Moral Courage: Taking Action When Your Values are Put to the Testby Rushworth M. Kidder
Why did a group of teenagers watch a friend die instead of putting their own reputations at risk? Why did a top White House official decide to come clean and accept a prison sentence during Watergate? Why did a finance executive turn down millions out of respect for her employer? Why are some willing to risk their futures to uphold principles? What gives us the
Why did a group of teenagers watch a friend die instead of putting their own reputations at risk? Why did a top White House official decide to come clean and accept a prison sentence during Watergate? Why did a finance executive turn down millions out of respect for her employer? Why are some willing to risk their futures to uphold principles? What gives us the strength to stand up for what we believe?
As these questions suggest, the topic of moral courage is front and center in today's culture. Enron, Arthur Andersen, the U.S. Olympic Committee, abusive priests, cheating students, domestic violence all these remind us that taking ethical stands should be a higher priority in our culture. Why, when people discern wrongdoing, are they sometimes unready, unable, or unwilling to act?
In a book rich with examples, Rushworth Kidder reveals that moral courage is the bridge between talking ethics and doing ethics. Defining it as a readiness to endure danger for the sake of principle, he explains that the courage to act is found at the intersection of three elements: action based on core values, awareness of the risks, and a willingness to endure necessary hardship. By exploring how moral courage spurs us to strive for core values, he demonstrates the benefits of ethical action to the individual and to society and the severe consequences that can result from remaining morally dormant.
Moral Courage puts indispensable concepts and tools into our hands, equipping us to respond to the increasingly complicated moral challenges we face at work, at home, and in our communities. It enables us to make clear, confident decisions by exploring some litmus-test questions:
- Is the benefit worth the risk?
- Am I motivated by my desire to uphold my beliefs or just to impose them on others?
- Will my actions create collateral damage among those with no stake in the outcome?
While physical courage may no longer be a necessary survival skill or an essential rite of passage out of childhood, few would dispute the growing need for moral courage as the true gauge of maturity. Treating this subject not as an esoteric branch of philosophy but as a practical necessity for modern life, Kidder deftly leads us to a clear understanding of what moral courage is, what it does, and how to get it.
At the intersection of action based on core values, awareness of the risks, and a willingness to endure necessary hardship is the difficult yet vital concept of moral courage. According to Rushworth Kidder, the founder of the Institute for Global Ethics, moral courage is a practical necessity for modern life. Kidder writes that moral courage is the bridge between talking ethics and doing ethics, and can be defined as the readiness to endure danger for the sake of principle. In Moral Courage, Kidder provides the tools and stories that can help anyone make clear, confident decisions when faced with complicated moral challenges at work, at home and in the community.
While people may have terrific values and develop great skill at moral reasoning and ethical decision making, such mental activity means very little if their decisions go unimplemented. Moral Courage examines the ways that many people have found to complete the third step in the process: to have the moral courage to put those decisions into action and live a moral and ethical life.
Standing Up for Values
In the first chapter of Moral Courage, Kidder explains that standing up for values is the defining feature of moral courage. Citing many examples from recent memory, including the U.S. soldiers who abused Iraqi prisoners at Abu Ghraib prison, the CEO of Italian food giant Parmalat who kept quiet as financial malfeasance proliferated, and Olympic athletes who succumbed to steroids, Kidder points out that in moments of moral consequence, these people failed to act with integrity because they lacked the moral courage "that lifts values from the theoretical to the practical and carries us beyond ethical reasoning into principled action." Without moral courage, even the best virtues grow weak from inactivity. With moral courage, Kidder writes, a more ethical world is slowly constructed.
Why should moral courage matter so much? One reason that Kidder describes is because we see a lack of it in many corporate settings and legal proceedings; in politics, sports and entertainment; as well as in personal and social relationships. But the deeper reason is that if moral courage is indeed one of the core virtues of humanity, we need to find ways to express, support and teach it.
Kidder writes that there are seven checkpoints along the path to promoting moral courage in ourselves and for others. These are:
- Assess the situation. Do I think it calls for courage?
- Scan for values. Can I spot values and build on them?
- Stand for conscience. What principles need to be articulated and defended in this situation?
- Contemplate the dangers. Do I have a clear picture of the risks I'm facing?
- Endure the hardship. If I take this stand, will the hardship make me give up, or will I be able to persist?
- Avoid the pitfalls. Can I stand firm against timidity and foolhardiness — the inhibitors of moral courage?
- Develop moral courage. How can moral courage be nurtured, taught, practiced and attained?
Each chapter in Moral Courage addresses one of these checkpoints, and provides a "Moral Courage Checklist" at its conclusion to help readers examine the elements of each step to developing the courage it takes to stand up for their values.
In a chapter called "Practicing Moral Courage in the Public Square," Kidder points out that moral courage typically unfolds in our private, interior life rather than "across the consolidated consciousness of a community." But if we look beneath the daily headlines, we can see the presence or absence of moral courage in public settings. Citing examples from real life, Kidder shows what that courage — and its absence — looks like from many angles. He points to Juan Guillermo Ocampo as an example of a man who has worked for years to turn thousands of Columbian teenagers from guns to violins with classical music programs that teach them to become role models instead of killers.
He also describes how Senate majority leader Trent Lott found himself on the wrong side of moral courage when his apology for off-the-cuff remarks that were apparently pro-segregationist made matters worse. Kidder writes that Lott left his leadership post in disgrace shortly afterward, "reminding us that a failure of moral courage can be a career-ending move."
Why We Like This Book
Moral Courage presents so many examples of those who have made tough moral choices in a wide range of situations that it offers more than a simple primer on what living by ones values looks like. By describing the challenges that have been overcome by those who choose to live and lead by their own values rather than taking the easiest path, Kidder unfolds a detailed road map to changing the world, one moral step at a time. Copyright © 2005 Soundview Executive Book Summaries
- HarperCollins Publishers
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Read an Excerpt
Standing Up for Principle
You gain strength, courage, and confidence by every experience in which you really stop to look fear in the face. You are able to say, "I lived through this horror. I can take the next thing that comes along." ... You must do the thing you think you cannot do.
-- Eleanor Roosevelt
Like most private schools, St. Paul's School for Boys posts athletic schedules on its Web site. In the spring of 2001, it listed baseball games, tennis matches, and crew events on its leafy campus in suburban Baltimore. But not lacrosse. Not that spring. Despite being ranked number one in a nationwide lacrosse poll earlier in the year, this prestigious 151-year-old institution canceled its entire varsity season on April 3.
The reason? Earlier in the spring, a sixteen-year-old member of the lacrosse team had a sexual encounter with a fifteen-year-old girl from another private school -- and, without her knowledge, videotaped the whole thing. He was apparently mimicking a sequence in American Pie (a movie some of the students had recently seen) in which a character broadcasts a live sexual encounter on the Web. When his teammates gathered at another player's home to look at what they thought would be game tapes of an upcoming rival, they saw his video instead.
None of the teammates objected. Nobody tried to stop the showing. Instead, they watched.
What happened next is a tale of moral courage -- a lack of it among teammates who failed to stand up against the video, and the expression of it by an administration that took a formidable public stand. Their debate was a wrenching one. At St. Paul's, lacrosse has a sixty-year history. It garners solid alumni support, which translates into funding. And it attracts some of the best young players in the region -- so many that St. Paul's runs the risk of being seen, as one administrator put it, as "a 'jocks rule' type of school." But its students are still required to attend chapel. As an institution affiliated with the Episcopal Church, it retains a serious tradition of ethical concern. And it seeks to be a private community dedicated to serious education in a very public world.
What do you do when a popular sport crosses swords with an ethical collapse? In this case, the answer was clear. The headmaster, Robert W. Hallett, stepped in immediately, asking not only (as some who were there recall), "What happened to our school?" but more particularly, "What happened to this young woman?" The boy who made the video was expelled. Thirty varsity players were suspended for three days and sent to counseling with the school's chaplain and psychologist. Eight junior varsity players were made to sit out the rest of the season. And the varsity season was terminated.
"At a minimum," Hallett wrote to parents," we should expect each boy here will, in the future, have the courage to stand up for, to quote the Lower School prayer, 'The hard right against the easy wrong.' "
He might well have been speaking for his own administration. Choosing the "right" was, in fact, hard. It meant disappointing parents, students, alumni, and national lacrosse fans. It meant facing a spectrum of criticism that ran all the way from "You made a mountain out of a molehill!" to "You let them off too easily!" It put at risk an array of crucial relationships with donors and friends, religious affiliates, advisers and counselors recommending the school to potential enrollees, and the entire Baltimore community. It set in motion a pattern of events that might have either plunged the offending students into deep reflection and self-improvement or pushed them out of the educational arena altogether. And it brought the young woman, who remains anonymous, into the center of a national story over an incident she wanted to put behind her.
Moral courage doesn't always produce an immediate benefit. In this case, however, it did. The student at the center of the controversy later graduated from a local public school. The young woman moved out of state and continued her education. Both appear to have landed on their feet. Hallett, who moved on to an executive position outside education, was swamped with letters praising his stand, which he kept, and requests for interviews on national television, which he turned down. And in the months following the decision, St. Paul's found that requests for admissions materials actually increased, and that a smattering of financial gifts arrived from new donors far beyond the Baltimore community who wanted to express their gratitude.
Standing up for values is the defining feature of moral courage. But having values is different from living by values -- as the twenty-first century is rapidly learning. The U.S. soldiers who abused Iraqi prisoners at Abu Ghraib prison, the CEO of Italian food giant Parmalat who kept quiet as financial malfeasance proliferated, the Olympic athletes who succumbed to steroids, the American president who deceived the world about his sexual escapades -- these were not horned and forktailed devils utterly devoid of values. Yet in moments of moral consequence they failed to act with integrity. Why? Because they lacked the moral courage that lifts values from the theoretical to the practical and carries us beyond ethical reasoning into principled action. In the defining moments of our lives -- whether as a student watching a videotape or a president facing a nation -- values count for little without the willingness to put them into practice.Without moral courage, our brightest virtues rust from lack of use. With it, we build piece by piece a more ethical world.Moral Courage. Copyright © by Rushworth Kidder. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.
Meet the Author
Rushworth M. Kidder was a professor of English at Wichita State University for ten years before becoming an award-winning columnist and editor at the Christian Science Monitor. The author of ten books on subjects ranging from international ethics to the global future, he won the 1980 Explicator Literary Foundation Award for his book on the poetry of E.E. cummings. He and his wife, Elizabeth, live in Lincolnville, Maine.
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