action, we are free to act responsibly—or not.
Perhaps the greatest gift that we can give our students is to teach them to pause and reflect before they act. John R. Searle, a preeminent philosopher at the University of California, Berkeley, in Seeing Things As They Are stresses that we must first be willing to see the world as clearly and objectively as possible—even if what we see doesn’t match up with our preferred world view. In this day of overwhelming chatter in social media, teaching our learners to thoughtfully explore world views with which they don’t agree is an essential critical thinking skill.
And, then, they can pause—and reflect on their own values and ethical motivations.
Each of us comes into this world with an ethical disposition—a tendency to interact with others in particular ways. That disposition is reinforced and shaped during early childhood, providing the foundations for our instinctive ethical responses, often translated to us by our feelings and ethical intuitions.
However, those feelings are not always right, do not always lead us to doing the best thing, all things considered. The opportunity for unethical action comes when our feelings are tinged with fear or greed, or if our feelings are fed by a sense of self-righteousness or personal superiority. Without acknowledgement of our ethical shadow side, reflection and deliberation, we can make choices that not only fail to live into our own professed values but which also significantly inhibit the ability of those around us who are impacted by our decisions to thrive.
The existential philosophers call us to authentic ethical action, action taken after we see how our tendencies to act have been shaped by biological and cultural factors rather than by our own values and sense of self. Authentic ethical action requires that we see ourselves clearly and then, using the various traditional ethical perspectives, choose the best action in that moment.
Simone de Beauvoir in Ethics of Ambiguity claims that
to will oneself moral and to will oneself free are one and the same decision. Claiming that freedom—freedom that humans seem to crave more than life itself—requires taking responsibility for personal actions rather than shifting blame by saying
It’s Just Not My Fault!
77% of the respondents to EthicsGame’s Survey also said that teaching students to describe the role of ethics in their professional discipline is a core learning objective. Key to that task is showing the results of both taking courageous action for the good of oneself and the community as a whole and demonstrating what happens when our professional leaders take an expedient path or abuse their personal or professional power.
The ability to pause, look clearly at oneself and the situation, and then choose to live from the best of human values is what all of us who are engaged in ethics education teach. And, 86% of our respondents agree, that teaching moral reasoning is one of the most important tasks that we as educators have.
Thanks for being one of those committed to teaching ethical leadership.
The headline after Villanova beat University of Oklahoma in the Final Four last weekend read—“Moral of Villanova victory: The better team beat the best player”. The game validated the work of neurobiologists who explore the genetic imprints that nudge us toward what we define as ethical behavior.
The research of E. O. Wilson and others has found that, within groups, self-interested individuals beat altruistic individuals but altruistic groups beat groups of selfish people. Thus, the growth of civilization depends on humans determining the boundaries of cooperation and competition—the study of ethics.
The Villanova team provided an excellent example of the interplay between self-interest and altruism. Each of the players was expected to bring their personal best to the game. Each person honed their skills, learned the plays, and was primed for a win. And, the players took turns both guarding Buddy Hield, U of Oklahoma’s star player, and contributing to the win.
While those of us who teach ethics often emphasize being selfless and working for the good of the whole, we forget that each of us needs to be self-interested enough to be skilled at something and to take care of ourselves to the degree we are able. This acceptable self-interest is implied while we are cautioned not to become selfish. Ethics—the actions that count for being a “good” person in community—is ultimately the study of trust. And, what to do with people who violate that trust.
As the human brain became more sophisticated, it allowed humans to assess the intentions of others by listening to how they describe themselves. Do they have principles by which they live? Do they share goals that will contribute to everyone thriving? Do they use power wisely? As they take on roles in the community, are they willing to seek excellence in those roles—as defined by other people in the community?
Each one of those questions has a whole body of literature going back over more than 5,000 years to help us evaluate someone’s answer. If someone says that they are a principled person who values telling the truth, what does that mean? Do we have shared meanings for those principles? If someone is given power, how do we decide whether they will use that power wisely? The study of ethics helps us discover how others have answered those questions and how we want to answer them for ourselves.
Another human development was having a memory good enough to remember how people behaved in the past. Did this person say they valued telling the truth—and then lie to us? Did they say that they respected all people but treat people of different races or religions—people from different tribes—badly? The part of ethical studies that asks us to focus on what kind of a person we want to be and what kinds of groups we want to be with reminds us that others are determining how we “walk our talk.”
We also become skilled in evaluating those we were considering trusting. Can we count on them to live into their stated principles? Will they be good in the roles they take on? Should we let them in the group or exclude them? Every group has non-negotiable behaviors: if you are too selfish and threaten the group as a whole, you will be asked to leave. Or shunned.
Finally, humans became skilled at inventing and inwardly rehearsing different scenarios about the future. Given that each of us is a blend of self-interested actions and altruistic behavior, what do we know both about ourselves and the others in the situation that would help us determine how to proceed? The Broadway play All The Way tells the story of Lyndon Baines Johnson getting the Civil Rights Act through Congress. He had as his goal ending racial discrimination. On the journey, he knew the ethical strengths and weakness of each of the primary stakeholders. Using that information, he both cajoled and threatened people as the project moved forward. An interesting question for each of us as we watch leaders moving their projects ahead is whether the goals and the methods are in fact those that will allow others in the community and the community as a whole to thrive—or not. Are they using their power wisely and well?
The study of ethics is often presented as a path to utopia—where we’ll all behave well and the world will be a wonderful place. While the ideal is important, the study of ethics also has to include the realities of human existence. We all have to learn to balance self-interest and altruism. We all need to evaluate whether we can trust someone else or whether our trust is misplaced. And, as we live and work with others who are engaging the same questions, we may be given the opportunity to play for a team like the 2016 Villanova men’s basketball team, a team that was, in the words of Reid Forgrave, “as egoless as it was scrappy.”
Over the past several months, those of us in academics have had thoughtful—and heated—conversations about trigger warnings. What obligation do faculty members have to warn students that content, in either assignments or classroom discussions, might be upsetting to their learners?
On one side of the conversation, faculty members and students assert that trigger warnings allow those who have experienced some form of trauma in their life to avoid situations that might trigger a major upset. On the other side, people assert that all of us have had upsetting experiences, and we need to develop personal resilience and objectivity to deal with those situations.
This conversation falls squarely into the concerns of virtue ethics (the Reputation Lens). What expectations do members of the community have for each other as we seek excellence in our professional and personal roles? The difficulty is that the definition of excellence seems to be ever evolving.
During the past month, I’ve had the opportunity to make several classroom presentations. As I introduced the opportunity for ethical growth the Reputation Lens presents, I shared my own growth as a faculty member. I started my career in classrooms where I wasn’t expected to give any particular warning about what might upset students. Later, I was expected to provide some version of a trigger warning so that those who might be emotionally impacted by the lessons of the day could either prepare themselves for the content or choose to miss the class.
The difficulty I shared with the students is that, as a faculty member, I have no idea what personal experience might “trigger” an upset response from my students. One of the tools of the trade for academics is presenting ideas in ways that expand the world view of learners and challenge their belief systems. In fact, a pedant might say that every syllabus should contain a trigger warning: all ideas are dangerous!
I was raised in an evangelical family and was taught that Moses himself wrote the first five books of the Bible. I blithely went off to Pacific Lutheran University where in my Intro to Religion course, the professor casually said that four different authors wrote the Pentateuch over a period of hundreds of years. I was stopped short. Was that true? What did that fact mean for my faith?
And, if I believed him, could I still be part of my own faith community? Could I be a teacher in my church if I accepted the scholarship of theologians rather than the authority of my pastor? That prof had no idea that the content of one lecture would raise faith-shattering questions—and the answers would change my whole life.Classes in sociology that deal with systemic injustice against marginalized classes may cause great disquiet for those who have suffered first hand because of the myriad forms of injustice in our communities. Classes in economics that talk about wealth disparity may cause great embarrassment for those who were raised in families who received food stamps or other public aid. Classes in psychology that deal with the dynamics of addiction may cause great discomfort for those who have faced the ravages of drug use and abuse, either personally or in loved ones.
The second is the philosophical approach: using reason to moderate desire and achieve contentment in this life. According to the philosophers, objectively looking at our life conditions and opportunities is the best method to help us achieve contentment. The Greek philosophers, in particular the Stoics and the Skeptics, spent a great deal of time teaching different methods of evaluating the world around us in order to moderate desires. All of the methods involved some version of learning to be content with the cards we were dealt in life. The philosophic approach has some mixed success in that we wind up questioning everything—even ourselves—and so others might consider us a bit odd.
As the students and I engaged in conversation about the ethically responsible way to deal with trigger warnings, I made every effort to listen carefully to the experience and beliefs of the students. I made sure that I respected their experience and reflected back to them their pain, as appropriate. I then invited them to consider the position of the faculty member. What would they recommend? What was the corresponding obligation of the student?
As we moved toward resolution—a more nuanced approach to the problem than the first solutions suggested—we realized that we have mutual responsibility. The faculty member has some responsibility to both talk about the disruptive effect of education and notify the learners of the content of the classes. The learners have some responsibility to communicate privately with the faculty their own areas of sensitivity and to begin to use the content of the classes to get a bit of objective distance. The learners can then, perhaps, use the new knowledge to facilitate their growth in emotional strength and resilience.
The solution we arrived at was found in justice theories—the Relationship Lens—which helps us fashion a roadmap for creating ethical processes and using personal and organizational power responsibly. Through thoughtfully considering both context of the educational enterprise and the respective ethical obligations of the parties, an ethically mature—and satisfying—solution was fashioned. Ethical agility—the ability to use the ethical norms of more than one ethical perspective—saved the day.
Ethics: Bridging Culture and Compliance was the theme for EthicsGame workshops at two recent conferences, the 108th Annual Meeting for the National Association of State Board of Accountancy and Corporate Learning Week 2015. Both workshops explored how to help people recognize an ethical dilemma and then use multiple ethical perspectives to resolve the problem.
The culture of a profession or organization―the unspoken rules about how things are done―forms one end of the bridge. Culture can either support people in bringing their best selves to work or create conditions of fear, anxiety, or apathy that can poison the workplace. As individuals know both their own ethical values and then how to respect and honor the ethical perspectives of others, the organizational culture can be strengthened.
The other end of the bridge, learning how to play within the rules―compliance―helps create a community in which individuals and organizations can thrive. But if a person doesn’t know why the rules are in place―the value priorities that led to the principle―organizational decision making can be stifled. People become fixated on following the letter of the existing law instead of watching for changes on the horizon that may require a different approach.
Ethics―the way that one translates values into action―bridges culture and compliance by helping us consider our core values and commitments and then learn how to choose a wise course of action when those values are in tension. The bridge has five key steps:
Ethics: Bridging Culture and Compliance was the As an ethics educator, you have the opportunity to teach people how to thoughtfully evaluate their values, leverage their ethical strengths, neutralize their ethical weaknesses, and make wise decisions in order to better live a life of meaning and purpose. With thoughtfulness and committed action, the ethics of individuals and organizations can provide the bridge between meaningful compliance and a thriving culture.
On June 13, 2015, Catharyn spoke at TEDx MileHigh. Her talk was entitled “Ethics for People on the Move.” Her message was that none of us have the answers to increasingly complex questions about how to both be effective in our work and live well with others. Thus, studying ethics and developing decision- making skills is relevant for all of us.
Everyone—from undergraduates through executives—can benefit from the knowledge that whether they are exploring their inner landscape, traveling through our wonderful world, or acting as a mover and shaker in their professional life, their ethics – how they translate values into action – will determine how far they go and how satisfied they will be with the journey.
Baird reminded the audience that yesterday’s answers to ethical problems might not be relevant to today’s dilemmas. The skill that has to be learned is how to recognize and resolve emerging ethical dilemmas. The process involves engaging in meaningful conversations with our self and others, paying attention to our motives and the results, and choosing to act with as much wisdom as we have.
As a foundation, learning to use the Four Ethical Lenses™, four different perspectives for exploring and resolving ethical problems, can help focus the questions that point to the best answer. Thus, rather than memorizing pat answers, this integrative approach to ethics equips us to respond to new situations while grounded in timeless ethical principles and goals. Then, as we move through our lives, taking on new roles and finding ourselves in different situations, we will be equipped to make wise ethical decisions on our life’s path.
Click the image at the start of this article to view the TEDx talk. We hope you’ll take time to watch her talk and consider sharing it with your students!
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