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Partners and Senior Advisors use the firm's blog to write on current ethics and leadership topics.

What About Moral Courage ?

When former Arizona Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords recently received the John F. Kennedy Profile in Courage Award, she said, “We all have courage inside.  I wish there was more courage in Congress.”  The behavior of the members of Congress in the past several years has reached a new low on a variety of fronts, including a lack of anything close to moral courage.  The 2011 Gallup Poll on the ethics and honesty of various professions found that “Congress and lobbyists are the most disparaged professions Gallup has ever tested.”  In 1978, Waylon Jennings and Willie Nelson had the number one hit on the country music charts … Mammas Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to be Cowboys.  Perhaps the 2013 version might substitute “Congresspersons” for “Cowboys.” 

Rushworth M. Kidder in his book Moral Courage tells us that moral courage has three common threads:  “a commitment to moral principles, an awareness of the danger involved in supporting those principles, and a willing endurance of that danger.”  Moral courage is about something more than a simple cost/benefit analysis.  It is grounded in moral principles but is fraught with danger requiring the endurance to face into, to tolerate, and to survive “the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune” in the name of doing what is right.  John Wayne said that “courage is being scared to death … and saddling up anyway.”  Fear, like the guillotine, focuses the mind.  Moral courage uses that focus to apply moral principles to difficult decision-making and then to live with the consequences when it would be much easier and safer and more comfortable not to saddle up. 

How do we know when we meet someone who has the capacity for moral courage … and how do we know if we have it?  I think moral courage is a companion of integrity, that virtue that is often considered the first among virtues.  If we have integrity and can recognize it in others then perhaps everything else about character is details.  Stephen L. Carter in his book titled Integrity reminds us that the word integrity “comes from the same Latin root as integer and historically has been understood to carry much the same sense, the sense of wholeness: a person of integrity, like a whole number, is a whole person, a person somehow undivided.” 

For Carter, integrity requires three steps: “discerning what is right and wrong; acting on what you have discerned, even at personal cost; and saying openly that you are acting on your understanding of right from wrong.”  Kidder and Carter have much in common because I think moral courage and integrity are siblings.     


Posted in Ethics
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