Knowing what to do and knowing why are two very different things. With ethics, for most of human existence we have been focusing on the what. Ethics has become a rulebook, often codified into laws that have attempted to provide us with all of the ‘right’ things to do and the consequences for the ‘wrong’ things. Has that approach worked? Certainly the Ten Commandments are part of that approach, and we seem to have some difficulty dealing effectively with only ten rules let alone the myriads of rules we currently live under.
Ethics - Rules and Laws
Conflating ethics with rules and laws with ethical behavior leaves much to be desired. Not only is it not possible to codify all behavior (the army has tried), who has time to read them and that doesn’t help in the throes of a crisis or in the heat of decision-making. Simply put the what doesn’t tell us why so that we can act coherently in new and unusual situations. Why do we want to be ‘good’ as an inherent part of our nature? No child is born wanting to be ‘bad,’ bad is a strategy.
Ethics and Nature
If humans are an integral and inherent part of nature, then, perhaps, the answer can be found there. Is nature inherently ‘good?’ Janine Benyus of biomimicry fame stated that in nature all actions create the conditions that support Life. This, for me, is a very clear, and even easy to apply what. It seats us into the natural web of life and provides us with a clear mission and direction for how we contribute to the health of the planet. What could be more ethical than that? This value is one of the key values in the Sustainable Values Set®, and a useful way to think about creating culture. It doesn’t address the deeper why, however.
Closely allied with ethics is integrity. When I look up integrity I get: truthfulness, honor, veracity, reliability, uprightness. Veracity means; reality, actuality, authenticity, genuineness, trueness. When I ask students about integrity they usually settle on reliability. This has always bothered me, because Hitler was reliable, but we would not call him ethical and would be hard put to say he had integrity, so there seems to be more to the word than just being reliable.
Veracity comes closer to the deeper meaning of integrity, I think. What makes something have trueness or reality? Why is being authentic important? The answers to these questions can be found, I believe, in nature. In nature, what is true and authentic supports the integrity of the entire system. Nature is NOT about parts and pieces, the world in which humans seem to live so comfortably. Nature is about the larger system, always. It is by keeping that healthy, intact, working well that all of the ‘parts’ (us included) can function well. Health is intrinsic to nature. Sickness happens only when the system is out of wack. The natural state of Life, is health.
Look at your company culture. Would you say it is healthy? Is it vibrant and robust? It is creative and responsive, resilient in the face of challenges? Can you name the people in your organization that you would say have integrity? Who holds the entire organization as the focus for decision-making? Who can extend that concern into the community and the environment? Who is responsible for your organizations integrity? How does your organization contribute to the health and integrity of your community, of the planet?
I’m going to challenge you again. Send me examples of thorny ethical questions and let’s see if looking at the health and integrity of the larger system offers up solutions. I will share your questions and my thoughts on solutions I future articles, so send them in!
Know Your Culture
This is a great way to get an insight into your culture, evaluate it and understand what needs to change!
Kathryn Alexander, MA: futurist, speaker, author coach, her systems thinking approach to values and ethics enables deep change by impactful leaders.