Navigating the Grey Area

Navigating grey area

As I write, the opinion/editorial pages of American newspapers are debating the ethics of General David Petraeus, given his extra-marital affair and his subsequent resignation as Director of the CIA. Some editors/national columnists argue that since other public figures have engaged in similar activities and didn’t resign (e.g., Bill Clinton, Edward Kennedy), why should Petraeus have resigned? (Thomas, 2012). Others argue that while engaging in an extra-marital affair is certainly of grave concern to his wife and family, should it be a matter for national attention, especially given other grave national and international concerns (The Sacramento Bee, 2012)?  Some, with tongue-in-cheek, query whether there should be a guidebook which outlines separate guidelines for retention or dismissal, depending on the offender’s military or civilian status (Thomas, 2012).

Generally one does not look to the U.S. press for counsel on ethics or morality, but in this situation, they raise an interesting question. Is it possible that what is considered to be ethical behaviour depends on who is acting unethically? Are those in power exempt from the demands of ethics which rest on the general populace? Is what is unacceptable for the common man permitted by those who occupy positions of power, of leadership, of top management?

I am, of course, discussing the concept of casuistry, which Blaise Pascal argued against in his Provincial Letters (1656-57).  For Pascal, the immediate problem centred on the Jesuits’ permitting wealthy Church donors to confess their sins one day, re-commit the sin the next day, and generously donate again the third day, thus avoiding punishment, while the poor penitent received severe punishment for committing the same sin. We see this concept at work when a manager lies about plans to close a plant because to tell the truth might result in bad publicity, with workers leaving immediately rather than waiting for the plant to close and thus continue making profits for the company, blissfully unaware of the impending closure. Yet for most people, telling lies is seen as unethical behaviour.  Does being a leader permit one to operate under a different set of standards than one’s followers?

Peter Drucker, a well-known and revered management thinker, would argue no. In his article ‘What is “Business Ethics?”’, Drucker called such reasoning “the ethics of social responsibility” (Drucker, 1981, p. 22), but clearly stated that it is not business ethics. The “ethics of social responsibility” permits the business leader to justify actions which would clearly be unethical for anyone else under the name of “doing the best for the organization.” Rather, for Drucker, “There is only one code of ethics, that of individual behaviour, for prince and pauper, for rich and poor, for the mighty and the meek alike. Ethics, in the Judaeo-Christian tradition, is the affirmation that all men and women are alike creatures–whether the Creator be called God, Nature, or Society.”  (Drucker, 1981, p. 20.)

Drucker preferred ethics as outlined in the Confucian concepts of interdependence to the “ethics of social responsibility.”  Under these concepts, there are five basic relationships of mutual dependence (superior and subordinate; father and child; husband and wife; oldest brother and sibling; friend and friend). In these relationships, optimization of benefits to both parties is paramount.  To break out of this mutual dependence is to move into unethical behaviour. The pressure to disregard interdependence may come from the lust for power or because of exploitation or manipulation (Drucker, 1981, p.30). For the Confucians (and for Drucker), the ethics of interdependence is ethics for individuals; it is a matter of the person. Confucius put it this way: “Do not impose on others what you do not wish for yourself.” (Freedman, 2002).  Jesus said: “Do unto others as you would have do unto you.” (Matthew 7:12).

Bowen McCoy was a successful Wall Street investment banker when he took a sabbatical for the purpose of climbing to the summit of one of Nepal’s highest ranges. McCoy’s attempts to climb to the summit in the past had yielded only altitude sickness. As a result, McCoy had had to retreat to the village at base camp while others went on to reach the summit.

This time the climb was going well because McCoy was not experiencing altitude sickness and the weather was cooperating. On the day he expected to reach the summit, he and his companion, along with their Sherpas and parties from other countries, were proceeding well during that small window of opportunity that they had before the sun melted the steps they had carved in the ice located in the narrow passageways to the summit. Anticipation for finally reaching their goal had all of the climbing parties excited.

But before reaching the carved steps, they encountered a religious pilgrim, a sadhu, who was not dressed appropriately, who had collapsed in the snow and was suffering from altitude sickness. To be certain that the pilgrim would survive, someone would have to carry him back down to the village below their base camp. To do so would mean that they could not make the climb because of the loss of daylight and proper conditions for the ascent. So, each person and climbing party offered some help. One group offered additional clothing. Another group offered food. Still another waited to be sure that the sadhu was revived enough so that hand-eye coordination was restored. The final group pointed down the mountainside to the base camp and the village below, as if offering directions to the sadhu on how to proceed. Then they all moved on in their climb and all reached their goal of the summit.

Only after the climb did McCoy’s companion confront him with the reality of what they had done. Stephen, McCoy’s partner, noted that they all perhaps contributed to the death of another human being. Although they can never know whether the sadhu lived or died, McCoy and Stephen were left with a hollow feeling of “our goal accomplished, but at what cost?” That hollow feeling prompted McCoy to write about his experience and publish it in the Harvard Business Review. As a result, it has become the classic question for leaders and followers alike. What makes an action, a decision, an ethical one?

From the above illustrations we may draw the following principles:
First, Christianity gives us a clear definition of what are the most fundamental of relationships, for Jesus taught us that God is the Father of all, and mankind are brothers and sisters. The Bible gives us universal rules of conduct, especially in the Ten Commandments. The Bible also forces us to consider our actions and our behaviours, rather than applauding us for good intentions. But not every action appears in Scripture. What then? What about those grey areas which seem so complicated?

We know we cannot hide behind the “ethics of social responsibility;” we cannot use the reasoning of those who practice casuistry; we cannot change our values (in McCoy’s case, respect for life) because we are in a different setting (i.e., on a gruelling mountain climb), even if others are willing to go on despite ethical dilemmas. We cannot let the group decide for us. We must remember that ultimate accountability lies with individuals. We must demand of ourselves the clarity that Jesus illustrated when He spoke the Golden Rule and avoid behaviours we would not respect in others. Peter Drucker gives us some good counsel for these times of uncertainty. After reminding us that relationships should be harmonious, constructive and mutually beneficial, he suggests that we “practice behaviour appropriate to the sort of person they would want to see ‘in the mirror in the morning.’” (Drucker, 1982, p. 36).

Finally, in later discussions of his experience with the sadhu, McCoy cautioned against defining ethical dilemmas in the either/or conundrum (either I let the sadhu go and make the climb, or I help him and again miss my goal). Such definitions often produce choices that disregard ethics and values. McCoy acknowledged that his most memorable experiences were not in achieving the summit but rather those moments he spent in the village at base camp when he had altitude sickness and the rest of his party went on. The immersion in culture, the weddings experienced, and the kindness of the villagers were the true rich experiences of his climbs, not the conquest of the summit. Facing ethical dilemmas with an open view to possibilities, keeping in mind that the God who is the Creator can create solutions for us in our daily lives, will help us be the ethical leaders we all aspire to be.


Anonymous (2012. From The Sacramento Bee. Reprinted in the Herald-Palladium, vol. 127, number 321, p. A4. November 16, 2012.

Drucker, Peter F. (1981). “What is ‘business ethics’?” The Public Interest, #63 (spring), pp. 18-36.

Freedman, Russell (2002). Confucius: The Golden Rule. New York:  Arthur A. Levine Books.

Jennings, Marianne M. The Seven Signs of Ethical Collapse. 2006. New York: St. Martins Press.

McCoy, Bowen H. “The Parable of the Sadhu.” Reprinted in Harvard Business Review on Corporate Ethics, 2003, pp. 165-181.

Thomas, Cal (2012). “Sex and the city of Washington.” Reprinted in the Herald-Palladium, vol. 127, number 321, p. A4.  November 16, 2012.

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