Ethics Today: And the Rest is Silence

EthicsThe silence is not deafening, but it is pretty hard to hear.  The  Ethics Survey  we hosted this week got only 7% of the responses we received to the  Leadership Survey  last week.  I have some ideas about why that is true, so I’d like to talk about the silence as well as the signal.

Our calling question was: What is ethics in the face of uncertainty?  Inside the survey, we asked more pointed questions:

  • Name an ethical decision you made in the last week.
  • What did you learn from making that decision?
  • What else would you like to say about ethical behavior in the midst of uncertainty? 

I think there may be at least five reasons why people avoided this conversation.

Reason 1.  Ethics is a third-person concept. I talk about it when I see it in others or in the community at large, but I seldom talk about “my” ethics or ethical decisions “I” make. 

Reason 2. Who has time to talk about such irrelevant topics? I am totally absorbed in the ideas I find useful and those that I can leverage to my advantage.

Reason 3. I don’t have time to reflect on my actions or anything else. I am so busy doing that I have little time to think about what I’m doing—past, present, or future.

Reason 4. Even when I try to think about ethics, I don’t know how to think about it in the chaos of today.  Yesterday’s rules don’t work anymore, and tomorrow’s aren’t yet clear, so I’m confused about what to do today.   

So, when someone mentions ethics, I’m slightly embarrassed, a bit confused, and in a real hurry to get on with the task at hand. 

With all that in mind, we really thank those who did respond to the survey.  We applaud your insight, courage, and commitment to invest in building the ethical framework for the future.  As with the Leadership Survey, the greatest commonality was the diversity of responses.  People talked about ethical decisions for the environment, personal safety, and employer relations.  The stories were rational, personal, emotional.  The insights were funny, inspiring, and moving.  The ethical challenges were many, and the ethical responses were even more diverse.  I'm thinking that this diversity, and the cacophony that follows it, may be Reason 5 for the silence.

In HSD we propose an approach to ethics that is not rule-based but adaptive.  We look at ethics this way: 

You act ethically when you engage consciously in every situation; consider multiple perspectives and intended as well as unintended consequences; and take action even in the midst of uncertainty.  You cannot predict the outcome; you cannot generalize from one context to another; you cannot judge others' actions by your own.  You can stand in inquiry with What? So what? and Now what?You can take Adaptive Action to engage ethically with a world you cannot predict or control . . . And you can talk about it. 

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