To many people there are some obvious ethical truths: society should support family life as well as individual self-realization; economic life should include the service motive as well as the profit motive; political life should pursue the good of the planet as well as the interests of the nation. No matter how obvious these ideas are to people of high ideals, we see many actions that seriously violate the balance between legitimate self-interest and the greater good.
Considering the most serious problems of society, Mohandas Gandhi, India’s best-known non-violent activist, made a list of “seven deadly sins”: Wealth without work, pleasure without conscience, science without humanity, knowledge without character, politics without principle, commerce without morality, and worship without sacrifice.
When we see seriously harmful behavior going on, what should we do? Of course there are different answers for different kinds of case. But we can’t do nothing. As a child, I was taught not to return evil for evil but to return good for evil; in my confusion, I thought it was spiritual to do nothing. Today many people tolerate anything and everything, even if seriously harmful behavior is involved. It is too easy to retreat from moral clarity and courage, too easy to make excuses for others and to rationalize doing nothing.
Izzy Kalman (www.bullies2buddies.com) tours the U.S. training people to respond to bullying by practicing the golden rule, using fearless and good-humored kindness in a way that effectively stops the abuse.
Harvard psychologist Howard Gardner has written Truth, Beauty, and Goodness Reframed, which deserves its position as the best-selling current book on these three values. Gardner offers positive responses to social problem based on research results from studying good work and good citizenship. Research teams have defined good work and discovered factors that promote it.
“Good work is excellent—it meets the technical standards of the relevant profession or craft. It is personally meaningful or engaging. Carrying out good work over the long haul proves too difficult unless that work remains inviting and meaningful to the practitioner. [And good work] is ethical. It is carried out in a responsible, ethical manner. The good worker constantly interrogates herself about what it means to be responsible; seeks to behave in that way; and attempts, as we all should, to admit her failings and thereafter to correct course.”
“Three factors increase the likelihood of good work: (1) Vertical support.” The persons at the top set a good example. Your boss, “models good work, expects the same of you, and imposes increasingly severe sanctions in cases of compromised or bad work.” (2) Horizontal support. It helps when “those at your level in the workplace who are good workers . . . send out warning signals in the event that you (or others) deviate from that norm.” (3) Periodic booster shots—in any profession, there will be occasional acts of heroism, as well as wake-up calls consequent upon the discovery of compromised or frankly bad work. Workers can be strongly affected by these benevolent or malevolent events and, in particular, by the way others react to them.”
Gardner’s discussion introduces us to a model of how research can clarify professional ethics.
Can you remember a lesson you learned through an effort to act ethically in some social system?
Howard Gardner, Truth, Beauty, and Goodness Reframed (NY: Basic Books, 2011), pp. 88-92.