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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The State of our Society

Posted on April 26, 2009. Filed under: Responsibility | Tags: , , |

So, this blog is starting out slow, but it’s just me careening out of control. I have been thinking that I can’t wait for someone to send me a post, I will start out posting what I think about things and then try to get some interaction. So, one way I thought of doing this would be to have a book club tab, where we could read a book or even magazine article on a subject and discuss it.

This is my first post to this end. I suppose everyone has been watching what’s been going on the last year or so with the economy and reacting in various ways to the housing crisis, the bailouts, the car industry caving, the stock market plummeting, Madoff making off with billions of dollars, politicians passing laws that made for unsound financial policies, financial institutions going crazy and making a run for the money with every absurd risk imaginable, people all over society buying into these crazy schemes without considering the risks or even the responsibilities.

The house of cards is being blown away. All of these things really have been building up for decades. I know 17 years ago when I went to buy a house, you could get a loan for something you couldn’t afford. The level of consumerism and materialism in this country has seemed frenetic and out of control for a very long time to me. One day about 5 years ago I went looking for some sippy cups for my kids. I went to a baby outlet, and there was a whole wall of choices. There were like 12 different sippy cup options and just as many pacifier options and lets not mention the bottles, I think some of them could fly. I just looked at that wall and I was flabbergasted. Who in the heck buys all these things? Do we really need this much stuff? How much of this just ends up in landfills? How much of our hard earned money do we waste on this stuff we don’t even need or get any satisfaction from? And I didn’t even find a sippy cup that would stack and have a truly tamper proof, leak proof lid like I wanted. I just walked away.

Do you know what is one of the things that I find most disturbing of all? All the talk about what a problem it is that consumers are not spending and that more people are saving. If that is a problem for out economy, then we already had a big problem to begin with! It is healthy to save and to not spend like you are on an episode of Supermarket Sweep. So, I think NOW would be an excellent time, as we look at building up our economy that we think of building a more balanced economy based on something more than making mindless stuff and buying it all. Why is it that we have a society that doesn’t pay anywhere near what it’s worth to teachers, policemen, social workers, researchers, and things that could improve the world. Why do we spend billions more on spectator sports and movies? Everyone from the child just beginning to think, to the people on Capitol Hill need to spend some time pondering things like this. As for products and services, and technology, lets think of what the world really needs and can use the most, and lets start building up those things. Let’s come up with better products, not more products.

Another thing I wondered all through the housing boom was similar. Aren’t we eventually going to have too many houses? I mean, like there are only so many people to live in them, so any dumb housewife could have told you the bubble was going to burst on that one. Especially when loans were getting crazier and crazier and riskier and riskier, going to people who had less and less a capacity to keep up with the mortgage. As I’ve thought about it, I’ve come to the conclusion that any intelligent person had to know that a lot of what we were doing was unsustainable. They just didn’t care. They could make a whopping amount of money on it now, and so what would happen later or how it would effect themselves let alone others didn’t really matter to most of us. That is probably the biggest problem of all, so that’s where I want to start.

I know that all these events have put a lot of people into terrible situations and they didn’t necessarily deserve it. Many people who have tried to live responsible lives are paying for this along with those that didn’t. It may be frustrating, but it does us no good to waste a lot of time in anger and finger pointing. As a society, we all failed. There wasn’t a big outcry to stop the madness when bad laws were being passed and bad practices were blooming like mushrooms all over the place. Most of us weren’t even aware or were too busy to protest, but that is a big problem too. We need to increase our awareness and our avenues of speaking out and fighting for change so that more good people can come together and make a difference. But even deeper still, our society needs to take a good hard look at some facts.

1. You really can’t get something for nothing or not much. A price will be paid sooner or later.

2. Everything we do affects not just ourselves but everybody else. The effects of the bad choices of even just one individual have had repercussions all around the globe. Unfortunately, not good ones.

3. It needs to matter to us what the consecuences of our actions are on our future and society as a whole.

What is lacking here people, is good old fashioned values and ethics. We are not stepping up to the challenge of being an ethical society, and if we would rather not implode, we need to do something about it. This may seem huge, but luckily, we don’t even need to start with laws or politics. Moms all over this country can start raising the ethical politicians and bankers and manufacturers and consumers of the future. We can find ways to spread the word and get a movement going all over this country and the globe. We can start a more ethical society now, because it starts with the individual. To this end, I propose the very first book club reading. The book is called Moral Courage  by Rushworth M. Kidder. Go to your local library and check it out, or go to your favorite bookstore, online or in town, and get a copy.  Read it, comment on it.  Tell me what ideas you get from it.  How can you improve your own ethics, as well as train others to improve on theirs?  I hope to read and post a review on this and then add my own comments.    I’ll keep this up as our book club book for the month of May, so get your copy and start reading.  Hope to hear your comments soon.

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