Don Heider is the executive director of the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics at Santa Clara University, where he serves as the John Courtney Murray, S.J. University Professor of Social Ethics and holds an appointment as professor of communication. Views are his own.
The BBC and Netflix presented a compelling mini-series this year called, “Years and Years.” In short, it’s a look at the current difficulties and complexities of the world through one family. I don’t recommend watching before bed; it’s the type of show that can raise your anxiety. I think what the program did so effectively was reflect sort of a corporate anxiety all of us are feeling these days toward events unfolding around us, and also a feeling of increasing helplessness toward that world.
It doesn’t have to be so. There is another path—one built on using tools to make better decisions, whether we are citizens or lawmakers, or leaders of corporations or non-profits. That path is ethical decision making. Full disclosure; I head an ethics center and have thought and written about ethics for a couple of decades. Ethics, by some accounts, dates back to the 1800s and Immanuel Kant, though many of the ideas upon which we base ethical judgements can be traced back to Socrates, Plato, Confucius, and others. You also find important ideas about ethics in the Qur’an, the Torah, the Bible, and other sacred texts. In a study of African history and language you see a clear concept of character ethics. These ideas are not new, but have survived because of their importance to how we live.
Why ethics? Because it gives us a set of universally shared principles by which we can make difficult decisions about complex situations. We generally use five ethical lenses to help people analyze problems and issues in order to make a better decision. I contend that asking some tough questions about a situation can often yield a better outcome. Questions like: Do we have enough accurate information to make a good decision? Will this decision harm someone or a group of people? Are we considering all the folks who might be impacted by this decision? Does my decision serve the community as a whole, or just some members? Are we considering the basic rights of all people affected? Will my decision reflect on the type of person I aspire to be?
Let’s take climate change as an example. There is a growing body of evidence we need to gather and consider unblinkingly. Global temperature rise, warming oceans, shrinking ice sheets, glacial retreats, and sea level rise all tell us clearly something is going on. In fact, most scientific organizations rate with 95% probability or higher that this is due to human activity beginning in the middle of the past century. Are policymakers, first, recognizing the seriousness of the issue, and second, taking steps to address it in a meaningful way? Are we as voters holding them accountable? Can we develop policies that both preserve jobs and promote a strong economy but that also significantly reduce the production of greenhouse gases? Are we considering what policies will produce the most good and least harm to humanity and the planet?
Immigration is another area where ethical decision making would make a difference. This is a topic filled with emotion, often fueled by political leaders. Effective and humane policy rarely comes out of high emotions. For this issue, again, it would be best to gather information and data and use that as a basis for starting a meaningful dialogue about immigration policy. Immigration into the U.S. is currently at an all-time low. Accordingly, the current administration has virtually eliminated the possibility of refugees finding asylum in the U.S. Yet, we are a country of immigrants, so to cut off all immigration and asylum seems contradictory to our core values. Can we develop a policy that is based on our commitment to human rights? What is the best way of helping people who are fleeing countries due to persecution and threat of their very existence? Can we agree upon a set of guidelines that does not discriminate due to race, ethnic origin, or religion?
In these two crises, we would be well served to ask:
- Which option will produce the most good and do the least harm?
- Which option best respects the rights of all who have a stake?
- Which option treats people equally or proportionately?
- Which option best serves the community as a whole, not just some members?
- Which option leads me to act as the sort of person I want to be or us to act as the kind of nation we want to be?
We teach this method of ethical decision making to universities, non-profits, health care providers, policy-makers and Fortune 500 companies. My hope for 2020 is that even more people come to celebrate ethics as a way of making better decisions. Albert Camus wrote, “A man without ethics is a wild beast loosed upon this world.” Our world deserves better.