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Clearing moral hurdles

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

By Kim Strom-Gottfried

How can educators, administrators, and community leaders help develop moral courage?

The journey starts with an understanding of the barriers to ethical action.

Why do passersby turn away when they see a shoving match break out on the sidewalk?

Why do colleagues remain silent when a co-worker makes a racially offensive remark?

Why do employees acquiesce when they know of fraudulent practices by their organization?

These scenarios help us understand the obstacles to moral courage. Beyond the tangible risk to life and livelihood that many associate with whistle-blowing, those who take a stand for what is right risk alienation from friends and colleagues.

They maybe constrained by cultural or professional norms that say, “Don’t make waves,” “Trust your superiors ,“Go along to get along.”

They may not act because of their own complicity in the misconduct. “Who am I to take exception to his offensive jokes when I’ve gone along with them all this time?”

And, in the case of bystanders, perhaps each person fails to act because he or she believes someone else can or should intervene instead.

The reasons not to do the right thing are numerous and powerful.

Why, then, should anyone take the risk and stand up for what is right? Because:

* It’s congruent with our sense of self. We want to be the kind of person who stands up for what is right when it’s under threat.

* It improves the culture of the communities and organizations of which we are a part.

* It may inspire courage in others. Conversely, failing to do so may encourage apathy, or worse, misconduct. Silence may convey tacit approval for wrongdoing.

* If it’s not me, who will act? If not now, when? If I keep readjusting my moral compass, how will I know when I’ve crossed the line?

How can those committed to act with moral courage do so?

I suggest a model I remember by 4 A’s:

* Awareness: Understand ethical behavior and one’s own motivations and be alert to exemplars for ethical action.

* Assessment: Draw on our knowledge of organizational and community change to examine the problem and the options for change. Does the issue, for example, reside in a particular individual or segment of the organization or is it pervasive in operations or culture?

* Affiliation: Are there others who share your concern and who may assist in the change effort?

* Action: Steps to remediate the problem should themselves be ethical and measured. Blowing the whistle to the local news, for example, should not precede efforts to make change from within.

Acting with moral courage may never be easy or comfortable, but it’s an essential step for putting ethics into action. And, there are resources and role models to help us on that journey.


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

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