A Practical Guide for Ethical Discussion

When we think of ethics, we think of them in relation to morals.  What are morals and what are ethics?  One way we can look at the two is to consider morals as behavior according to custom and we can look at ethics as behavior according to reason or reflection.

In other words, morals are those things we know innately, through modeling and experience in community.  Morals can stretch over different venues and customs and morally speaking, it can be difficult to figure out just how we should act or just exactly, “what we are all about.”  This is where ethics come in.  Without some process of thought, discussion and discernment, we can become confused.  Ethics are the process through which we examine and discuss our morals.

We can consider morality as having to do with human behavior and ethics as reflecting on and engaging in constructive conversation about that behavior.  The reason we practice ethics at all is to define how we actually make moral decisions.

Considering the prominence of reason and discussion for ethics, it pays to have some ground rules established for this conversation because when we deal with matters of morals and ethics, we are dealing in the affective realm of thought.  We are passionate about our values and moral beliefs.  Passion digs deep and triggers all kinds of emotions.

First and foremost in discussing ethics, agreement is not the objective.  We do not necessarily have to agree with everything that is put forth in an ethical conversation, in fact, there should be some disagreement just on the basis of values, context and cultural background.  Although we acknowledge there will be lack of agreement on content, we absolutely must agree that an ethical conversation requires respect and trust.

I offer the following considerations for constructive ethics conversations:

Listen.  We each hear things differently, if we spend our time truly listening to the person talking rather than planning our next statement or strategy, our responses will make the conversation richer in perspective and more respectful.

One at a Time.  A conversation where more than one person talks at a time is an argument.  Let the person speaking finish.  If you are the person speaking, be respectful and do not filibuster.

Be Authentic.  In the course of an ethical conversation, we are talking about core values and how they shape our decisions.  Our participation should not be to please any person or espouse a certain viewpoint.  We need to share our perspective honestly and frankly, using tact.  Any comments should be from our own perspective.

Be Prepared to Answer, “Why?”  Socrates said, “An unexamined life is a life not worth living.”  The gist of this is that when we examine our morals and discuss them, we are trying in a sense to figure out where we are morally.

If we are about to explain a value or choice apologetically, it makes sense that we should be able to explain why we hold the value.  We should be able to reasonably explain our beliefs and values when the question “why?” is asked.  Ethical conversation goes much deeper than parroting a thought we heard or read somewhere and thought was interesting.

Everyone has a perspective worth hearing.  No matter what our background, we all tend to have a narrow view when it comes to ethics and values.  The view is shaped by experiences, upbringing, awareness and community.  As we expand these areas by having healthy ethical conversations outside of our usual circle of influence, we grow as people and are able to better reason through decisions.

We do not have to agree with everyone, but we do need to respectfully listen and to test our values and morals.  Expanding perspective furthers growth and allows us to measure where we are at in our eternal existence.

Managing Conflicts of Interest

by Rushworth M. Kidder

Want a barometer of a nation’s moral concern? Check out how frequently the word ethics appears in the news. Last Thursday, anyone counting would have scored a hat trick. On the New York Times front page that day, above the fold, were two sad and tangled tales of ethical lapses. In one, New York Gov. David Paterson quit his re-election campaign. In the other, New York congressman Charles Rangel relinquished the chair of the powerful House Ways and Means Committee. A third piece, appearing in a box at the bottom of the page, involved Eric Massa, a freshman congressman from upstate New York, who resigned his position because of an ethics investigation.

Some readers rightly see these stories as additional nails in the coffin of our collective moral sense — proof that integrity is dead. Other readers, also right, see them as encouraging evidence that iniquity can’t be hidden — that the public cares enough about integrity to demand such exposure of unethical behavior.

But there’s a deeper significance here. Each of these stories is about conflicts of interest — which, simply defined, arise when people seek to exploit public positions for private benefit. The fact that these three public figures fell so easily into such conflicts reminds us that we’re not very good at training our leaders about ethics and integrity. Simply put, we give them few tools to defend themselves against three of the most corrosive influences in human experience — power, fame, and wealth.

These influences, if left uncontrolled, will generate an almost infinite number of conflicts of interest. But our public figures don’t necessarily come into their jobs prepared to deal with these conflicts. By the very nature of the democratic process, we push ordinary people into extraordinary positions — too often without the moral headlights to illuminate the approaching dangers. For all of the leadership training we do, we devote hardly a moment to discussing the conflict-of-interest issues that most easily could wreck their careers. Should it surprise us, then, that they run into the ditch or over the cliff with disturbing regularity?

Notice how it happens. Rep. Rangel did it merely by accepting personal gifts, including Caribbean travel, in situations apparently meant to influence his votes. Gov. Paterson accepted free tickets to the World Series, and tried to squelch an investigation of a top aide in a domestic violence case. Rep. Massa resigned after being accused of sexually harassing an aide. In each case, the positions these men held required of them an impartiality, a loyalty to the office rather than to the self, a judicious use of their influence for the common good. They were, in other words, trusted to do the right thing. When that trust evaporated, their reputations were shattered. It no longer matters that they are smart, savvy, sophisticated, or experienced. Being untrustworthy, they no longer are valued as leaders.

What lessons can we learn? Four come to mind:

  • These men each came to grief over issues that, in the grand scheme of things, were pretty small: a few days’ vacation, a couple of phone call, several free tickets, some suggestive language. Conflicts of interest rarely involve high-stakes gambits. Instead, they usually hinge on activities that seem, to the person doing them, to be innocuous, commonplace, even trivial.
  • Because of that apparent triviality, the last person to spot a conflict of interest is often the person engaged in it. Conflicts that are perfectly obvious to colleagues, friends, and acquaintances remain shrouded from the view of the actor himself. Such is the power of self-interest that we can see others’ faults far more clearly than our own.
  • Conflicts of interest come in two flavors: actual and perceived. The perception of self-dealing can be just as damaging to a reputation as the real thing. That fact can be a curse if the perception is false and the accusation unjustified. But it also can be a benefit if it warns a public figure of a pending conflict and gives her time to avoid it.
  • Conflicts of interest are inevitable. The people most suited to public leadership have extensive experience and wide personal networks, so they unavoidably will encounter situations where loyalty comes into conflict with truth. They’ll face dilemmas where their duty of fidelity to others stands at cross-purposes with their duty of integrity to their position. It’s not shameful to find oneself in such dilemmas. The goal is not to avoid conflicts of interest, but to manage these truth-versus-loyalty dilemmas so they do no harm.

How can they be managed? What’s needed is moral courage. To resist the seductive influences of power, wealth, and fame, our leaders obviously need to develop the moral courage to say no to temptation. More important, they need to encourage such courage in others. They need to surround themselves with colleagues who can point out the danger frankly and candidly before an apparent conflict becomes a real one. If Paterson, Rangel, and Massa simply had taken that last step, they might have remained effective leaders.

©2010 Institute for Global Ethics

Serve and Protect

Law enforcement is a service profession. Service is simple. It is an attitude of seeing needs and meeting those needs.

A police officer’s job description always includes a phrase similar to, “and other duties as assigned.” This phrase exists because there is no way to estimate or predict the situations that officers will find themselves in, including opportunities to serve.

In my first police job in a smaller town, one of the duties was to turn the city Christmas lights on at 5:00 p.m. and off again at 1:00 a.m. I never heard a cop grumble about having to do that job, and I figured out why on the first snowy night I lit them, they sure looked pretty. That job added value to the community, so we took ownership of it.

Over the years, police officers from all over have found themselves shoveling sidewalks, changing light bulbs, buying hamburger and bread, reading to students, and meeting with neighborhood groups. These are things that some would say are not even real police work, but these are the essence of service. They are real police work.

These acts of service add value to the community. You as a police officer must constantly be asking yourself, how can I add value to my community today?

Law enforcement, true to its name, is also an enforcement profession. Even more than a job, law enforcement carries the duty that we police to put ourselves in harm’s way for our community. It also carries the duty to hold people accountable for their actions, regardless of personal relationships.

Service adds value to the community, enforcement adds legitimacy.

Most communities stand for something and it is fair to say that most citizens value safety. This value is not legitimate unless the police are willing to enforce the laws impartially and capably. We must be prepared to stand the gap between harmful and illegal behavior and our community, not for our own glory or pleasure, but for the sake of the community and support of its values.