Home » Ethics for People on the Move: Catharyn Baird at TEDxMileHigh (Transcript)

Ethics for People on the Move: Catharyn Baird at TEDxMileHigh (Transcript)

Catharyn Baird – TRANSCRIPT

I’d like to welcome you to a conversation about ethics for people on the move. When I tell folks that I have spent my entire life teaching and studying ethics, they look at me and go, “Wow!” And then they say things like, “I learned everything I needed by kindergarten.” Or “What my parents taught me, it’s good enough.” Or “I just know the right thing to do.”

And then my personal favorite, “Some people are good, some people are bad, and that’s all we need to know about ethics.” Really? Now, I don’t know about you, but when I became an adult and started to go to work, now three careers later, I still don’t always know the right thing to do in a difficult situation. I don’t know how to forgive without condoning the action.

How to hold a friend accountable and still have a friend? How to put together an ethical bid or a request for proposal? How to meet the expectations of Wall Street and Main Street? How to speak up in the face of hatred or just plain meanness? Or perhaps most importantly, how to recognize my own ethical blind spots? If you’re like me, still looking for the answers to life’s persistent questions, welcome to a conversation about ethics for people on the move. Whether you’re moving through your interior landscape, this wonderful world of ours, or you’re a mover and a shaker in your professional world, your ethics, how you translate your values into action, define how far you will go and how satisfied you will be with the journey.

None of us will ever really agree on which specific action counts for the most ethical in a given situation. But just because we don’t agree, it does not mean that we have a license to lie, cheat, or steal. Or more importantly, it does not give us a pass, so that we don’t have to engage the conversation.

So let’s start with a very basic question: who are you? We spend a lot of our time honing professional excellence on our job, our volunteer work, even parenting has become a competitive sport. But I’m not asking you what you do. We spend lots of money and energy collecting stuff: degrees from the best university, a honed body, the perfect Facebook page, a beautifully manicured lawn. But I’m not asking you what you have; your degrees, your title, your stuff, I’m asking you, “Who are you?” It turns out that our identity is shaped by our ethics, what we do every day.

While values are universal, each one of us in this room has a particularly unique fingerprint, as we decide which values are going to take priority in our particular life. And then we make choices. We choose what we’re going to see, how we’re going to interpret it, the story we tell about ourselves and others, and then what we’re going to do. Our ethical self is shaped every day by the myriads of choices that we make, choices that we don’t think of as being ethical, but which contribute to what philosophers call ‘our character.’

So as Joan Rivers used to say, “Let’s talk!” If you want to become friends with your ethical self, where do you start? It turns out there are three strategies for making friends with that self.

The first, pay attention. Not just to what is going on around you but what is inside of you. What do you care about? What are you passions? What triggers your worst ethical self to come out as opposed to your best? Be mindful. And then have conversations with yourself and with others. Not about the latest football score, or who tweeted whom, but about the things that matter. How are you showing up in the world? What about your community would you like to change? How do you begin to be your best self? And then we get to choose, to choose wisely.

This is where lots of us get stuck because we have all these options, we don’t quite know what is right, and so we don’t do anything. And then rather than take responsibility for our own life, we blame everybody else for what is going on. So as we learn to choose wisely, that is when the conversation begins. So we start with our ethical self, our good self, our core values, our commitments, our gifts to the community. These are really pretty straight ahead.

The more difficult conversation is our shadow side. Where can I be tempted? Where do I fall off the ethical rails? Where do I not show up in the way that I want to show up? It turns out philosophers who have looked at this for a really long time tell us that there are two primary places we can look in order to see and become friends with our least ethical self. The first is to see our relationship between our head and our heart, our cool rationality, our warm passions. As long as our head and our heart are in sync, we have a grand time. But when they fall out of sync, we feel ethical tension.

If I believe somebody has slighted me, do I seek justice in retribution? Or do I show mercy? If my whole world is falling apart, do I decide that I’m going to use my rational self and hold people accountable? Or maybe am I going to be gentle and smooth the waters, and preserve relationships? The first kind of ethical tension. Then we have us and the rest of the world. Each of you has a moral compass, a guide to let you know every day how you are supposed to be. The communities in which you live and work also have expectations for how they expect you to show up if you’re going to be a member in good standing. Again, as long as they are in sync, life is wonderful.

But when they fall out of sync, again, ethical tension. If I believe that I should be able to say anything to anybody I want – about women, men, race, gender, transgender – and the community thinks there are just some things I should keep to myself, who wins? If I believe I should carry my gun any place I go, and members of the community think there really should be some gun-safe places, who wins? That is where we make our ethical decisions.

I was taught growing up if you figure out the core principles, and you think about it hard, you will come up with answers that everybody will agree with. Then I started practicing and trying and discovered that we have lots of different answers; because nobody told me the big secret: it depends. It depends on what you see, how you value things, and then it depends on how skilled you are at exercising what is called prudential judgment.

So this conversation is not new. It has been going on for some 5,000 years. In our particular tradition, we begin back with the Jewish philosophers and ethicists, the Ten Commandments, we are all familiar with those Jewish law and ethics got interpreted through Greek philosophy: Aristotle, Plato, Euripides, the Stoics. Then Saint Paul, and Augustine, and Aquinas translated all of that into Christian theology and understandings.

Then we moved into the Modern world with an emphasis on science and reason, and you and I now live in what is called the Post-modern world, a world where a personal narrative and individual choice gets to make the difference. As you can imagine, over 5,000 years, the philosophers talked a lot about how to live a good life, and have some opinions about that.

Well, actually they have four different opinions on what constitutes a good life. The first comes from a group of philosophers who say, in deontology, “duties are right” “If individuals use their head to figure out the principles of their life, they will know what to do.” “No,” others say, “what you need to do is to search your heart, to find the desires that are important to you. Then you will know how to live” “No,” another set says, “no, no, no. The individuals, as members of their community, use their reason looking around in their community to see where justice is. Where do we need to make sure that everyone is cared for?”

And the fourth school of thought said, “Virtue ethics is a gift. Members of the community searching their heart, get to see what counts as excellence, as we live in to our roles.” Well, what the person has to do? We have four different theories, four different ways of approaching. It turns out that all of them are right and all of them are wrong. And what you and I get to do is to figure out how to bring the best of these four theories into our own lives. What we also know, because we had more than 300,000 people take a little test, is that each one of you in this room has a particular theory you really like, or maybe a blend of two.

And that theory has both a good side and a shadow side. So we become ethically mature on our path, the key is to learn to ask good questions, questions that are framed by each of these theories. The first set of questions asked is to seek the truth. What do you really want? What are you trying to accomplish? Why am I making this choice? What is my motivation? What do I really want and need in order to be happy? By the way, it turns out to be a lot less than we think. How do I use my resources and power fairly? And then, what kind of character do I want to develop? So by asking these questions as we face difficult decisions, we can begin to seek the truth.

But that is only the first part. Next, we have to learn to care for others as we seek that which is good. Again, our philosopher friends give us some questions to ask. How can I treat others as they want to be treated, not the way I want to treat them? How do I treat others with respect, so they too get to choose a path of life in meaning? How do I care for those with no power, without resources, so they have opportunities for choice? And then the scary one: for whom am I a role model? Who is looking at me to see the best way to live? Well, we’ve now sought truth and goodness, and as we become ethically mature, we learn how to harmonize our values and to live with integrity. Scientists have a work for those who take very complex ideas and move them into easily understandable thoughts. It is called excellence.

So as we become ethically mature, we are able to live into ethical excellence harmonizing skillfully truth and goodness to create a life of beauty. So our philosophers give us a word of advice: be honest and responsible, even if nobody is watching. Be respectful of others as you seek the common good. Be fair in all that you do. And finally, be compassionate as you align your actions with your core values.

Now we have a path forward, now we have a better answer than “I just know what to do.” As we combine truth and goodness, we can craft a path forward. So I invite each of you to use your personal telescope, discover the values and principles that are important to you.

Looking through your personal microscope, take a look at your world, your context, your passions, your desires, as you decide how you are going to live your life. But don’t forget you are a member of the community, and make sure that you look around and see how you can support justice and fairness in all that you do. And then take a selfie. As you chose which roles you are going to embrace, make sure that you live into ethical excellence as defined by yourself and others. So now we have a way that we can move forward and make very difficult decisions, exercising prudential judgment.

Just as no two snowflakes are alike, as we heard from our first speaker, none of us will ever agree on which actions count for ethical excellence. But just like everyone else, if we asked the good questions, if we persistently seek truth, and justice, and goodness, as we live our lives, we will in fact see a path forward. Asking those questions will not give you easy answers, but if you are persistent and determined, you will find that become friends with your ethical self, your ethical self becomes stronger and in fact becomes a wonderful companion for you, as you’re a person on the move in the company of others. Sounds like fun to me. Thank you.