Archive for May, 2016

JOHN STUART MILL: the principle of utility. Our actions have consequences, and those consequences count. The best decisions have good consequences for the largest number of people – “the greatest good for the greatest number.”   In order to understand whether a consequence is ‘good’ or ‘not good’ a person (or persons) must clearly define ‘good.’  This, as anyone who has attempted to do so knows quite well, is more than a daunting challenge.  Nazi Germany educated us to how ‘good’ can be defined so that an ethnic population might be eradicated ‘guilt free.’

Given the two definitions and given the three ‘taproots’ [see PART I] we can now turn to the three simple principles that can help us when it comes to ‘Ethical-Moral Decision Making.’  These principles are rooted in the ‘Character-Based Decision Making Model’ developed by the Josephson Institute of Ethics (2000).  There are three steps involved, here they are:

  1. All Ethical-Moral decisions must take into account and reflect a concern for the interests and well-being of all affected individuals (“stakeholders”). The underlying principle here is the ‘Golden Rule’ – help when you can, avoid harm when you can.
  2. Ethical-Moral values and principles always take precedence over non-ethical-moral ones. Ethical-Moral values are morally superior to non-ethical-moral ones. When faced with a clear choice between such values, the ethical-moral person should always choose to follow ethical-moral principles.  Perceiving the difference between ethical-moral and non-ethical-moral values can be difficult. This situation often occurs when people perceive a clash between what they ‘need’ and the ethical-moral principles that might deny these ‘needs.’ If some rationalization begins to occur, this situation is probably present.  [NOTE: It is crucial that a person, or persons, discern ‘needs’ (high priority needs) and not simply ‘wants,’ ‘desires,’ or ‘wishes’ or ‘hopes’].                                                                                                                                                   3. It is ethically and morally proper to violate an ethical-moral principle only when it is clearly necessary to advance another ‘true’ ethical-moral principle, which, according to the decision-maker’s conscience, will produce the greatest balance of good in the long run [knowing what will occur ‘in the long run’ requires ‘foresight’ and is not fully predictable – many times we will only know if the ‘greatest balance of good’ has occurred by ‘looking back in time; this does not mean that I-You-We must not strive for this balance].

Some decisions will require you to prioritize and to choose between competing ethical-moral values and principles when it is clearly necessary to do so because the only viable options require the sacrifice of one ethical-moral value over another ethical-moral value. When this is the case, the decision-maker(s) should act in a way that will create the greatest amount of good and the least amount of harm to the greatest number of people.

I reiterate that it is crucial that certain words and concepts be clearly defined so that all who are involved (think: stakeholders or potential stakeholders) have an opportunity to ‘understand.’  Too many folks do not take the time to define certain words or concepts – and it is time consuming and energy consuming to do so.

I leave us with the following advice provided to us by Warren Buffett: ‘Live in such a way that if someone spoke badly of you, no one would believe it!’ 

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Recently I was having a conversation with an executive.  The focus of our conversation was on ‘Ethical-Moral Decision Making.’  There are many books, articles and essays available to us that address this topic with breadth and depth.  The topic continues to be a crucial one and so I have decided to devote a blog entry or two and share with you, gentle reader, three simple principles that can help you when it comes to ‘Ethical-Moral Decision Making.’  I read about these three principles more than sixteen years ago.

First, however, it might be helpful to define both ‘Ethical’ and ‘Moral’.

ETHICAL = being in accordance with the rules or standards for right conduct or practice [think: adhering to the law]; being in accordance with the rules or standards for right conduct or practice regarding the standards of a profession – It is not considered ethical for politicians to knowingly mislead their constituents.  It is not ethical for a physician to over-prescribe medications.

MORAL = of, pertaining to, or concerned with the principles or rules of right conduct or the distinction between right and wrong – think: moral attitudes; expressing or conveying truths or counsel as to right conduct – think: moralizing; founded on the fundamental principles of right conduct rather than on the law, legalities, enactment, or custom – think: moral obligation; conforming to the rules of right conduct (opposed to immoral) – think: a moral person.  

Second, there are numerous philosophical taproots that feed an ethical-moral decision making process.  It is crucial that a person, or persons, select one from the many and imbed it so it nurtures and sustains the ethical-moral decision making process.  Here are three that have stood the test of time:

ARISOTLE: the Golden Mean. Moral behavior is the mean between two extremes – at one end is excess, at the other deficiency. Find your ‘mean’ position between those two extremes, and you will be acting morally.  ‘Mean’ in this instance does not mean ‘middle.’  Each of us will favor one end of the extreme over the other.  For example, if one extreme is ‘cowardice’ and the other is ‘behaving rashly’ a person of ‘courage’ will discern his or her ‘Golden Mean’ to be closer to one of the two extremes.  A ‘Political Hawk’ will position him or herself closer to ‘behaving rashly’ while a ‘Political Peacemaker’ will position him or herself closer to ‘cowardice’ (some ‘Hawks’ will even label the ‘Political Peacemaker’ as a coward).

IMMANUEL KANT: the ‘Categorical Imperative.’  As human beings we have certain moral rights and duties. We should treat all people as free and equal to ourselves, and our actions are morally right only if we can apply them universally. In other words, are we willing to have everyone act as we do?   The ‘Golden Rule’ is a sibling to Kant’s ‘Categorical Imperative.’  Kant’s ‘Categorical Imperative’ is an absolutist view – right is right and must always be done, regardless of the circumstances.  For example, one always tells the truth, no matter the consequences.  [NOTE: What complicates ‘truth-telling’ is that there is no universal agreement as to what ‘truth’ is.  One must explicitly define his or her terms – for example, ‘truth’ – in order for others to clearly, or more clearly, understand]

 [To be continued. . .]

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The more we know, the more we clearly realize that we don’t know.  This probably explains why we find so few scientists and scholars among our elected officials.  It probably also explains why organizations of a certain size tend to institutionalize the separation of their information-gathering and decision-making branches.  For example, a business executive has an office manager; presidents have councils of advisers.  There was an infamous President of GM many years ago who told his direct reports, ‘I don’t want to hear any bad news!’ and he ended up reading in the Wall Street Journal that GM had lost 28% market share to the Japanese.

The stated reason for the separation of information gathering may well be to provide decision-makers with only the bare outlines of all the available information so that they will not be hobbled by excessive detail when they are obliged to make certain decisions.  A decision-maker who is fully informed will see much more than the bare outlines and will therefore find it extremely difficult to reach a clear, concise decision.

Consider that this feedback between information gathering and uncertainty does NOT occur if we are able to learn everything, or at least everything crucial, about a sector of reality in the TIME available to us (the decision-maker).  As decision-makers we are then fully informed and are able to spin out many of the possible consequences of the decisions we are charged with making.

BUT IN REALITY, decision-makers rarely have complete information.  They don’t’ know the status of certain variables because they are invisible to them.  For example, ‘How can GM know what the Japanese intend to do if they are careful in keeping critical information from GM?’  Sometimes the decision-maker does not want to know: Before his invasion of Poland Hitler chose to ignore a report that England was serious about coming to the aid of its ally if Germany attacked Poland.

New information muddies the emerging picture (or more often, muddies the picture that the decision-maker has already emerged).  Once a decision-maker reaches a decision he or she is relieved to have the uncertainty of decision-making behind him or her.  THEN, someone turns up and informs the decision-maker about things that call into question the wisdom of his or her soon to be made decision.

Too often, the decision-maker responds with clarity: ‘I don’t want to think about it! I have made up my mind!’  I am thinking of our congressional leaders and their acceptance of the ‘Patriot Act’ – I remember two of our congressmen stating that they did not read the Patriot Act prior to voting to approve it.  There was but a murmur of concern from we citizens (or from other elected officials).  The mantra, ‘Keep it simple, stupid!’ enables decision-makers from becoming bogged down in information – at times, crucial information (again, think: Patriot Act).

Consider, that there appears to be one coin with two sides.  Decision-makers combat their uncertainty by either acting on the basis of minimal information (‘Keep it simple, Stupid!’) or by gathering excessive information, which inhibits action and may increase uncertainty.  It appears that which of these patterns a decision-maker follows depends upon ‘TIME’ – having enough or not having enough.  The ‘Art of Decsion-Making’ involves discerning the ‘Golden Mean’ that exists between ‘Little Information’ and ‘Information Overload’ [Note: as a reminder, the ‘Golden Mean,’ a gift to us from Aristotle, does not mean the ‘middle’ or the ‘average’].


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Sadly, I am all too often asked to help a designated ‘decision-maker’ explore his or her ‘decision-making ability.’  Some of these folks are quick to make decisions – ‘I trust my intuition!’ is a common refrain delivered by these folks.  Some wait and wait and wait until they believe they have ‘all’ (or ‘nearly all’) of the information and then they decide.  Still others, wait and wait and wait as they gather more and more information and the ‘decision’ seems never to be made.

Why might more information actually ham-string a decision-maker?  Hamlet might help us uncover one reason (gentle reader, you might remember that my undergraduate degree is in English Literature and that Shakespeare is one of my favorite folks).  Hamlet says to us in Act III, Scene One:

And thus the native hue of resolution
Is sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought,
And enterprises of great pith and moment
With this regard their currents turn away,
And lose the name of action.

Consider, gentle reader, that folks (including decision-makers) who have a great deal of information, who think a lot, and who, by thinking a lot, increase his or her understanding of a situation will have NOT LESS but MORE difficulty coming to a clear decision.

Consider that to the ‘ignorant,’ the world looks simple.  Generally, if we pretty much dispense with gathering information, we find it easy to form a clear picture of reality and come to clear decisions based on that picture.  As our Governor recently noted: terrorists are Syrians so I will, in order to keep the residents of our state safe, ban all Syrian refugees from relocating in our state.

If we know nothing – or little – at all about something, we can easily form a simple picture of it and function on that basis.  Once we gather a little information, however, we run into a bit of bother.  For one thing – perhaps for the one big thing – we begin to realize how much we still don’t know, and for a number of reasons we find that we have a desire to learn more (or we take the position of not wanting to think about it).  As we gather more information we become more acutely aware of how little we know.

As we gather more and more information (think: As we learn more and more about Syrians and Syrian Refugees and Terrorists) our conviction that we ‘know’ (that we have formed a clear and accurate picture) gradually gives way to doubt and uncertainty (Are orphaned, Syrian refugee children truly ‘terrorists-in-waiting’?).

[To be continued…]

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Today, a year ago, my youngest brother, Thomas, died suddenly.  As I continue to grieve his death and loss and as I continue to grieve the death and loss my oldest brother, Ernest, a week ago today (5-15-16), I spend quiet time reflecting, remembering, recalling and recounting lives lived, lives lost and lives still living.  Yesterday two poems emerged into my consciousness.  Here they are in the order that they emerged.  Perhaps, gentle reader, one or both will speak to you today – or perhaps on some tomorrow-day.


When you sense you are lost,
When you begin to tear up,
When you want to cry out in anguish,
When you seem all alone,
When you turn this way and that and only sense darkness,
Give in, surrender,
Hold onto yourself,
Reach in to ‘your’ self,
Feel fully being lost,
Allow your tears to flow freely,
Scream out your cries of anguish,
Rage that you are all alone,
Know that darkness truly surrounds you.

Feel, cry, scream, rage, and know you are alone and the darkness is real.
Feel, cry, scream, rage, and know you are alone.
Feel cry, scream, and rage.
Feel, cry and scream.
Feel and cry.

After a time, not kronos but kairos,
Close your eyes breathe slowly and deeply.
You will notice that your tears will slowly subside,
You will notice that your cries of anguish will diminish,
You will notice that you will feel a nudge of comfort,
You will notice amidst the darkness little specks of light.

You have deeply connected with ‘your’ self, the self that is always with you.
Now it is time to connect beyond ‘your’ self,
Reach out – go ahead, you know how.       –Richard W Smith 31 January, 2010


I will not die an unlived life.
I will not live in fear
of falling or catching fire.
I choose to inhabit my days,
to allow my living to open me,
to make me less afraid,
more accessible,
to loosen my heart
until it becomes a wing,
a torch, a promise.
I choose to risk my significance;
to live so that which came to me as seed
goes to the next as blossom
and that which came to me as blossom,
goes on as fruit.                       –Dawna Markova

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