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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