Moral Courage Part II

Posted on May 30, 2009. Filed under: Ethics, Responsibility | Tags: |

May has been a crazy month so I haven’t gotten back to talk about this book more.  There are tons of interesting stories in the book, but an important point on why some people are more willing to endure the hardship that having moral courage often entails is that they trust in something.  Some higher principle or authority.  This can also be called faith.  It can be religious, but not necessarily.  Another important source of strength is experience.  With age and experience we have a base, some perspective on what things work, what things are important, and why.  Character is what picks up where experience may be lacking.  It is your trust in who you are and your values, even if you don’t have the benefit of much experience.  Also, intuition or that gut feeling, that at times helps us act quickly, just knowing what to do.

I’m going to share one story in the book that I liked because it showed the same person not having moral courage and then later displaying it.  I like it for the humanness and complexity it showed.  It was about Egil Krough, who was a codirector of the White House Special Investigations Unit in 1971, i.e. Watergate time.  He explains that even though he had been raised in a home of faith and was a student of the Bible, and considered by all to be a straight arrow, he found himself embroiled in this scandal.  Somewhere along the line his views got skewed and he was totally sucked into the concept of the president as the authority, and as leader of the government, he saw the president’s best interests and designs as the best interest of the whole nation’s security.  His mistake was getting sucked into that and putting moral principles and the law and constitution in second place to loyalty to the president.  It seems incredible at the outset, but how many people have been driven to do bad things under the guise of following authority, or of their views being skewed by seeing one loyalty as equating another, higher authority?  I think that is what happens a lot with terrorism, or fanaticism in tight organizations be they religious or political or whatever.

So, here’s this previously upstanding guy off track and mixed up in the Watergate scandal.  In 1972, under oath he lied when asked about his involvement in order to protect the confidentiality of the investigation unit.  Nearly a year later, he was working with his lawyer to plan his defense in the trials.  He had a wife and two young children to support.  He had a great career as a lawyer and statesman hanging in the balance,  but his conscience was now eating him up inside.  He also was seeing his possible defense as hopeless.  He hit rock bottom.  He says on Thanksgiving afternoon of 1973, he was praying.  He had been praying with an open heart for guidance for a few months by then.  He just didn’t know what to do.   He was uncomfortable with the “national security” defense.  He got an answer that day and decided to plead guilty to the charges.  He said he felt extraordinary peace, clarity and certainty after  an answer came to him.  In his own words he says,   “the answer came as a steady stream of ideas which flooded my consciousness and fell into place like the tumblers of a precision lock.-

“Just look at this,” came the thought which seemed to come from a mind outside and yet still inside myself.  “Just look at the rights you and your family are enjoying right now.  These rights emanate from the founding ideas of this country that  are protecting you.  You’re under indictment in both federal and state courts.  You’re publicly identified with a profoundly serious crime.  Yet just look, just look at what you’re enjoying.  You’re able to travel where you want.  To speak to whomever you wish.  To pray freely in any church.  talk to the press.  Now, what are you standing for in the defense you’re putting forward to the charges against you?”…

“You’re standing for the right of a person in government, serving a President at the seat of highest power, to make a judgment based on his personal, subjective sense of the national security interest to strip away from another American his constitutional, Fourth Amendment right to be free from an unauthorized search.  How can you continue to enjoy all of these wonderful rights, guaranteed to you and your family by the Constitution you were sworn to uphold, while defending conduct that abolished a similar right for another?  …”You can’t do it anymore.  You must stop defending yourself.  If you defend further, if you continue to justify violating rights you’re continuing to enjoy, you’re a hypocrite.  Even worse, you’re a traitor to the fundamental American idea of the right of an individual to be free from unwarranted government intrusion in his life.” (pp 163, 164).  Amazing.  I think we need to encourage people in government to pray like that… but, the important thing is that he decided what to do that day and turned around a big series of mistakes in his life.  He realized because of politics if he stuck to his defense he might get off clean but he couldn’t salvage his career but continue on doing the wrong thing.  He went to jail for 6 months and was disbarred but he finally felt at peace.  After he was able to put his life back together again and be successful.  If only he had have employed as much thought and prayer to what was happening and what he was doing from the outset, he would have avoided a lot of grief.  Some of the things we learn from this are that people are human.  Even good people can mess up bad at times.  Not thinking and getting caught up in strict loyalty without remembering really why or where our highest loyalties lie can get us into messy situations. It can lead us to behave very unethically, even though we may have started out with good intentions.  Relying on our highest instincts or trusting in a higher power or inspiration can also help us before or even after we mess up.  I also daresay, we can all be enthusiastic members of institutions, political parties, businesses, religions, etc.  but we need to be very very extremely careful not to excuse means for an end or get sucked up in following blindly at any cost.  It is amazing to me for example how when people on both political sides start talking different issues how quickly they abandon what should be their own religious beliefs or principles as they pursue their political agenda.    People who in their neighborhood may be kind and sharing are callous and have an every man for themselves attitude and a lack of humility that they could ever possibly be one of those less fortunate people they don’t care to consider who might be adversely affected by their planned way of handling things.  Or those who should reverence life, but don’t care to reverence all forms of human life.  It’s sort of like a case of mass split personality.   Scary.

O.K. Since this may be my last post on this book at least until I bring up the subject of ethics again,  I’ll leave you with one more story.  This was a US Coast Guard captain in the mid 1990’s.  He was patrolling a strait in the North Atlantic that separates Puerto Rico ( a commonwealth of the US)  from the Dominican Republic ( a Caribbean nation).  They were based out of San Juan , PR.  Although he was not Latino, he knew and understood the language and culture of the islands and really loved it.  So one day an INS plane tells them that up ahead they  have spotted an unauthorized boat they would like them to intercept.  As they approach, he can see through his binoculars a small boat with small children and grandparents.  Up farther ahead on the beach is a group of people picnicking and holding up signs that said things like “Welcome home, Grandma”.  He knew these had to be Dominican people already established in PR and wanting badly to unite their whole families.  He could understand how they felt.  He sincerely doubted that these people would ever leave PR or cause an added burden to PR or the US.  So what do you do?  Do you break up a family, or stop unauthorized entrance?

If he only thought of the family and how big the impact would be on them versus the impact on society, he might be tempted to let them go.  If he went slow enough, they would make it to shore and he wouldn’t have to take them in.  But, on the other hand, he had a responsibility to enforce the law.  Granted, these weren’t drug runners or anything, but a law was being broken in any case.

In the end, he ordered his men to go out on an inflatable to pick up the people on the small boat.  Whatever they may have felt, the crewmen went at full speed, ordered only to draw back if it looked like those on the boat might jump, further endangering themselves.  They caught up with the boat people and brought them in.  They had a two hour ride back home.  No one spoke and not one of them had a dry eye.  The captain said ” We all knew that we’d done the right thing. And we all knew we’d done something terribly wrong.”  (p. 105) In the end the rule of law won out, but something else right was stomped all over.  It is complicated, but maybe there were several wrongs on both sides of the law leading up to this decision that pitted two rights against each other.  The point is, those imperfect situations already existed.  In the end the principle that won out in this case was the rule based principle of duty and fairness, instead of the care based principle of compassion.    The author points out another officer might have done differently and still acted ethically.  And I guess, unethically at the same time.  The thing about this example that made me think was this.  I think I would have done something similar.  If we, especially someone with a charge or duty to uphold the law and obey orders doesn’t, well, everything falls apart.  On the other hand, as just average citizen in the community, no enforcement position, I don’t think it would take much for me to break a law, as some people talk of making laws,  that would require  me to not even give a ride to someone who may not have entered the country legally.  First of all, I wouldn’t ask.  Second, it may be wrong for someone to be here, but it would be equally wrong for me to  deny them a basic courtesy or human right because of that.  Hopefully we will not have laws like that, for a lot of reasons I won’t get into now, but some of which are actually, if you think about it ethical reasons, but I think the care based principle would have to win out in my mind in these types of situations. In the end, whatever you may choose, we can see that just being a good person isn’t enough to automatically make you the most ethical person.
So, get you thinking caps on as you watch what goes on in the world  and as your life unfolds.  Think about the underlying principles that we pin ethics on.  Talk about them.  TEACH THEM TO YOUR KIDS.  Talk about good examples, bad examples, how things could be different.  Try to be an example of ethics in action because it is civilization that is hanging in the balance.  If we wait to think until the moment of truth arises, it may well pass us by and leave us regretting our lack of preparation.  All workplaces and professions could benefit from applying more ethics, not just the finance sector and political sector where we see such glaring examples of failure.  We need it in all kinds of businesses, sciences, religions, neighborhoods, schools,  and homes.  We don’t need to crucify people for being human and making mistakes but as a culture we can’t get away with  not expecting ethical behavior of each other.  It should not be a cute anecdote or all right for a huge chunk of students to cheat their way through school or pay someone to do their work, for example.  There are repercussions every time we individually or worse, collectively dismiss ethical behavior as passe, and unethical behavior as no big deal. If we discuss the why’s of ethics and the complexity of it, we can get better at understanding what is and is not ethical.  If as a people we value and expect ethical behavior, it will naturally become more the norm.   Humankind seriously needs a good strong dose of ethics if we plan to survive the future, so let’s make it the norm.

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Moral Courage Part I

Posted on May 8, 2009. Filed under: Ethics | Tags: , |

I’ve decided to give an overview of the book, then maybe do some posts later on some stories and quotes in the book that illustrate the concepts presented and give room for discussion and thought. As far as non fiction books go, I find they often could be reduced to something much smaller, half the size or 3/4 the size or even a pamphlet at times. This book did a better job than a lot. I felt it analyzed what is moral courage and what is not a bit too much to the point of stating the obvious, but maybe not everyone gets the obvious. It was very clear and analytical with numbered elements and diagrams. 🙂 I guess that’s good for some people, it gives the book structure and highlights some main points. However, to me, it was a bit laborious. The strength of this book lies in the real life examples and quotes that bring the otherwise boring analysis to life. If you don’t have to read this for ethics continuing education credits at work like me, skim freely and get to the good stuff.

In a nutshell, the structure behind the subject is this. There were several examples of surveys and workshops done in a variety of settings and situations and all the studies showed the same thing. People, no matter if they are old or young, male or female, no matter their culture or location or language or education or religion or race or profession, whether they are convicts in a prison or law abiding citizens, when asked about their values, come up with amazingly similar answers. Five core values are identified as being the highest ranked consistently in all these settings. They are Honesty, Respect, Responsibility, Fairness and Compassion. There are others, such as freedom, which interestingly enough is valued more where it is less available, but in these words or synonymous words, everyone around the globe seems to agree these are right up there. So, living by these principles is behaving ethically. Since there is a consensus across the human race, we should have a consensus on what is ethical and teach people to be ethical. At least in theory. Apparently, everyone lives by these principles when it is easy to, but when it gets a bit inconvenient or increasingly more challenging to live by these principles, people start dropping like flies.
Next, moral courage is the commitment to moral principles such as these, combined with an awareness of a danger, or negative impact of supporting those principles and a willingness to endure that danger anyways. Dangers can vary from physical dangers to emotional or social dangers, economic dangers, like losing your job, etc.
Another useful analysis is of the qualities that those with moral courage seem to possess which are: A greater confidence in principles than in people, a high tolerance of ambiguity, exposure and personal loss, and an acceptance of deferred gratification and simple rewards, independence of thought, and formidable persistence and determination. One psychologist noted that people who are heroic in defending these principles actually have a very powerful feeling of serenity in spite of the hardships they endure. In other words, it really is rewarding, in a much richer way in the end.
Obstacles we face in having moral courage include refusing to take the blame, caving in the face of danger, indecision, secretiveness, inability to face criticism, to name a few and counterfeits to moral courage are plain old willfulness and conceit.
For many people it is easy to behave ethically when we have a clear decision between right and wrong, but what about when we have to make a decision between right and right? What if we have to choose between truth and loyalty? Between what helps an individual vs. what helps the community? Between the short term good vs. the long term good of humanity or a group? Or good old justice vs. mercy? That’s when things get trickier. there’s not necessarily one right answer either. Do we choose an end based analysis-what will do the most good for the greater number of people? Or a rule based decision-following what appears to be a set rule or universal law no matter what the outcome? Or is our decision more care based? This is basically following the golden rule- what if the roles were reversed? What would we want another to choose in our place if we were to be affected by it?

That, is the gist of the book. In the end the author discusses how ethics can be taught and then how it applies to public issues and events. I liked a lot of things said in the book, but I wish some things had been explored more. Why don’t we as a human race make choices that line up with these values more often if they are so universal? How much of the problem is education and how can we better educate each other? How much is rooted in understanding our natures and our weaknesses and learning how to deal with them better? How much is developing courage, as is brought out so much in this volume? How much is understanding the big picture or feeling enough empathy for the rest of the world to care about the choices we make? Another interesting thing that is briefly mentioned is that we often apply these 5 core principles in our most inner circles, like our family our friends, but as the circle gets ever wider, we get ever more callous and less likely to care to apply these principles. Are we really all that short sighted that we can’t see a problem in that? These are questions I would like to explore more and discuss with others. I listened as Madoff, after pleading guilty explained that he initially thought he could eventually turn the whole deal around and make everything all right, but eventually he realized it had ballooned out of control and there was no way he was ever going to get a handle on it. He knew eventually he was going to be caught and everything was going to fall apart. O.K. The initial decision to cook up an illegal scheme was bad, and unethical and just plain stupid. It showed he didn’t have a strong sense of ethics and at least was in a materialistic frame of mind at that point in his life and didn’t think through the consequences of his actions much. But once he made that realization, why did he continue to behave so badly? Why did he continue to do the same thing, with absolutely no regard for how it was going to affect others or himself? He continued to take people’s money instead of trying to return it or save it to pay back. Even after getting caught, he gave away all kinds of expensive gifts to family and friends, as if trying to pawn off all he stole on those closest to him since he was going to lose it anyways. What a bout all the people whose future income he wiped out? Why has this man absolutely no sense of empathy for those people? I’m sure he never once stopped to consider how this affected the stock market, our country’s economy, the world’s economy, and individuals all over the globe. He didn’t even care for himself, because trying to turn it around and make amends certainly would have been better for him when he had to face justice. Where did the big disconnect occur? You could blame it on his parents. Maybe they were great, loving parents who taught him good morals, maybe not. Society? His neurological makeup? Extreme selfishness and stupidness? I just don’t know. These are things I wonder about. As big as his example is, don’t we all do similar things on a much much smaller scale? I think we all underestimate the impact our decisions have on ourselves and others, even people around the world we don’t touch personally. Everything we say and do is like a ripple in a pond, ever spreading outward, so we need to be more thoughtful of our responsibility to ourselves and the world.
One of the things I most liked about this book was an example given in closing. He poses the huge violations of these five principles in recent world history such as the 9/11 attacks and that many people feel a need to do something about the problems we face, to get involved, but we doubt we can make a difference. How can one person change a world that is so full of so much evil? Mr. Kidder tells of a series of interviews he did on a project for global education. He spoke to people all over the world who had a horrible start at life, only disadvantages, suffering, etc. but they had turned out to be successful, contributing adults. As he asked them how they made it and invariably they would tell a story about one good teacher, one good neighbor or such that was a good example, took an interest in them and inspired them. And there it is, the power of one single good example time and time again made a real difference. Believe it or not. The parable that explains this is called the candle and the closet and it goes like this: If you find a closet that is shut up and hasn’t been opened for eons, with no access to light in it, so it’s pitch dark in there with the door shut and you open the door, does all that darkness gush forth and take over the adjoining room? No, it never does. The reason why is because light is not the opposite of darkness, it is the absence of darkness. If light and dark were opposites, every time we opened the door the opposing forces would act on each other and we would need to light a lot of candles to try to combat all that darkness. But it doesn’t work that way because light is the absence of darkness- once light enters, there is no darkness wherever the light touches. We all know this, but our language often treats light and darkness as opposites and often our attitudes follow. then he poses an even bigger question. What if we flip it around? What if wrong is not the opposite, but the absence of good? If we just had more good would it fill up the empty spaces of wrong? This may be simplistic, issues are complex, but if we each strive to fill more good and right into our lives and the world, this would be a better world. If we all expressed our highest sense of moral courage, lived it to the fullest we could, and passed it along to others, could we really change the world? I think so. We all should spend some time weaving these concepts into the fabric of our lives and spreading these principles.
Join me next time for discussion of some real life examples from the book. Also, give me your thoughts on the subject here!

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