Doing the right thing

[Editor’s note: This is the first of two columns on moral courage.]

By Kim Strom-Gottfried

Ethical lapses aren’t confined to boardrooms or ballfields.

From Wall Street to Main Street, scandals large and small erode public confidence in our business, religious and social institutions.

We read about the incidents of dishonesty, deception, greed or corruption and shake our heads.

We consider the people involved and wonder, “What on earth were they thinking? How could they have gone so morally wrong?”

Often though, “they” are not so different from “us”.

In his new book “The Cheating Culture”, David Callahan suggests that competitive pressures and extraordinary economic disparities are to blame for an array of dishonest behaviors from plagiarism in high school, to inflated resumes, pirated music, corked baseball bats and corporate fraud.

Our country seems to foster a culture in which those who do the right thing are viewed as chumps, while those who cut corners to get ahead are honored as “strategic”, “creative” or “willing to do what it takes to succeed.”

Cheaters typically view their actions the same way, rationalizing that “everybody’s doing it” or “it’s easier to ask forgiveness than permission”.

But ethical lapses aren’t confined to boardrooms or ball fields.

My research and workshops on ethics provide me a wonderful window into the lives of helping professionals in nonprofit, public and for-profit settings throughout the U.S.

In keeping with Callahan’s hypothesis, the dilemmas many professionals report are not about knowing the right thing to do on their jobs, but about having the courage to do the right thing in the face of possible reprisal.

Directly or indirectly, social workers, nurses, counselors and others have received the message not only to cut corners in some fashion, but also to remain silent about their concerns.

Organizational ethics statements seem more window-dressing than guiding principles.

As one social worker said, “Our agency motto should be, “Show up. Dress up. Shut up.”

I’m comforted, however, by the fact that people are troubled by remaining silent, discomfited at looking the other way, disheartened at wrongdoing. I’m encouraged by their interest in discussing moral courage and in seeking role models who stand up in defense of what is right.

In his forthcoming book, “Moral Courage,” Rush Kidder examines the obstacles to moral courage, as well as the rewards and exemplars.

He isolates moral courage as the virtue by which all other virtues are brought to life: What worth is there in believing in truthfulness if we don’t stand up for it when it is at risk?

Amid the pressures to do the wrong thing, how can we model, support, and uphold those who do what is right?

Kim Strom-Gottfried is professor at the School of Social Work at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

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