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Markkula Center for Applied Ethics

A Well-Meaning Project

A committed group of leaders sets out to do some good

Ann Skeet

A high-profile group of civic leaders are assembled in a one-year, ad hoc community action initiative. The group is charged with spearheading a project to address the community’s most pressing issues.  Invitation to the program is considered an honor.  The participants are a who’s who of institutional leadership in all sectors: corporations, non-profit agencies, religious organizations, universities, government, and philanthropy.

After endless meetings and research stretched over several months, the group decides to rescue a community-based hotline that handles everything from suicide calls to basic questions about where to get social services.

Representatives from the leadership group meet with the staff of the hotline at their offices. They participate in training to field calls and research similar resources in their community. 

After many scheduling delays—getting these influential people in the same room is difficult—they hold an all-day meeting to develop an implementation plan. By this time there is only one month left in the initiatives charter. They never return to execute their plan to bring new resources to the hotline and improve its operation. After all, the members had completed their term of service and have many other commitments.

Leaders in the group can point many years later to the lessons they learned in this effort, both about social service support systems like hotlines and how difficult it is to lead change in diverse community-settings.  Most members agree that this experience has helped them become better community leaders.

Was the group’s project a success?

Discussion Questions

In what ways was the program a success?

Is gathering a group of influential people around an issue a goal in itself?

What steps could have been taken to bring about more concrete results?

A Framework for Thinking Ethically, from the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics

The Utilitarian Approach - Some ethicists emphasize that the ethical action is the one that provides the most good or does the least harm, or, to put it another way, produces the greatest balance of good over harm. The ethical corporate action, then, is the one that produces the greatest good and does the least harm for all who are affected-customers, employees, shareholders, the community, and the environment. Ethical warfare balances the good achieved in ending terrorism with the harm done to all parties through death, injuries, and destruction. The utilitarian approach deals with consequences; it tries both to increase the good done and to reduce the harm done.

The Rights Approach - Other philosophers and ethicists suggest that the ethical action is the one that best protects and respects the moral rights of those affected. This approach starts from the belief that humans have a dignity based on their human nature per se or on their ability to choose freely what they do with their lives. On the basis of such dignity, they have a right to be treated as ends and not merely as means to other ends. The list of moral rights -including the rights to make one's own choices about what kind of life to lead, to be told the truth, not to be injured, to a degree of privacy, and so on-is widely debated; some now argue that non-humans have rights, too. Also, it is often said that rights imply duties-in particular, the duty to respect others' rights.

The Fairness Approach - Aristotle and other Greek philosophers have contributed the idea that all equals should be treated equally. Today we use this idea to say that ethical actions treat all human beings equally-or if unequally, then fairly based on some standard that is defensible. We pay people more based on their harder work or the greater amount that they contribute to an organization, and say that is fair. But there is a debate over CEO salaries that are hundreds of times larger than the pay of others; many ask whether the huge disparity is based on a defensible standard or whether it is the result of an imbalance of power and hence is unfair.

The Common Good Approach - The Greek philosophers have also contributed the notion that life in community is a good in itself and our actions should contribute to that life. This approach suggests that the interlocking relationships of society are the basis of ethical reasoning and that respect and compassion for all others-especially the vulnerable-are requirements of such reasoning. This approach also calls attention to the common conditions that are important to the welfare of everyone. This may be a system of laws, effective police and fire departments, health care, a public educational system, or even public recreational areas.

The Virtue Approach - A very ancient approach to ethics is that ethical actions ought to be consistent with certain ideal virtues that provide for the full development of our humanity. These virtues are dispositions and habits that enable us to act according to the highest potential of our character and on behalf of values like truth and beauty. Honesty, courage, compassion, generosity, tolerance, love, fidelity, integrity, fairness, self-control, and prudence are all examples of virtues. Virtue ethics asks of any action, "What kind of person will I become if I do this?" or "Is this action consistent with my acting at my best?"

Sep 13, 2016