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Promoting ethical thinking
Last Friday I had the privilege to address an audience comprising primarily members of the Rotary Club of Diego Martin and I embraced the opportunity to begin a conversation on “Creating a Culture of Ethical Thinking.” As the event marked the installation of Sharon Hinds, the new president of this Rotary Club, I decided to choose a topic which would find favour with and obtain the approval of Ms Hinds. Knowing the outstanding character of the new president including the fact that she stands for nothing short of the highest professional principles and standards, I was not surprised when she requested that the topic selected should reflect the need to promote and implement professional ethics. Reference, Ms Hinds politely suggested, could be made to the four-way test created by Rotarian Herbert J Taylor in 1932 and followed by Rotarians worldwide in their business and professional lives.
The test is as follows. Of the things we think, say or do:
1. Is it the truth?
2. Is it fair to all concerned?
3. Will it build goodwill and better friendships?
4. Will it be beneficial to all concerned?
And undoubtedly, the platform of ethical questions posed in this Rotarian test is a good place to begin the written discourse on ethical thinking.
There are many adjectives used to precede the word thinking and these include “critical, analytical and brilliant” but why has the word “ethical” never been promoted as the type and kind of thinking that is needed in the current environment of “anything goes.” Perhaps society has accepted that there is little room for ethical thinkers because hypocrisy and dishonesty are the order of the day. To boldly suggest that we ought to set the highest standards to determine the way we operate would mean deviation from the path of thinking that facilitates the acceptance of conduct that is wholly improper and unacceptable.
Ethics refers to standards of behaviour that dictate the manner in which human beings should act in particular circumstances. Ethics are principles which promote values such as integrity, trust, fairness, compassion and honesty. There are many professions which promote a code for conduct as it is recognised that there must be ethical behaviour in the workplace in order to ensure an effective and efficient operation. The challenge has not been in establishing a code, the problem is the implementation and enforcement of the guidelines. Some companies have gone as far as establishing a framework for ethical decision-making and provided a step-by step manual with a suggested approach that should be adopted when ethical issues have to be resolved in the workplace. Such focus suggests that ethics is gaining significance amongst those who recognise that ethical thinking is the right way to go if there is to be preservation and promotion of decent behaviour.
The thinking seems to be that as long as an act, however offensive, is not illegal, then it is acceptable. Yes there will be huffing and puffing and maybe a few doors will blow down but the gusty winds of objection usually subside and everything simmers back to normal. So in a country that is never starved for excitement and quite frankly seems to thrive on controversy, bacchanal and scandal, is there any room for ethical thinking? And even if there is, who would cultivate, develop and promote the seeds for this type of thinking, which thus far have fallen on infertile soil? The obvious answer is religious, educational, legal, political and professional institutions which all have the greatest impact on the development of any society. Having identified the drivers, it is necessary to ensure that they are all on the same page and prepared to move forward in the same direction.
Law and ethics
It is interesting to note the manner in which the law has tried to set the tone and maintain the bar to ensure adherence to ethical conduct. There have been several cases in which the courts have been called upon to deliver judgments involving moral, ethical and legal issues. The 1884 case of R v Dudley and Stephens concerned survival cannibalism following a shipwreck which resulted in the two accused being found guilty of murder and sentenced to the statutory death penalty with a recommendation for mercy. In that case the court stated: “…We are often compelled to set up standards we cannot reach ourselves, and to lay down rules that we could not ourselves satisfy. But a man has no right to declare temptation to be an excuse, though he might have yielded to it…” This is the rigorous adherence that the law demands as it relates to acceptable conduct and the courts are considered to be the guardians of public morals and the upholders of ethical standards.
Ethics in politics?
Perhaps politics is the only arena in which ethical conduct is least expected to exist much less survive and this is evidenced by those who subscribe to the view that politics has a morality of its own. The phrase “power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely” warns those who become leaders or hold high office to be aware of the temptation to follow the dark path of inappropriate behaviour. There are very few individuals who can honestly say that they remain committed to the tenets of integrity and truth while operating in this very contaminated environment. But politics should not be written off as a potential driver for ethical thinking although it is a much harder sell than the obvious choices of religion, education and even the workplace. The political reality is that decent individuals must be prepared to enter the dirty waters of politics in order to create a stream of ethical thinking. Unless there is an immediate injection of decency in a place which flourishes in decadence, the moral fabric of society will continue to rip apart at the seams. For those who do not readily accept the importance of ethical thinking, I challenge such minds to consider this statement: “The world is not deprived for lack of brilliant minds because the most meaningful change has come from the actions of ethical thinkers.”
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