“Why choose to be good every day, if there is no guaranteed reward we can count on, now or in the afterlife? I argue that we choose to be good because of our bonds with other people and our innate desire to treat them with dignity. Simply put, we are not in this alone.”
– Chidi Anagonye, ‘The Good Place’ 2×12
I’ve been working on the next piece in my series regarding power differentials in the workplace. I wanted to write something more positive, more proactive, that talks about steps we can all take to fight imbalances. And yet, I keep getting stuck. It’s not that I don’t have ideas about what can be done. I probably have too many. It’s not that sometimes I think the best solution might just be dismantling the entire system, although that’s also true.
The problem, I’m discovering, is ethics.
Because I don’t think we can talk about disrupting systems and how to improve them without acknowledging the fact that we all have a moral choice to make.
Eleanor: “Oh, so now I’m supposed to be nice and make friends and treat her with mutual respect?”
Eleanor: “That’s exactly what she wants me to do, Chidi, wake up!”
Chidi: “That’s what everyone wants everyone to do.”
– ‘The Good Place’ 1×3
**At this point, I should make a disclaimer that I have a tendency to use morals and ethics somewhat interchangeably. By definition, in way oversimplified terms, ethics are supposed to be more driven by an external source, and morals by an internal. I’ve found articles online where the authors argue that we shouldn’t even use either term in the workplace, because people can get stuck on the word instead of focus on the discussion.
But I think this highlights part of the issue of not discussing these ideas at work. If we’re so scared of an individual word that we have to tapdance around it, we’re not really talking about it.
Personally, my ethics and morals are so interconnected and interlinked, that for me, talking about one is talking about both. This may not be the case for everyone.
There’s also the tendency in our culture to conflate morality with religion. I’m personally agnostic, so have never had an issue with understanding morality to be a separate entity. I still believe in being a good person, regardless. But I know there are those who struggle deeply with the idea that someone would do good things or try to behave with kindness towards others without the influence of religion.
Anyway, my point is I’m going to talk about being ethical, and moral, and I’m doing it without any religious affiliation.
Eleanor: “All those ethics lessons paid off. Whoever said philosophy was stupid?”
Chidi: “You did, many times, as recently as this morning.”
– ‘The Good Place’ 2×11
Shortly after I became a manager, I had to attend a number of required trainings. One of these was Ethics. Although some of the trainings so far had been tedious (I’m looking at you Contracts), I was looking forward to Ethics. I was managing in an office that worked in social services, I’d witnessed many ethically gray behaviors in my previous time as an employee, and I wanted to get advice from an expert on how to approach ethical quandaries as a supervisor.
The class was a complete waste of time. It was such a basic, preliminary discussion of ethics, including the oft-overused “people are icebergs, and much is hidden” metaphor. My main thought leaving the class was that if the organization thought I needed this level of education on ethics, they should never have hired me to be a manager in the first place.
But then it wasn’t actually about the ethics, was it? Realistically, who can cover a topic so deep and complicated in one half-day training. And like all trainings, there was no follow up, no mentoring, no debriefing. It was another check on a list, so if I ever got in trouble, the agency could dust off its hands, and shrug. “She took Ethics”, they’d say. “She knew what she did was wrong.”
I don’t think my experience was unusual. I don’t think many companies or agencies have regular talks about ethics. I don’t think most employees get any support in dealing with ethical quandaries. I definitely don’t think executives put ethics first in their decision making. I think that’s a problem.
“Ha! How do you like them ethics? I just ethics’d you in the face, Chidi!”
– Eleanor Shellstrop, ‘The Good Place’ 1×7
One of my favorite TV shows of the moment is The Good Place. For those who haven’t seen it, essentially it’s about four people navigating the afterlife. There’s many twists and turns, and I don’t want to spoil anything, but one of my reasons for loving the show so much is that there’s a lot of discussion about what it is to be a good person. There’s no religious component, no faith is determined to be right or wrong, it’s all based on individual behaviors and actions.
What is especially refreshing is seeing people talk about what it means to be good. What it means to have principles and adhere to them in the most challenging of times. What it means to sometimes compromise those principles for something bigger than yourself. And above all, how we will all fail, over and over again, and yet have the opportunity to decide to try again anyway.
And the amazing thing about seeing these discussions play out via a sitcom is that it shows how we shouldn’t be scared to talk about these things. That there’s nothing to be defensive about. That all of us are continuously learning and none of us have all the answers.
That no matter where we are, at home or at work, what we do and the choices we make have impacts.
Eleanor: “But everything I do blows up in my face…”
Michael: “…Come on, you know how this works. You fail and then you try something else. You fail again, and again, and you fail a thousand times, and you keep trying, because maybe the 1001st idea might work.”
– ‘The Good Place’ 4×2
So what do these rambling thoughts on ethics have to do with inequities of power?
I still plan to write a post about what we can do as individuals to work against inequitable systems. There’s always something we can do, however small.
But the first step is a conscious moral choice. A choice about what you believe and what you feel is worth fighting for.
Here’s the thing. I can’t determine what the right ethical choice is for you. I have beliefs. I believe that we have an ethical responsibility to stand up for the oppressed. That those of us with privilege have a moral obligation to acknowledge our advantages, and use them to lift up those who are marginalized. I believe that we should speak up even if it makes others uncomfortable. I believe that we should fight back against racist and sexist and other oppressive systems, including in our own businesses and workplaces and even families.
Yet all of us come from different backgrounds and different experiences. All of us are in different stages of our journey. In such an overwhelming and challenging world, I can’t fault someone who wants to care for themselves first. I can’t judge someone who needs to check out for a time. I can’t blame someone who has suffered from these systems from deciding they’ve had enough.
However, as a caution, just remember that if you’re thinking you don’t need to make a choice, you’ve already made one. There is no neutrality when it comes to human dignity.
But the very best part about being a human, about choosing to be a good person, to care for others, to live up to your inner code, and value doing the right thing?
It’s never too late to start.
“…But I think we have one move left: We can try.”
– Eleanor Shellstrop, ‘The Good Place’ 3×4
“I mean, what do you have to lose by treating people with kindness and respect?”
– Chidi Anagonye, ‘The Good Place’ 4×2