This article was published in Living Ethics: issue 43 autumn 2001
A good cartoon has the power to bring home a point about ethics with a precision that rational argument can rarely hope to match. Someone like Michael Leunig appeals directly to our intuition. We laugh at the sketch and, for a moment, see the issue in black and white. Seduced by the humour, we are gently led to the realisation that the picture is really drawn in tones of grey.
So it is when approaching difficult ethical questions. While a certain underlying moral seriousness is called for, we are sometimes better off for having taken a moment to see the humour (frequently dark humour) in our predicament. It is then that we may best be able to confront the inherent uncertainty of the ethical dilemma.
It is the ethical dilemma that constantly catches people unaware. More used to the relatively simple task of identifying ‘right’ from ‘wrong’ many people struggle when required to choose between ‘right’ and ‘right’. This particular challenge often arises when a person finds himself in a position of conflicting duties – often arising when personal ethics conflict with those of an organisation.
In the mid-1990s a survey of Australia's top three hundred companies, conducted by The Institute for Values Research, found that nearly 40% of those surveyed, “make decisions which conflict with their personal beliefs or values”. The Institute's Values Survey Report went on to note, “They are the people who speak for the top corporations in Australia and their responses reveal some very interesting ambiguities”.
This research resonates with complementary findings published in the United States at the end of the eighties. Bird and Waters noted a phenomenon, which they labelled 'the moral muteness of managers'. In short, they found that managers seldom discuss with their colleagues the ethical problems they routinely encounter: “Morality is a live topic for individual managers but it is close to a non-topic among groups of managers”.
Bird and Walters identify three main causes of 'moral muteness':
- A perceived threat to harmony caused by the possibility of conflict when underlying values are made explicit and used to assess actual behaviour in the organisation
- A perceived threat to efficiency caused by 'moral talk' being a waste of time or even a 'barrier' to getting the job done
- A perceived threat to a preferred image of power and effectiveness by seeming too idealistic or utopian or even being exposed as inadequate when it comes to the task of talking about ethics.
Talking about ethics is difficult work – even for those who have a special expertise in the area. It is, however, vital that we learn how to speak about such matters with comfort. Otherwise we are left with a situation in which people may be forced to live a kind of lie; saying one thing (on behalf of their organisation) while believing something else. Can we justify making people set aside their integrity as part of their job?
One way in which to address the problem of 'moral muteness' is to make the topic of ethics more accessible. Another may be to challenge some of the cultural factors that choke the flow of conversation. One of the best things that can be done for ethics is to create an organisational environment in which people are allowed to be curious – a learning environment.
A learning environment will be marked by a general willingness to admit how much we do not know. It will be a place where every person is recognised as having something to contribute to the organisation's store of knowledge and wisdom. It will be a place where people are prepared to listen – as well as to talk about things outside their 'comfort zone'. It will be a place where uncertainty is embraced as an opportunity to explore, rather than rejected as a threat to be contained.
Then again all of this probably sounds a little heavy. Although the consequences of unethical conduct can be deadly serious, I suspect that the first step to creating an ethical organisation is to approach the task with a light touch. For a start, we need to learn not to take ourselves so seriously.
We are, in many respects, delightfully ridiculous creatures. What often saves us from crossing the line and becoming dangerously ridiculous is our latent capacity to laugh at ourselves; to find humour in our worst moments of folly. That is why humour, of the kind offered by the gifted cartoonist, is so powerful a tool.