Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Forgiveness vs. Permission

Also see this article published at its original site:  http://www.globalethics.org/newsline/2013/09/09/forgiveness-vs-permission/

It’s easier to ask forgiveness than permission.

That familiar adage came to mind this morning as I prepared for work, listening to TV commentators arguing about President Obama’s approach to the most recent crisis in the Middle East. Regardless of the merits of U.S. military action in Syria, conversations about the decision have often focused on the President’s decision to take the matter before Congress for approval.

Those in favor of “forgiveness” suggest that the process of seeking consent from balky legislators and a war-weary public wastes precious time, imperils the chances of passage of the plan, violates recent presidential precedents, and reveals fissures in support for the action, thereby undermining it — even if it ultimately is approved.

Proponents of “permission” cite the constitutional role of Congress in approving military actions and the benefits of securing buy-in for such a significant incursion into a foreign conflict.

As I write this, the decision has not been made. Whatever is decided, however, I suspect that the disagreements about the process employed will extend long after the decision itself. After all, each of us has faced situations in which we have been forced to choose between forgiveness and permission. It may be easier to seek forgiveness than permission, but is it more ethical?

This tension most closely resembles the justice-vs.-mercy dilemma, wherein justice argues for accountability — in other words, following established policies, processes, and guidelines. Mercy suggests context — second chances, teachable moments, and, in the case of Syria perhaps, urgency and the harms of delay.

If forgiveness and permission parallel justice and mercy, both are compelling goods. It is good to act adroitly when the situation demands it and later sort out process (forgiveness), but it is also good to follow established processes (mercy). Perhaps ethics come into play when other motivations lead to the selection of one strategy over the other.

There are several problems with the ask-forgiveness-not-permission strategy, however. They include:
  • “I knew they would say no.” Some folks are programmed with a negative response as their default setting. Over time, their subordinates and colleagues take steps to forego the inevitable, soul-crushing response of, “That will never work.” In these instances, post-hoc permission is understandable. But sometimes “no” is a rational and wise response even if it’s also the all-purpose default. And sometimes one simply assumes (incorrectly) that the answer will be no. In either case, the decision to act preemptively deprives the other party of the chance to say yes, provide input, strengthen an idea, or avert catastrophe. If layers of approval are unnecessary or one layer is a consistent barrier to progress, then changes should be made so that the processes and people in place have meaningful roles to play in decisions. Otherwise, expect everyone to carve their own paths around the barrier.
  • “Don’t fence me in.” Put less succinctly: “I don’t know what they will say, but if I seek input, then I am stuck with it. My freedom increases if I go it alone” or “It would be worse to get input and then ignore it, therefore it is better not to get it in the first place.” Hopefully “permission” has some additive value or else layers of accountability would not be in place. If it does not add value (see Bullet #1, above), change the process or policy. Otherwise, this person should examine the motives to go it alone, trusting only their own instinct. Is this an isolated incident or a pattern of behavior? Why the need to go rogue instead of play with the team?
  • “It would die in red tape” (aka, “It would take forever”). Frankly, I find this a compelling reason to forego permission. I also know that sometimes my perception of urgency is self-imposed and that the process of permission can protect me from rash and ill-considered actions. Admittedly bureaucracy can be a nightmarish maze of irrelevant hoop jumping. If that is the case, the solution should be to change the system, not incentivize everyone to circumvent it. And yes, I have worked for the government and no, I didn’t say change was easy.
  • “The rules don’t apply to me.” This individual represents a larger character and managerial problem that will probably have more corrosive implications than simply seeking permission after the fact.
  • “I can get away with it.” Sometimes this attitude is associated with the problem cited immediately above, but it also can reflect the realities of how the world works. Research shows that individuals judge situations more harshly in advance than they do in retrospect. It also is easier for officials to say no when asked than to spontaneously stop someone from doing something. A child asks to have a popsicle before dinner and is told no, but the child who gets a popsicle and starts eating it is less likely to be stopped and have the treat returned to the freezer. Once the act has been commenced, it seems we are prone to let bygones be bygones.
While there are plenty of ethical flaws in choosing forgiveness over permission, the latter is not without its liabilities. Sometimes the pursuit of permission is not based on merit or policy, but simply self-interest (see complaints about President Obama seeking “political cover”) or strategy (“Obama calls Congress’ bluff”). Embedded in these suspect motivations (in the Syria case or in our daily lives) may be authentic desire for input and approval. But if the only reason for permission is camouflage or maneuvering, perhaps action without the guise of input is preferable.

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Choices In A Cheating Culture

Also see this article published at its original site: http://www.globalethics.org/newsline/2013/08/12/choices-in-a-cheating-culture/

Lance Armstrong: seven-time winner of the Tour de France. Ryan Braun: 2012 National League baseball Most Valuable Player (MVP) award winner. Tyson Gay: three-time Olympic Gold Medal sprinter. Alex Rodriguez: three-time American League baseball MVP.

Each man is a phenomenal athlete but each has been disciplined in recent months for the use of performance-enhancing drugs (PEDs). These are just the best-known of dozens of cases of disgraced competitors from track and field, baseball, cycling, and other sports.

Why would elite athletes resort to using banned substances, especially in an era of aggressive drug detection strategies? Like generations of wayward teenagers before them, the accused retort that “everybody’s doing it.” In the words of bicyclist Lance Armstrong, the race was “impossible to win without doping” and he “simply participated in a system.”

Does that mean that cheating is the new normal — not only in sports, but in classrooms, boardrooms, and newsrooms? In his book The Cheating Culture: Why More Americans are Doing Wrong to Get Ahead, David Callahan suggests that, in any segment of society, deceit results when people perceive that the deck is stacked against them and that only an extra turn can make up the difference.
Greed, envy, materialism, inequality, and insecurity spur unethical behavior, Callahan maintains. Adherence to the rules erodes in the absence of accountability, regulation, pro-social peer pressure, and individual morality.

An important aspect of Callahan’s premise is the degree to which media shape our perceptions of the disparities that require deceit and the frequency and rewards of cheating. Fame and fat paychecks go to the winners. Every step in life thus becomes a critical turning point that determines the difference between success and failure — making the traveling team, getting admitted to the best school, scoring well on high-stakes tests, closing the crucial sale. Public attention and admiration get drawn to thewinners — those who do whatever it takes whatever the cost. Implicit in this is an “ends justify the means” mentality.

And even when winners eventually are defrocked as cheaters, amid the disappointment and condemnation are justifications for the misbehavior. Consider the reaction of famed bioethicist Arthur Caplan in defense of Lance Armstrong. “Shouldn’t Armstrong, especially because of the inspiration he is to cancer survivors or anyone on the short end of the advantage stick, get a pass for being no more dirty, but a whole lot better than everyone else in his sport? Armstrong isn’t being investigated as the only cheater. He is in all likelihood just the best, most talented one.”

Small wonder, then, that cheating is taken for granted. What choices do people have if they intend to play by the rules? Let me suggest four options.

1. Find a better benchmark for success. Does it feel good to win if you have to cheat to do it? I haven’t read much about unethical athletes, but I have to wonder about the narratives they create not only to justify winning at any cost, but to derive satisfaction from it. Cheating teams are stripped of championships. Individuals end their hall of fame hopes and go down on the record books with asterisks beside their lifetime statistics. Isn’t dishonest success a pyrrhic victory?

2. If you think everyone is cheating, find new friends. Not everyone cheats. And many clean athletes experience ample success. Rodriguez’s teammate, Mariano Rivera, will retire at the end of the season, having been feted at home and on the road after 19 years in the major leagues. People who conduct themselves with integrity resent those who cheat and their ill-gotten rewards. But no matter how contemptible they find their colleagues’ behavior, people of integrity don’t let it become a reason to join in the fraud.

3. Change the risk-benefit calculus. Make cheating hurt. As long as suspensions and reprimands come after the dishonesty has been rewarded, it will never have a sufficient deterrent effect. As Bob Kravitz wrote in USA Today:
“I’m looking at the PED suspensions for 12 Major League Baseball players, plus the 211 games tossed at Alex Rodriguez, and I’m asking this question: Wouldn’t you cheat, too?

“Before I answer that question in the affirmative, let me toss this out there: If baseball, and all sports, want to put an end to the scourge of performance-enhancing drugs, the unions and the league leadership will agree that a first offense will lead to a lifetime ban in the sport.
“Not 50 games, 100 games on a second offense and a lifetime ban for a third.
“Do it, you’re gone.
“Want to clean up the game? It’s that simple. Because right now, it makes sense to cheat.”
4. Find a model of integrity; be a model of integrity. In tests of right and wrong, the “mom test” asks what your mom would do in a given situation or what she would think if she knew what you were doing. No doubt there are some moms (even in youth sports) who will endorse or promote cheating to win. But there will also be parents, coaches, and other role models who know where to draw the line. “No, I will not lie about your age to keep you in Little League.” “Don’t cheat.” “Respect the ref.” Every day brings opportunities to teach integrity and role-model it for others.

Culture is hard — and slow — to change. But before determining that it is futile to resist a cheating culture, consider the advice given by moms over the ages, when told that “everyone is doing it”: If everyone were jumping off a cliff, would you follow them?

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Discourse On Discord

Also see this article posted online at its original source: http://www.globalethics.org/newsline/2013/07/15/discourse-on-discord/

Late last Saturday night, the jury in the trial of George Zimmerman returned a not guilty verdict in the killing of Trayvon Martin.

I had ignored the coverage for most of the trial, though it became more difficult as the sides reached their closing arguments. Some radio and TV stations had live coverage at the courthouse and Twitter and blogs were alight with commentary. My daily walking companion, a dear neighbor whose views on most things political and social are diametrically opposed to mine, raised some aspect of the trial in conversation, and I swiftly changed the subject. A high-school classmate posted an inflammatory and factually incorrect note on Facebook and I chose not to engage.

It’s not as if I didn’t have a viewpoint. My opinion in the case was that Trayvon Martin had been grievously wronged — by endemic societal biases, by profiling, by loose gun laws. What that would mean for a verdict, I didn’t know, but I had a persistent feeling of dread throughout the week. I tried to write about the ethics of the case, but didn’t trust the objectivity of my analysis and I eventually cast the work aside. Even now that the verdict is in, I can scarcely bring myself to read about the case or listen to anyone’s reactions to it. This all leads me to ask myself, as I would a client in treatment, “So what is that avoidance about?”

At the risk of coining a new disorder for the mental health diagnostic manual, I think I am suffering from entrenchment fatigue. The causes are easy enough to understand. Local, state and federal governing bodies are mired in such animus that they can’t even agree to meet, much less to act. Around the globe, sectarian and gender violence is on the upswing. Nuanced views are lost in 140-character tweets and viral posts. Homogenized news programming presents the news with the slant its particular viewer demographic prefers.

The symptoms of entrenchment fatigue also are recognizable: ennui, social withdrawal, perceived helplessness, and a penchant for watching old TV reruns or YouTube videos of zany pets. Unfortunately, entrenchment fatigue has serious consequences for individuals, families, and communities. To retreat in the face of strongly held positions (mine or others) may be prudent, but it does not strike me as ethical. It drives us apart and enlarges our differences instead of creating common ground. It organizes our discourse around superficialities, sidelines facts in service of opinion, and marginalizes voices that should be heard.

The strategies for overcoming entrenchment fatigue, particularly around an issue as serious and polarizing as the killing of Trayvon Martin, led me to revisit the literature on moral courage and crucial conversations. I’ve distilled those resources into considerations I must use to get out of the trench and back into the dialogue. Relevant questions and conversations include:

1. Think about how I know what I know.
  • What sources inform my view?
  • Consider the ways they are biased.
  • Acknowledge how my perceptions of my position and others’ are distorted by these sources.
  • Determine and stick to facts
2. Decide what I want to accomplish and with whom.
  • Do I want to create room for an exchange of views?
  • Do I want to change another person’s position?
  • Do I want to stake out my views for distant contacts in the Twittersphere?
  • Different objectives will lead to different strategies. Clarity about what I want to accomplish will help me “keep my eyes on the prize” throughout these conversations. I want to have authentic relationships with my friends, family, neighbors, and colleagues. (Some relationships are more significant and enduring. Overcoming entrenchment with these people seems like it should take priority over doing so with strangers or acquaintances.)
3. What do I not want to have happen?
  • I do not want to lie about my views in order to keep the peace.
  • I do not want to make important relationships contentious.
  • I do not want to be disagreeable in the process of disagreeing.
4. Use effective communications skills.
  • Use active listening and appreciative inquiry.
  • Regulate tone and other nonverbal measures.
  • Avoid inflammatory tactics.
  • Use questions to open the conversation, rather than close it.
  • Beware of negative projections or attributions.
  • Manage powerful emotions.
5.      Find common ground.
  • What do we know about each other already?
  • On what do we agree in general and in this instance?
  • What things inform our differing perspectives?
  • How can we create shared meaning?
Having thought through these steps, with my neighbor and the Trayvon Martin case in mind, I intend to put them into action the next time we take a walk. Admittedly, this is a relatively low-risk conversation. Neither of us has a personal stake in the case or in the outcome of our discussion. We are not required to come to agreement or a plan of action: I am striving for conversation not consensus. At worst it could disrupt a genial relationship; at best it could broaden our perspectives and deepen that friendship. The alternatives — silence or retreat — leave us both vulnerable to corrosive assumptions about the other’s position and motives, and that would seem to be the most troubling outcome of all.

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Ambiguity About Heroes

See original posting at:  http://www.globalethics.org/newsline/2013/06/24/ambiguity-about-heroes/

Are whistle-blowers heroes or rats? Traitors or patriots? Brave or naïve? Exemplars of moral courage or attention-seeking media hounds?

In the past two weeks, Edward Snowden has come forward to acknowledge his role in releasing top secret documents concerning surveillance of U.S. and foreign citizens by the U.S. government. The case has served as a Rorschach test for observers’ projections of what constitutes heroism in our society. A quick Google search or scan of Twitter feeds reads like a series of playground taunts.

“He’s a hero!”
“Is not!”
“Is so!”
“Is not!”

What accounts for the ambiguity about heroism and the intensity of disagreement? On the surface, Snowden’s actions fit with common definitions of moral courage:
  • Accepting challenges that put one’s “reputation, emotional well-being, self-esteem or other characteristics” in jeopardy (Moral Courage by Rushworth Kidder)
  • Having “the capacity to overcome the fear of shame and humiliation in order to admit one’s mistakes, to confess a wrong, to reject evil conformity, to renounce injustice, and also to defy immoral or imprudent orders” (The Mystery of Courage by William Ian Miller)
No less notable a whistle-blower than Daniel Ellsberg has gone on record to endorse Snowden’s actions and note the parallels between their respective revelations and the government’s response to them.
Snowden’s decision to reveal the surveillance program represents a classic truth-vs.-loyalty dilemma in which promises of confidentiality are challenged by the gravity of certain secrets and the pressure to reveal them. If Snowden’s case is emblematic of moral courage in the face of a right-vs.-right dilemma, why is this situation so controversial?

Let’s examine Snowden in light of common whistle-blower critiques.

The Whistle-blower’s Motivations Are Suspect
Whistle-blowers whose actions seem driven by personal animus (e.g., “the disgruntled employee”) often are discredited on the basis of impure motives. Bradley Manning, now on trial for disclosing war footage and diplomatic cables through WikiLeaks, has been derided as unstable and embittered by his treatment in the Army. To date, Snowden’s work history reveals no suggestions that he fits these categories or was driven by animus against the government or the employer.

Is he a spy? Former vice president Dick Cheney has questioned Snowden’s decision to flee to Hong Kong and implied that his acts might be the result of an affiliation with a foreign government such as China. Is it not clear if Cheney’s insinuation is based on data about nefarious motives or whether it represents a campaign to discredit Snowden’s act by casting it as immoral and illegal.

Whistle-blowers also can be marginalized when they are believed to acting in self-interest. These “benefits” might include monetary rewards, special dispensation, or plea agreements for informants in criminal cases. News reports indicate no apparent rewards for Snowden’s leak. In fact, the punishments are manifest. In the time that I have been writing this column, Edward Snowden has been charged by federal prosecutors with espionage and theft of government property.

For his part, Snowden denies altruism. “What I’m doing is self-interested: I don’t want to live in a world where there’s no privacy and therefore no room for intellectual exploration and creativity.”

The Whistle-Blower Went About It The Wrong Way

In his critique of Snowden’s heroism, CBS newsman Bob Schieffer compared Snowden to Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King, Jr., but criticized his flight to Hong Kong as unwillingness to face the consequences of his actions. A contrasting view might suggest that his openness to public identification, jeopardizing his relationships, and turning his back on his career and country are in fact consequences that he has accepted freely, not acts of cowardice.

Others would suggest that widespread distribution of classified data is irresponsible and risky. If concerns exist, this reasoning goes, would-be whistle-blowers should use their chains of command to seek change. Unfortunately, the literature on scandals is replete with examples of earnest change agents whose efforts to work within the system were stymied, mocked, punished, or white-washed. As Ellsberg notes, “the information about unconstitutional activity that he put out could only be reversed or stopped if the public knows about it, and there was absolutely no way for them or most members of Congress to learn about it without him putting it out.”

The Whistle-Blower Created Greater Harms Than He Prevented
This argument would submit that openness is acceptable for some issues (e.g., shoddy products, bigoted TV hosts, manipulation of financial markets) but not for matters of national security. Similar complaints are tied to the Manning/WikiLeaks case. Specifically:
  • The release of classified documents assists enemies of the United States by informing them of governmental activities.
  • Surveillance programs and military campaigns are approved and monitored by elected officials. These checks and balances will ensure that they are conducted properly.
  • Secret programs keep the United States safe. Leaks jeopardize those programs and put the country at risk of terrorist attacks.
The merits of these arguments and the relative risks and benefits are under avid discussion. Snowden maintains that he was discerning in the information that he shared, offering the least amount necessary to achieve his objectives. Whether his actions will have unintended consequences and how those effects should be weighed constitute important short-term-vs.-long-term dilemmas, worthy of broad discussion.

We Don’t Like Whistle-blowers

Snitches get stitches. Don’t be a tattle tale. Go along to get along. These and other aphorisms capture the cultural ambivalence about whistle-blowing. Polls on the Snowden case indicate that most citizens oppose government phone monitoring, but a majority also favors prosecution of Snowden. There are differences in these numbers depending on the demographic sub-group polled and the way poll questions were framed, but they reveal the duality of reactions to acts of moral courage: People are glad for the act of courage though they may not rush to support the actor.

Tuesday, April 30, 2013

How Loud Should The Whistle-Blower Be?

Also see this article posted online at its original source:  http://www.globalethics.org/newsline/2013/04/29/how-loud/

Sally is the business manager at a nonprofit agency. She detected financial irregularities and reported them to her immediate supervisor, the vice president for Finance and Operations, Jack. With the help of the agency’s external accountants, the team determined that Belinda, the company’s president, had been misusing agency funds, in part to conceal an extramarital affair with another staff member. Preliminary estimates placed the embezzlement at $50,000. The board of directors’ executive committee met with Belinda and gave her the opportunity to resign “for personal reasons” instead of being terminated. She accepted the offer and remains in the community, interviewing for other leadership positions. Belinda holds a state license in her profession. She also serves as the president-elect of the state consortium of nonprofit organizations.

Sally is dismayed that the board gave Belinda the option to select a gracious exit. She does not know the terms of the departure, but wonders if the theft should be reported to the police, the accrediting agency, or the licensure board? In raising these concerns with Jack, Sally was told that the board felt that negative publicity would compound the damage to the agency and that it was “best to do things quietly. If other organizations want to hire Belinda,” they said, “it will be up to them to do their own due diligence in screening her for a job.”
The characters and the organization are fictitious, but the dilemma is all too real. A company experiences a data breach. A student is caught drinking beer against team rules. A search committee member asks a job candidate questions that violate nondiscrimination laws. All of us have encountered scenarios in which we had to address infractions in policies, rules, or laws.

Even in cases of egregious behavior, it can take courage to call attention to the problem and to speak truth to power. But is speaking up sufficient? Is it enough to educate, castigate, or terminate the individual involved? Is it enough to report it up the chain of command, even if the hierarchy does nothing?

My musings last year on the pedophilia scandal and cover-up at Penn State keep coming back to these questions. Assistant coach Mike McQueary observed a sexual assault in the Penn State locker room and reported it to his superiors; although the allegations made their way to the administration, no change was forthcoming and McQueary has been excoriated for his failure to do more. On at least two occasions (in 1998 and 2001) Jerry Sandusky was confronted about inappropriate contact with young boys. Promises were extracted that he would cease his behavior, his locker room keys were taken away, and he was prohibited from bringing youth to campus. Still, more than a decade would pass before he was brought to justice.

Sandusky’s accusers, like Sally and Jack in the vignette, likely were deterred by considerations of justice versus mercy, truth versus loyalty, individual versus other, and short-term versus long-term implications. Let’s look at the vignette through the lens of these tensions.

Belinda’s behaviors were clearly inappropriate and illegal. Action had to be taken to right the financial wrongs and discipline her misdeeds. But how much “justice” is required? Sally, Jack, and the board are clearly at odds over the sufficiency of the punishment rendered. Those who want to keep the scandal “in house” may reason that Belinda was an excellent leader in other respects and conclude that the fraud was an atypical lapse in judgment for which she has paid a price. Sally may contend that Belinda violated standards (legal and professional) that are bigger than just the organization.

Personnel matters, including separation agreements, are typically confidential. Sally is in a bind between her desire to make the facts of Belinda’s case more widely known and her obligations of loyalty to her employer and the law. Does it make a difference if her motives are honorable (to protect other organizations from malfeasance) or malicious (to shame Belinda for her behavior and the trouble she caused the business office)? Does it make a difference if the Board fails to recoup the misspent funds?

There are many stakeholders in the case. Allowing Belinda to resign is sensitive to her as an individual, but does the secrecy of the process jeopardize the organization by failing to report a crime and thus allowing the behavior to continue elsewhere? Sally may decide to speak up on her own, but it will be at her own peril if she is countermanding the board and her supervisor in doing so.

Scandals often give rise to short-term thinking. How can an incident be handled swiftly with minimal cost to the organization? In this case, as in others, silence in the short term is intended to spare the organization bad PR, circumvent scrutiny about its use of funds or governance practices, and avoid protracted proceedings to terminate a problem employee. Negotiating to “make the problem go away” can be driven also by the fear of rebound litigation. All of these consequences have long-term financial and reputational costs for the organization.

Unfortunately, negative long-term costs can accrue also from short-term compromises and cover-ups. The recent public outcry about the enraged Rutgers basketball coach aptly demonstrates how personnel actions may seem reasonable until viewed with fresh perspectives. In Belinda’s case, news accounts that the organization just “passed along” a problematic employee will have reputational costs. Funders who feel doubly defrauded by the stolen money and the concealment may create grave financial consequences.

When is enough, enough? And who gets to decide? Ethical considerations abound on both sides. A sound decision at Sally’s agency requires thorough deliberation of the options and alignment with the “principle of publicity” to appreciate the view that stakeholders may take on the decision. A knee-jerk effort at self-preservation is neither ethical nor sufficient, because even if Belinda is no longer the agency’s employee, she could still be their problem.

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

A Personal Take On Global Ethics

Also see this article posted online at its original source:  http://www.globalethics.org/newsline/2013/03/25/personal-take/

I have just returned from a vacation in Spain. It was my first time in that country, but one of two trips I typically take overseas each year for work and pleasure. I love the opportunity to observe new customs, visit historic sites, meet new people, and try new foods.

In order to take in the scenery and mitigate stress, my companions and I get around on public transportation. This year, that meant cabs, planes, trains, subways, and buses. The experiences of the last two weeks in queuing up, paying, and seeking assistance brought to mind other such encounters in China and a number of U.S. and European cities.

I am cautious about generalizing from a single American viewpoint based on snapshot experiences, but over the years, I’ve observed significant differences in respect for space, orderliness, helpfulness, patience, and trustworthiness, even within our own country. As I reflected on my common daily interactions in Spain, I was reminded of the dilemma of ethical relativism and the challenges that it presents in ethics training and decision making.

At its essence, relativism suggests that there are no absolute standards of proper behavior and that the decision of what is ethical or acceptable is relative to individual or societal norms. By extension, relativism can become a constraint on action — “Who am I to judge that behavior? It may not be right for me, but who am I to say it is not okay for someone else to act that way?”

These questions always arise in some form during ethical discussions or ethics workshops. Sometimes they serve as a way to dodge the imperative of moral courage (e.g., “Well, I wouldn’t treat my child that way, but who am I to say that mother shouldn’t spank her misbehaving child?”). At other times, concerns about the risks of ethnocentrism or paternalism are offered in support of relativist approaches (e.g., “Why do we think we know best? What is ‘right’ depends on the culture.”). A third rationale questions the feasibility of achieving common moral standards (e.g., “How can I know the circumstances that affect others? Only those with intimate knowledge of another can say what is right.”)

When these discussions arise, I lean on the work of the Institute for Global Ethics and others in trying to articulate the risks posed by relativism, while acknowledging the legitimate concerns of tolerance, context, and respect for differences.

The work of the Institute suggests that there are, in fact, common values across cultures, including honesty, fairness, respect, responsibility, and compassion. While there are exceptions to these values and differences in the ways that they are operationalized, that doesn’t diminish the very presence of underlying shared principles upon which the diversions are based. Authors such as those cited in the “For further information” listing below carefully deconstruct the arguments for pure relativism (and pure absolutism), pointing out commonly held values on the rights to property and prohibitions against murder, even in the midst of wide global variations in the circumstances in which theft or homicide may be justified.

Clearly the customs associated with public transportation are less vital concerns than life and death, but they offer an opportunity to test the merits of culture in weighing right and wrong.

How then does one explain the differences in the way that an 18-inch space between people in a ticket line are handled in different countries or regions? Are these differing definitions of fairness and respect? Or do some groups or individuals simply reject the value of fairness altogether?

When an older adult with a cane or a youngster with crutches gets on board a bus, do other passengers offer seats to them or do they avert their eyes? Do they vacate special handicapped-reserved seats for those with obvious disabilities? What then is the definition of responsibility or compassion in these circumstances?

My subway musings on relativism suggest that cultural norms are neither irrelevant nor deterministic of ethical behavior. Instead, individuals internalize shared values but act on them in ways that are congruent with the people around them, based on culture, customs, and other norms.

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

The Ethics of Exits

Also see this article posted online at its original source:  http://www.globalethics.org/newsline/2013/02/18/the-ethics-of-exits/

Last week, Pope Benedict XVI became the first pontiff in six centuries to resign his office. In the midst of the Lenten season, his departure, with scarcely two weeks’ notice, gives rise to interesting questions about the timing and circumstances of workplace exits. The transition of retirement is a developmental, economic, organizational, social, and psychological phenomenon. It is also an ethical dilemma when examined through the paradigm of competing goods.

First and foremost, the decision to retire involves individual-versus-other issues and short-term vs. long-term considerations. Employees, acting in their own interests, weigh the financial and social advantages of retirement against the benefits of continued employment. Some, for reasons of identity, ego, or passion for the job, will not retire even though they could well afford to do so. Others, driven by financial pressures, depleted pensions, or the need for health benefits, will refuse retirement even though their passion or capacity for the work has diminished. As of 2010, 16 percent of the labor force consisted of people over age 65, a four point increase since 1990 and a trend that is destined to continue.

Pope Benedict was 78 when he was selected for the position. He will be 85 at the time of his retirement. In certain positions where norms and policies place no upper limit on the age of the worker, the presumption is that only illness, incapacity, or death would trigger resignation. Indeed, despite his age, the pope’s resignation stunned the world. For university professors, Supreme Court justices and yes, pontiffs, keen self-understanding and humility are required to make the determination of the right time to make an exit.

In this light, Pope Benedict’s decision to retire, ostensibly because he is too weary (and perhaps ailing) to do the job, is a commendable subordination of personal interest to organizational needs. The timing and timeline of his departure, however, have created an organizational crisis as hurried steps are taken to replace the pontiff by Easter. It also will create nearly unprecedented circumstances for the Vatican as the new pope assumes leadership in proximity to his predecessor. As most other organizations already know well, strong boundaries and clear intentions will be necessary for the smooth transition. The retiree who can make a clean and positive break with his or her job will put organizational needs ahead of ego and self-interest and, in doing so, support the successor.
Is retiring always the selfless act in the competing goods of individual versus other? A contrary perspective casts retirement as the self-centered, short-term choice, citing the prior pope’s decision to continue on in the job despite suffering the ravages of Parkinson’s disease and serving until his death in office. These, too, constitute competing goods: It is good to retain the skill and wisdom of the elder for the benefit of the faith, organization, or corporation. In Pope John Paul’s case, his suffering constituted an inspirational, living model of martyrdom. On the other hand, it is also good to ensure competent leadership for the organization and, in most professions, support a worker’s decision to dedicate remaining time attending to health, family, or other personal interests rather than continue employment.

Organizations that incentivize or force retirements to bring in “fresh perspectives” or reduce payroll costs by hiring younger workers, without regard to the interests, abilities, and needs of the older employee also are making tradeoffs among competing goods. The immediate benefits for the organizational bottom line may come at the expense of workforce diversity, institutional memory, and senior expertise. Aggressive efforts to force retirements or downsize older employees also may result in claims of age discrimination, leading to the organization’s and the workers’ long-term harm.

Some workers’ resignation decisions are more nakedly self-interested and short term. In this category, consider the corporate titan or politician, ensconced in scandal, who suddenly elects to “spend more time with my family” rather than stay and face accountability in correcting their alleged misdeeds. (Some have suggested that Vatican scandals have played a larger role in Pope Benedict’s decision than the publicly offered rationale for resigning admits.) Resignations with excessively long lead times may complicate the replacement process if the incumbent lingers on, contaminating or delaying the selection and transition process.

The ethics of exits also affect those who surround the prospective retiree. In this case, Pope Benedict’s case diverges from typical retirements in that it appears he had little human consultation or influence in making his decision. More commonly, employees observe colleagues overstaying their welcome in the workplace and make them the subject of gossip or criticism, shared with co-workers but withheld from the colleague in question. Absent ageism or animus, it is clear to co-workers when an individual has lost interest or enthusiasm for the job, yet directly broaching such a topic is fraught with hazard. Superiors are advised to scrupulously avoid such conversations, as they could constitute age discrimination. Concerned peers must consider their own motivations and interests. Are they in a position to benefit from the colleague’s departure, or is the conversation truly in the other’s interest? If the latter is the case, the greater good is likely in a caring and forthright conversation about the person’s plans, in the hope of facilitating a gracious and timely exit. Demeaning sidebars behind the colleague’s back don’t constitute an ethical good for the workplace, the worker, or their colleagues.