It is impossible to have any meaningful discussion of ethics without acknowledging the fact that there is no single standard of ethical conduct that all reasonable people can agree on. A reasonable, honorable person who draws her ethical system from a relativistic, teleological school of ethics like utilitarianism will inevitably clash with an equally reasonable and honorable person who bases his ethical system on one of the ethical schools under the umbrella of deontology. The ethical decisions of the former will be informed by her relativistic view of right and wrong, while the latter’s will be informed by an equally valid but inconsistent ethical system in which the intended consequence of one’s actions is largely irrelevant in gauging the ethical value of one’s conduct. Thus, when viewed under a utilitarian filter, if one were able to travel back in time, strangling a baby Adolph Hitler in his cradle when he had not yet committed any atrocities is justifiable conduct as it will save the lives of more than seven million innocent victims in the future, but under a filter of deontology (both religious and secular) such conduct would be morally wrong because it would involve the killing of an innocent infant who had not yet committed any crime.
In a similar vein, we must recognize the simple pragmatic fact that there are political and ethical issues on which we as a society may never agree. The death penalty and abortion immediately come to mind. Despite the best efforts of each side on those polarizing issues to marginalize, misrepresent and even dehumanize the other, the honest, simple fact is that both sides can justify their positions with equally sound ethical arguments based on diametrically opposed schools of ethics. No amount of acrimonious debate can change that fact.
Fortunately, on most issues at least, people of conscience can agree on what constitutes ethical conduct. This is certainly true in the realm of business, government and academe where principled leaders abound whose ethics are informed by both absolutist and relativistic schools of ethics. In my experience what makes these individuals ethical leaders is their consistent adherence to the following ten principles:
- They put the interests of the institution they serve above their own self interest;
- They understand that character is defined by the small acts they perform when nobody is looking;
- They recognize that respect must be earned and nurtured over time but can be lost in an instant;
- They promote their people, not themselves;
- They take responsibility for their personal failures and for the failures of the groups they lead;
- They share credit for their successes with the individuals who made them possible;
- They are consistent and predictable in their decision making and in the exercise of their discretion;
- They strive to do what is right rather than what is expedient, regardless of the consequences to themselves;
- They do not fear making unpopular decisions and clearly communicate their rationale for making such decisions to those affected by them;
- They only serve institutions that do not require them to compromise their principles.
PLEASE NOTE: I have written about this issue before in various venues, and most recently published an article on the issue in the University of Botswana Law Journal (available here).