The Tipping Point: When Morals Fail

Morals and ethics are a funny thing. Morals define personal character, while ethics stress a social system in which those morals are applied. In other words, morals represent our personal convictions while ethics point to standards or codes of behavior expected by the groups to which we belong. So while a person’s moral code is usually unchanging, the ethics he or she practices can be situation-dependent. And this presents a problem for most of us at times. There are two challenges every person faces when applying morals situational ethics. The first problem is that any strong moral code is subject to conditions that make it ludacris to uphold.  This means that the morals we claim are not always very apparently consistent with the ethics we practice.  Someone more schooled in ethics terminology might say it is when our deontological (principled) beliefs are overwhelmed by our concern for the consequences of holding this belief (consequentialism).  

Let me offer an example to clarify. I’m pro-life. That is my moral code. I believe “life is sacred” and that terminating the life of an unborn fetus is morally wrong. But tell me of a woman who was raped and impregnated by a predator and I start to studder as I struggle to justify my position.  Tell me that this same women is 12 years old and my studder turns to a maon as my moral convictions begin to give way to the reality of these dreadful circumstances. Then tell me that this young girl will likely die if not for a surgery that will abort the life of her unborn child and I’m speechless. My moral code is crumbling in my own hands.   Or so it seams!

So I leave room for “exceptions” to the “life is sacred” rule that governs my life.  And these exceptions are troublesome for me because they appear to weaken my adherence to the very moral code that I believe in so deeply.   No moral code is perfectly adherable when a reasonable person considers the consequences of every ethical decision they might possibly face.  And like a crack in a building’s foundation, a moral code seems weakened by these exceptions.

And this brings rise to what I believe is the second problem: ethical “exceptions” to a moral code can unnecessarily weaken  moral convictions over time.  As I express and defend my position on abortion, I’m faced with many different circumstances which challenge the viability of my morals.  People who do not share my moral convictions present scenario after scenario in which I find it virtually impossible to justify a strict adherence to my moral conviction that life is sacred.  If I hold strong on abortion, then they question me about capital punishment, euthanasia and living will issues relating to brain damaged people.  They look for exceptions and try to break down my conviction that life is sacred one argument at a time.  They point out any inconsistencies in the application of this moral code to my own life.  They acts as though any flexibility in my application of this moral code “wins the day”.  Unfortunately, they often do.

But the presence of an exception to the rule does not nullify the rule itself.  I can hold a strong belief in the sanctity of life, yet allow for circumstances where I would not feel comfortable acting strictly on these moral beliefs.  But to do this requires 1) a deep conviction that my moral code is “right” and “good” and 2) an acceptance that there will likely be circumstances that make it difficult for me to uphold this conviction because of the adverse consequences it would cause to others.  This is what some call the “tipping point”.

It is my contention that strong moral values, not strong ethics, are what are MOST important to managers/leaders.  A leader can act consistently with a set of ethical principles, yet not have a deep-rooted moral grounding.  But, by its very nature, good ethical behavior will be more firmly planted in the grounds of consistent moral values.  The very real danger is that, without strong morals, ethics are little more than good rules of conduct prescribed by and followed by those who agree that these social norms are in the best interest of society or our organization.  They are a watered-down version of morals, and much more susceptible to changes in the organizations culture.  We need managers that have deep-seated moral values upon which their ethics are built.  We need men and women of great character who can face the “tipping points” in their moral lives with strength and humility.  This, in my view, is a critical component of true leadership that is often overlooked.


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