Friday, May 18, 2012

Edible Ethics

This is the time of year I plan our upcoming visit to Maine, primarily to Camden, the town where I grew up. For the last ten years those visits have included breakfast with Rush Kidder, at a small coffee shop overlooking the harbor where we traded stories of our workshop experiences, dilemmas raised by our audiences, helpful resources, and new ideas on ethics training. Sadly, there will be no such rejuvenating conversation this summer as Rush passed away suddenly in March at age 67. I was stunned at the news of his death but today I feel the loss even more viscerally. I have lost a fellow traveler in the quest for moral courage and the world has lost a champion for ethics. Rush Kidder made ethics relevant, important, and palatable, at a time when the prevailing attitude was that ethics were passé and indigestible.
I had known of Rush’s work founding the Institute for Global Ethics long before we actually met. His book How Good People Make Tough Choices was a compelling read, beautifully written, and solidly grounded in the literature on ethical decision making. The paradigm the book sets forth, that all ethical dilemmas can be classified in at least one of four categories (truth vs. loyalty, short-term vs. long term, justice vs. mercy, individual vs. other), is so intuitive and elegant that I used it as an organizing principle in my book on The Ethics of Practice with Minors. Rush managed to balance the complexities of ethical decision making – the ways that various perspectives (rules-based, care-based, ends-based) can shape the ultimate decision on what is ethical—yet he never fell into the trap of relativism. In person and in writing, he approached dilemmas with curiosity and gentleness. In fact, the description of Rush that most comes to my mind is delight. Rush was delighted to talk about dilemmas, to see people working their ways through difficult situations, to uncover new avenues for enhancing ethical fitnessTM. His spirit and approach moved ethics from a topic of condemnation to one of conversation. In his view, ethics are not stark determinations of right and wrong, but instead a careful dialogue to choose well when right and right conflict. Ethics are not only the province of long-dead philosophers– dilemmas confront us every day and each of us must possess the skills to determine what is right and the courage to act on that determination.

Perhaps the greatest gift I received from Rush was an introduction to the concept of moral courage. I had recently done a workshop where I thoroughly failed to connect with the audience. Only afterward did I realize that the challenge for the participants wasn’t in knowing the right thing to do, but in doing what they knew was right amid the fear of social and occupational reprisals. Shortly thereafter, I heard Rush speak on moral courage and at last I had a term to describe what I and those workshop participants needed! With that term in hand, I can investigate the personal and organizational barriers to action, the precursors to acts of courage, and the people who demonstrate both moral courage and moral cowardice.

Over our last few meetings, Rush and I talked about my plans for a book on cultivating courage. This is the summer when those conversations and aspirations are finally put on the page, I mourn the opportunity to see Rush’s delight in my progress and to receive his support and advice, but I rejoice in the gifts he has already given and in the opportunity to be part of his legacy.