Moral Courage in a World of Dilemmas

Ethical decisions grow from a process that promotes rational discourse against emotional tensions by Rushworth M. Kidder and Patricia L. Born

Like many public and private schools, St. Paul’s School posts its athletic schedules on its website. If you had clicked on it last spring, you would have found a list of baseball games, tennis matches and crew events from its campus in suburban Baltimore.


But not lacrosse. Despite being ranked No. 1 in a nationwide lacrosse poll of high school teams earlier in the year, the school canceled its entire varsity season on April 3. That day, school head Robert W. Hallett met for 20 minutes with a group of parents and with the varsity team—many of whose members had been drawn to the school because of its reputation as a lacrosse powerhouse—to announce the cancellation of further play.

The reason? Earlier in the spring, a 16-year-old team member had a sexual tryst with a 15-year-old girl and, without her knowledge, videotaped the whole thing. He was apparently mimicking a sequence in American Pie (a movie some students had recently seen and discussed) where a character tapes a sexual encounter and puts it on the Web. When this student’s teammates gathered at a player’s home to look at what they thought would be game tapes of an upcoming rival, they saw his tape instead.

None of the teammates objected. Nobody tried to stop the showing. Instead, they watched.

Crossing Swords

You can imagine the soul-searching among the staff leading up to the school leader’s stunning announcement. Lacrosse, a game played on a soccer-like field with a small ball hurled from long sticks with nets, has a strong following among many schools and colleges, especially in the Northeast. At St. Paul’s, it has a 60-year history and considerable parental support. But the school, affiliated with the Episcopal Church, still requires chapel for its students and retains a serious tradition of ethical concern.

What do you do when a popular sport crosses swords with an ethical collapse?

In this case, as reported in The Boston Globe, the boy who made the tape was expelled. Thirty varsity players were suspended for three days and sent into counseling with the school’s chaplain and psychologist. And eight junior varsity players were made to sit out the rest of the season. It was not an easy decision.

As a school system leader, you understand that tough decisions like these will face you from time to time. When such dilemmas hit—often without warning, on an otherwise normal day—you need to demonstrate moral authority and wise decision making. You probably also sense that this sort of ethical decision making, more than simply intuitive, grows out of a process that applies structure in the midst of pressure and promotes rational discourse in the face of emotional tensions.

That process, we’ve found, is most successful if it includes four attributes:

• It is rooted in core, shared values.

• It centers on right-versus-right dilemmas rather than on right-versus-wrong temptations.

• It provides clear, compelling resolution principles.

• It is infused with moral courage.

Shared Values

Sound ethical decision making starts with being in touch with your own, as well as the community’s, core ethical values. Indeed, many of these values are reflected in professional standards established for school administrators.

In its list of 10 commitments to the public, the AASA Statement of Ethics, adopted in 1981, identifies key values, including honesty, integrity, due process, responsibility, civil and human rights, and honor. According to the statement, an “administrator acknowledges that the schools belong to the public they serve for the purpose of providing educational opportunities to all …” This responsibility, it continues, “requires the administrator to maintain standards of exemplary professional conduct. It must be recognized that the administrator’s actions will be viewed and appraised by the community, professional associates, and students.”

Values such as these are not unique to educators nor even to Americans. They are consistent with research findings from around the world. The Institute for Global Ethics has been studying the question of shared values for a decade. In the early 1990s, individuals such as Nobel laureate Oscar Arias of Costa Rica and John Gardner, founder of Common Cause, joined us in a series of interviews with moral exemplars from 16 different countries.

This work identified eight key values—love, truth, fairness, freedom, unity, tolerance, responsibility and respect—that were widely seen as essential in the 21st century. And from a series of surveys conducted between 1996 and 2001, we found that, over and over, respondents gravitate toward five of these values: truth, respect, responsibility, fairness and compassion. In hundreds of workshops around the United States and overseas, we also have found empirically that people with different interests and backgrounds select these same five values as central to their sense of a moral future.

What is the importance of identifying such a list? First, they help us understand there is a bedrock of shared values that transcends our own time and place. While some in our communities fear our culture has lost moral footing in recent years, and while others fear further erosion in the future, there is a clear comfort in knowing these values have a timeless and lasting quality.

Second, these values provide a much-needed glue within a society of great racial and ethnic diversity. Our research suggests these five values are held in common by individuals who otherwise may be very different—giving us a baseline for building toward greater harmony and stronger programs in conflict resolution.

Third, these values are held in common despite deep religious differences. We find, for example, that individuals who claim to have no religion at all identify exactly the same core moral values as those who tell us they are deeply religious.

These findings make it clear that a question intended to stifle all discussions of values in schools—“Whose values will you teach?”—raises a false fear. The answer is “Our values—the ones we can discover by asking our community what values are most important.” The fact is that you don’t need to impose values on anyone because you can find the core values already in place.

Commenting on the importance of values, Barry Z. Posner and Warren H. Schmidt, in an article titled “An Updated Look at the Values and Expectations of Federal Government Executives” in the January/February 1994 issue of Public Administration Review, note that “because they are at the core of people’s personality, values influence the choices they make, the people they trust, the appeals they respond to, and the way they invest their time and energy. In turbulent times, values give a sense of direction amid conflicting views and demands.”

Because these values are held in common, they provide a solid starting point for making ethical decisions. They also are important to identifying goals, defining objectives, creating a plan of implementation and evaluating results along the way. We must ask, “Is this goal/plan/result consistent with our stated values?” Even when we may disagree as individuals—on, for example, the busing of minority children to other school districts—we probably can agree on the value of equal opportunity as a cornerstone to quality education.

Ethical Dilemmas

Once we understand and explore the positive values that drive our behavior, then we can more easily understand the two great drivers of ethical issues. One kind of ethical issue arises because of right versus wrong, where a core value (like honesty) is violated by dishonest behavior. The other kind arises because of right versus right, where two values on our core list come into conflict.

While right-versus-wrong issues are common—and very important within the school context—the really tough decisions typically arise because both sides of a dilemma are rooted in values and, in many respects, are right. These dilemmas are markedly different from choices of the right-versus-wrong sort. For example, if one option in a decision is identified as being “right” and another as being “wrong,” we find that most people would choose to do what is right.

To be sure, there often is a moral temptation to do the wrong thing—“No one will know if I do not pay taxes on this under-the-table income, so I can save myself quite a bit.” The decision to select an option that one clearly knows is wrong reflects not on one’s ability to make decisions, but on one’s lack of ethical clarity and moral courage.

Right-versus-right dilemmas, on the other hand, involve situations where there is a clear moral backing for each option but where the two are mutually exclusive. At the Institute for Global Ethics, we have identified four types, or paradigms, of right-versus-right dilemmas:

truth vs. loyalty, where issues of personal honesty or integrity come in conflict with responsibility, allegiance and promise-keeping;

individual vs. community, in which the interests of the individual are lined up against those of a larger entity;

short-term vs. long-term, where the real and important concerns of the present are pitted against foresight and investment for the future;

justice vs. mercy, in which fairness and an equal application of the rules appear to be at odds with the demands of empathy and compassion.

Applying our analytical process to these common situations (see related story), we can see how these four paradigms help us understand the nature of these dilemmas. We also can see more clearly how the moral arguments will line up on each side. Finally, we can distinguish the really tough right-versus-right dilemmas from the right-versus-wrong issues of compliance: If only one side of the dilemma lends itself to a powerful moral argument, while the other has little ethical merit, we’re dealing with right-versus-wrong and should act accordingly.

Resolving Two Rights

But understanding that right-versus-right ethical dilemmas are difficult to resolve or that they may be analyzed in an organized manner isn’t enough. A resolution process is critically important, lest the “paralysis by analysis” syndrome sets in.

Over the years, in watching how real people resolve real dilemmas, we’ve noticed they gravitate toward three decision principles. We call them ends-based, rule-based and care-based. These principles derive from the major strands of moral philosophy that, in turn, derive from everyday experience.

Ends-based thinking, concerned with the results of a decision, is a utilitarian approach commonly described through the phrase, “the greatest good for the greatest number.” It seeks to know what will happen because of our decision. For the utilitarian, the consequences of the decision determine its moral rightness: If things turn out well, you made the right decision.

Rule-based thinking, by contrast, seeks to identify and apply the rule that, if obeyed, would make the world the kind of place we all want to live in. It differs from ends-based thinking by denying the possibility that the result or consequence of any decision can in fact be known—or evenly properly estimated. What’s “right” for the rule-based thinker is what can be universalized to apply everywhere, across the board. How the situation turned out is of little interest: What matters is the fundamental precept that underlies the decision.

Care-based thinking derives from the concept of the Golden Rule: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. By putting yourself in the other person’s position, you are encouraged to take their perspective into account. It is a principle of reciprocity, best seen by imagining a reversal of roles with others around you.

Real Application

How do these three decision principles work in practice? Our opening story—a right-versus-right dilemma pitting justice against mercy—shows how the principles might be applied as the school leader needs to make his decision:

If we apply the ends-based principle, we need to ask: What is the greatest good for the greatest number? Is it to punish the boys, perhaps jeopardizing the lacrosse season and disappointing fans of all ages? Or is it to go easy, perhaps postponing punishment, even if that might signal some weakness to the boys about the unacceptability of their behavior?

Pushing this thinking further, we might ask, “What do I think will happen if I make this decision?” Here, we can see that the headmaster apparently believed that letting the boys off the hook would be the greatest injustice. He seems to have felt that to do so would send students the message that ethical behavior is not important.

Using the rule-based principle, what would the school leader do? Here we need a universal standard that leaders in a similar position should follow. Is it, “Always let the team continue its season, regardless of the consequences and complaints?” Or is it, “Always mete out punishment appropriate to the wrong, regardless of the consequences?” Clearly, the latter principle rings truest, no matter how hard it may be to apply.

Finally, consider the care-based principle. If the head of the school puts himself in the position of others, what will he do? Most importantly, who are the others we need to be concerned with in this story? The victim who was videotaped unwittingly? The boys themselves, who drifted along with the showing of the video? Other students, parents, alumni, faculty?

The boys themselves would surely want him to go easy, as would many of the students. “OK,” they might say, “we know it was wrong. We won’t do it again. But please let us play lacrosse anyway.” Parents and alumni, while more tempered in their thinking, also may want to avoid ruining the entire lacrosse season. But what about the 15-year-old victim? Doesn’t she count? And what about other young girls like her?

Through all these deliberations, one more question needs to arise: Is there a third way out of this dilemma? Is there some action the headmaster might take that would honor both justice and mercy? Could he punish the boys in some meaningful way and yet still allow for the game to go on? While not every dilemma offers this “trilemma option,” the search for such a solution is always worthwhile.

In this case, the headmaster took strong, swift action to show the behavior engaged in by the students would not be tolerated. He was clear in his own mind that his values and the traditions of St. Paul’s would advise him to take the high, though difficult, road. “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.’”

Moral Courage

But this story is not only about sorting out a tough right-versus-right dilemma. It also is a story about moral courage—both the lack of it among teammates who failed to object to the video and the expression of it by an administration that took a public stand on an issue that in other schools might have slid past with perfunctory penalties. Without moral courage, the headmaster would not have taken the actions he did. With it, the team members themselves could have prevented the entire incident.

What exactly is moral courage? Our research suggests the following preliminary observations:

Moral courage differs from physical courage. Physical courage is the willingness to face serious risk to life or limb instead of fleeing from difficult encounters. “Courage,” says our 1926 Webster’s, is “that quality of mind which enables one to encounter danger and difficulties with firmness, or without fear, or fainting of heart.” Or, as John Wayne put it with characteristic bluntness: “Courage is being scared to death—and saddling up anyway.”

Physical courage is less in demand than it once was. Where once the frontier loomed mysterious and uncharted, global positioning satellites now take us right to our mark. And where once beasts, bugs, underbrush, storms and topographical obstacles made travel dangerous, there is less now to fear—and less need for physical courage. Even war, which Aristotle thought was the only place to find true courage, has become less dependent on the physical courage of the individual warrior and more dependent on technology, information and weaponry launched from a safe distance.

The lessons of courage are still needed. This is especially so among youth seeking tests of adulthood and rites of passage into maturity. At its best, this need may explain the popularity of the contrived risk-taking of extreme sports and some high-risk financial ventures—and, at its worst, the prevalence of risky sexual behavior, drug use and gang activity. It’s as though the successor generations are saying, “If nature, war and survival are not going to test my courage, I’ll find other ways, for I need to prove to myself and others that I really am courageous!”

Moral courage is not about facing physical challenges that could harm the body. It’s about facing mental challenges that could harm one’s reputation, emotional well-being, self-esteem or other characteristics. These challenges, as the term implies, are deeply connected with our moral sense—our core moral values. Pass the white light of moral courage through the prism of our understanding of values, and it breaks out into a five-banded spectrum: the courage to be honest, to be fair, to be respectful, to be responsible and to be compassionate. If “values” is in some way synonymous with “convictions,” then moral courage is (as it’s often characterized) “the courage of your convictions” in these five key areas.

But must every evidence of courage be thought of as true moral courage? Here Aristotle’s conceptions help. He defined moral virtue as an “intermediate” between a defect and an excess. Courage, he said, lies balanced between the defect of cowardice and the excess of rashness. Put another way, one can think of courage as flanked by two alternatives: its opposite, the cowering timidity that dares not act, and its counterfeit, the bravura and foolhardiness that looks a bit like courage but isn’t.

Like the five core values, however, courage is built by practice and repetition. Think of it as a habit, or a muscle, that gets strengthened by use. “You gain strength, courage and confidence by every experience in which you really stop to look fear in the face,” wrote Eleanor Roosevelt. “You are able to say to yourself, ‘I lived through this horror. I can take the next thing that comes along.’ The danger lies in refusing to face the fear, in not daring to come to grips with it. If you fail anywhere along the line it will take away your confidence. You must make yourself succeed every time. You must do the thing you think you cannot do.”

Piece by Piece

The belief that moral courage can be promoted, encouraged and taught through precept, example and practice explains the actions of the educators at St. Paul’s. They already had a precept—“the hard right against the easy wrong”—to use as a reference point for testing the actions of the team. They must have known the value of examples, known that a Hollywood movie can poison budding moral sensibilities and that in the absence of a strong ethical antidote the poison can do permanent damage.

As for practice, that was essential. They were building, over time, a tradition of moral education just as they were building a reputation for lacrosse. Yes, they sacrificed the short-term glory of a sterling athletic season and the enthusiastic support it could bring. But the long-term risk of educational hypocrisy—talking up values without walking down the road to integrity—would have been far more damaging.

In the annals of moral courage, this is a small story. It’s not about a whistleblower, an investigative journalist, or a researcher finding an unpopular truth. But its very smallness is telling. Moral courage plays itself out daily, hourly, in the interstices of our lives. Without it, our brightest virtues rust from lack of use. With it, we build piece by piece a more ethical world.

Rushworth Kidder is president of the Institute for Global Ethics, P.O. Box 563, Camden, ME 04843. E-mail: ethics@globalethics.org. He is the author of How Good People Make Tough Choices. Patricia Born is senior director, education and training at the Institute for Global Ethics.