Aspirational Ethics and the Second Chair. It’s Less About Codification Than About Inspiration

Aspirational Ethics and the Second Chair

When we give public presentations on Corruption, Ethics, or Leadership we often begin with some version of a moral hypothetical. The exercise turns out exactly the same no matter the group.

A father takes his only child into the state school board building where she will be tested to determine if she qualifies for a very special gifted student program. Admittance is competitive and only truly gifted students will be admitted. As he approaches the test administrators, he is surprised to see his best friend. He is apparently the chair of the selection committee. His friend greets him very warmly and tells him not to worry, his daughter will get into the program. Both men understand the implication.

Most people will say that it is wrong for the administrator to treat his friend’s daughter differently from other applicants. In many groups, there will be some who feel so strongly that it is wrong that they speak out without prompting. Yet even those who speak out will hesitate to call it “evil.”

Morals are the basic internal principles that inform and govern a person’s view of right and wrong, good and evil. Although morals are almost a universal force, they can be diverse in their application and definition–almost as diverse as individuals are from one another. This diversity is illustrated as we add to our hypothetical.

The facts added do not change the action itself, but they do change the moral context by emphasizing a competing virtue.

What if the administrator and his friend were not merely lifelong friends, but they fought together in the war, side-by-side, depending on one another for their life? What if the father had actually, and rather dramatically, saved the administrator’s life? What if the father had been wounded in his heroic effort? What if the wound had left him unable to father another child? What if he was left a paraplegic, forever reliant on a wheelchair for his mobility? As we proceed with each, “what if,” more and more people begin to rethink their opinion. Often, the ones who felt so strongly about the wrongness of the administrator’s actions will be among the first to change their view.

As each group looks around the room at what they thought was a homogenous group, they begin to realize that questions of right and wrong, good and evil, even in their very own analysis, sometimes take real thought to resolve. Sometimes the questions involve good and good, right and right. Which is more important, equality or loyalty? In the abstract, this question is challenging, but it can become quite difficult if it is a question one faces in their own life. Which is the greater good, fairness in testing and equality of school programs, or loyalty and honoring life-changing sacrifice? We have discovered that individual resolution of this issue sometimes turns on the person’s life experience. For example, a veteran of combat often sees the question differently than does a president of the PTA. When the person is both a combat veteran and the president of the PTA, the question becomes intense.

Let’s turn from the question of morals to the question of ethics. If we were to ask 100 ethicists what the definition of ethics is, we may well receive 147 different answers. For our purposes, we will use the working definition that “ethics are one’s discretionary behavior in relation to morals.” Some ethicists use the term ethics to mean the rules crafted by others to be applied to someone else’s moral conduct. We will refer to the creation of someone else’s rules as the “codification of ethics.” We will define codification as simply, “the creation of an organized set of rules that if violated have a negative consequence to the violator.”

Although intended to improve the moral climate, the codification of ethics tends to decrease ethical choices. We will briefly discuss five reasons why ethical choices decrease when ethics are codified.

First is the concept of legal moralism. If the conduct is not prohibited in the code of ethics, then, by definition, it is permitted conduct. In other words, license is given to engage in conduct not specifically prohibited by the code. This is not to say that codification of ethics results in absolute legal moralism to every person in every circumstance. The question of whether the conduct is right or wrong, good or evil, for some, can simply be set aside. The rules themselves determine the right and wrong of behavior. Discretion can become irrelevant. This results in less ethical behavior. To avoid this result, continuing codification is required until all conduct that is perceived as bad is prohibited. The code must be exhaustive–a nearly impossible task.

Second, because violation of the code results in negative consequences, whenever the code is applied to an individual, that individual resists its application. The person must say, “I did not do it,” or “That rule does not apply to me,” or “You are reading the code incorrectly,” or a multitude of variations on this theme. Any individual to whom the code applies, now or in the future, naturally and even subconsciously resists the code. Because the individual resists the application of the code, the rules lose their ability to affect the person’s choices in relation to morals positively. Codification may result in nearly universal resistance by those who are governed.

Third, when negative consequences are threatened, a lawyer – an expert dedicated to exploiting ambiguities in the law and its application to specific facts – is invited to participate in the ensuing battle. Yes, it will be a battle, because almost no one willingly submits to his behavior being characterized as bad, or as wrong and certainly not as evil. The lawyer’s job is to defend her client, not to promote generalized ethical behavior. The lawyer will find the ambiguities in the code being applied, as well as ambiguities in the underlying facts. In time, often a very short time, the code becomes diluted, its benefits reduced.

This dilution takes us to a fourth problem of codification. Like legal moralism, dilution requires additions to the code – more codification. Dilution requires a codification that is tighter in its application and more exhaustive, which in turn will require more lawyers, and round and round and round we go.

Fifth, codification does not promote good behavior. At its best, codification can only limit bad behavior.

As a result of these and other effects, codification by its nature results in less ethical behavior. This is a significant idea and bears repeating: rules that take away discretion, choices, about moral behavior result in less ethical behavior because ethics is about discretionary behavior in relation to morals–it is about choices.

Despite the problems with the codification of ethics, no one is advocating that we do away with it. Codification of ethics will always be a part of our modern world.

In 1100 AD there were about 50 million people inhabiting our planet. In the 1820s we reached our first billion. In the 1920s, 100 years later, we reached our second billion. In January of 2013 we reached 7 billion. In 2013, there were also 206 nationstates in the world. Each country represents a somewhat, if not a radically different set of laws, rules, and principles people apply when governing their lives, grounded in numerous cultural, religious, ethnic, and racial perspectives of right and wrong, good and evil. Twenty-eight percent of the world is Christian, twenty-two percent Muslim, fifteen percent Hindu, eight and half percent Buddhists, fourteen percent are found in the “other religions” category, and twelve percent are categorized as nonreligious. Under each general heading there is a vast number of denominations or sects. For example, there are over 1500 different Christian sects or faith groups. And even within a group espousing the same morals, individuals apply them differently to real life circumstances.

Advances in technology are bringing the earth’s seven billion diverse inhabitants into contact with each other more and more frequently. We bump into each other, over and over again. The innumerable interactions mean people will witness more behavior that is wrong or evil. Therefore, there will be a growing cry, “There ought to be a law!”

This continuing call for codification of ethics–local, national or international–happens in many contexts: corporate, governmental, or across a profession or industry. This is the reality when so many people have such easy access to one another.

However, as discussed, codification alone will not result in more good behavior. We cannot expect that codification will increase good behavior nor can we choose simply not to codify. Nevertheless, we cannot abandon our desire to increase good behavior. Nor can we abandon our confidence that, given the opportunity, most people will exercise their discretion, their choices in relation to morals, positively. This brings us to the Second Chair.

Tom Robinson was a black man accused of raping and beating a white woman in “Jim Crow” Alabama in the 1930’s.

To put it mildly, due process and trial by a jury of one’s peers were not the popular approach to resolve such issues in the rural South at that time. There were 4,742 lynchings in America from 1882 to 1964. Alabama accounted for 347 of these and the South at large over 3,130. Rape, attempted rape, and insult to a white person accounted for 1,285, about 27 percent of these lynchings. A black man accused of one of these crimes could reasonably expect to die without due process of law.

Tom Robinson was not destined for trial. He was jailed and charged. The local judge asked the best-liked, most respected lawyer in Maycomb County to represent Tom in this lost cause – Atticus Finch. You know the rest of the story. Harper Lee’s novel To Kill a Mockingbird won a Pulitzer Prize. It was made into a movie and Gregory Peck won the Academy Award for his portrayal of Atticus Finch. In 2003 the American Film Institute named Atticus Finch the number one hero in 100 years of film, ahead of Indiana Jones and James Bond. But what you do not know is that an examination of this story, and thousands of others, illustrates well the principle of the Second Chair.

Harper Lee wrote To Kill a Mockingbird in 1960, just as the modern civil rights movement really began to heat up. She used Atticus’s young daughter, Scout, as the voice to teach us.

It was a Sunday night and word came to Atticus that the locals were going to the jail to administer justice. Atticus went to the jail, set up a chair and a small living room lamp he’d brought with him and sat outside the jail reading and waiting. Unbeknownst to Atticus, his son, Jem, Scout, and their friend Dill had followed him and were hiding behind a bush, watching.

Soon local justice arrived in the form of cars filled with angry and determined southern white men. Scout didn’t recognize any of them. The men got out of their cars and told Atticus to leave. The moment got tense. Scout and the boys busted out from hiding and ran to Atticus. Scout was surprised at the fear that flashed across Atticus’s face at seeing the children. Scout did not understand what was happening as she looked again at the crowd for a familiar face. Harsh words were spoken telling Atticus to send the children home. Jem refused to go, sensing the danger to Atticus.

Finally, Scout recognized someone in the crowd. It was Walter Cunningham, a client of Atticus. She said, “Hey, Mr. Cunningham.” He pretended not to hear her.

She began a solo, innocent dialogue with him about his work with Atticus, about school, about his son Walter, and so on. Mr. Cunningham tried to ignore her and eventually she simply said, “Tell him hey for me, won’t you?” The scene remained tense and Scout was confused. She finally asked, “What’s the matter?”

Mr. Cunningham squatted down and took Scout by the shoulders and said, “I’ll tell him you said hey, little lady.” And then he stood and said, “Let’s go boys.” Tom Robinson would live, at least for that Sunday night.

In the 1950s Solomon E. Asch, of Swarthmore College, conducted an unusual psychology experiment. Although this experiment is the inspiration for what follows, we are not relying upon its purposes, findings, or applications. Rather, the experiment is merely the catalyst of thought to pursue our own applications.The participants in the experiment were informed that it was a visual perception experiment. It was not.

Six people are placed in chairs. Diagrams of lines are shown to them. On the left is shown a line of certain length. On the right are three lines of different lengths, one of which matches exactly the line on the left. The correct choice is clear and obvious.

The only person actually being tested is the person in the Fifth Chair; everyone else is a co-conspirator. When the test begins, chairs 1-4 and 6 purposely identify the wrong line as the correct match. If the correct answer is “B,” then they all say “A.” The Fifth Chair identifies the obviously correct line as the match. “It’s B.”

The co-conspirators, subtly at first, and then more directly, ridicule the Fifth Chair for choosing the “wrong” line. As the participants are shown set after set of lines, eventually, and often quite quickly, the Fifth Chair begins to give the wrong answer, the same as the co-conspirators, even though the correct answer is obvious.

Then the experiment changes. The person in the Second Chair begins to give the correct answer. Now, the Fifth Chair almost always gives the correct answer, too. With the voice of the Second Chair added, the Fifth Chair is not persuaded by the taunts of the others to join them in giving the wrong answer. The Fifth Chair gives what he knows is the correct answer. “It’s B.”

This experiment is the backdrop for what follows. Many people sit in the Fifth Chair. The truth of something seems obvious: this line is the same length as line “B.” But the multitude of voices saying, shouting, sometimes demanding, that the correct answer is “A” creates the environment in which the Fifth Chair finds it compelling to remain quiet or even agree with the demanding but wrong voices.

When the Second Chair steps up and says, “It’s B,” when the Second Chair communicates the truth about what the Fifth Chair sees, powerful things happen.

In our earlier retelling of the jail scene from To Kill a Mockingbird, Scout unknowingly occupies the Second Chair and Walter Cunningham the Fifth Chair. Harper Lee artfully illustrated the power of Scout’s innocent little voice helping Walter choose what, to Harper Lee, 1960 America, and us today, was the obvious— justice does not come by a vigilante rope in the dark of night. The mob around him was saying, “It’s A,” “Let’s lynch this man.” But Scout said to Walter, “It’s B,” and Walter’s burden of choice was lifted for a moment and he was able to act.

Let’s follow the story just a bit further. Tom Robinson goes on trial. Atticus presents evidence that to the reader, and to Atticus’s son, Jem, makes it absolutely clear that Tom Robinson could not have beaten the girl. Tom’s left arm had been permanently damaged beyond use when he was a boy. He was physically unable to strike her on the side of her body where the evidence indicated she was beaten. However, the girl’s father was left handed and known to have a very bad temper. Further, no medical evidence was introduced that showed the girl was ever raped.

Jem was elated until the verdict came. After several hours of deliberation the jury found Tom Robinson guilty. Jem was crushed at the obvious injustice. Atticus explained to the distraught Jem that a jury would usually take only a few minutes to convict Tom—a black man accused of raping a white woman. But this jury took hours.

“You might like to know that there was one fellow who took considerable wearing down—in the beginning he was rarin’ for an outright acquittal.” “Who?” Jem was astonished. Atticus’s eyes twinkled. “It’s not for me to say, but I’ll tell you this much. He was one of your Old Sarum friends…”

“One of the Cunninghams?” Jem yelped. “One of – I didn’t recognize any of ‘em…you’re jokin.” He looked at Atticus from the corners of his eyes.

“One of their connections. On a hunch, I didn’t strike him. Just on a hunch. Could’ve, but I didn’t.”

“Golly Moses,” Jem said reverently. “One minute they’re tryin’ to kill him and the next they’re tryin’ to turn him loose”…

Atticus said… “it took a thunderbolt plus another Cunningham to make one of them change his mind. If we’d had two of that crowd, we’d’ve had a hung jury.”

Jem said slowly, “you mean you actually put on the jury a man who wanted to kill you the night before? How could you take such a risk, Atticus, how could you?” (To Kill a Mockingbird, Grand Central Publishing, Hachette Book Group, Inc., April 2010 © 1960 Harper Lee, pages 297, 298.)

Scout, the unknowing Second Chair, speaks to Walter Cunningham, the unknowing Fifth Chair, “Hey Mr. Cunningham.” Within seconds Walter says, “Let’s go,” and other Fifth Chair Cunninghams are lastingly affected. One of them becomes a Fifth Chair himself in the jury room, “rarin’ for an acquittal.” If only he’d had a Second Chair! “If we’d had two of that crowd, we’d’ve had a hung jury.” A hung jury in 1930’s segregated, Jim Crow, Alabama with a black man accused of rape.

Let’s look at another Second Chair experience. It was August 28, 1963. Hundreds of thousands had gathered on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. facing the Lincoln Memorial. Fifteen speakers were scheduled to speak. The last speaker had been cautioned by his advisers, by the event organizer, and even by the Kennedy Administration, to be careful. It’s a big stage. Don’t cause problems. The speech he was to give was written by others. It was well-crafted and very persuasive. Yet compared to others he had given, it was a bit bland. He had some thoughts he wanted to share and was burdened by whether or not to share them despite the cautions. Toward the end of his prepared remarks, as he struggled whether or not to share these thoughts, a friend standing several rows behind him, Mahalia Jackson, the well-known singer, yelled out, “Tell them about the dream, Martin.”

Martin Luther King, Jr. quietly slid the prepared remarks to the side and calmly and carefully said, “I have a dream.” The rest is history. No other speaker, no other remarks are remembered from that day. The speech itself, the written text of which contains no reference to the dream, still echoes through time. King sat burdened in the Fifth Chair with close advisers and important people occupying the First Chair. He wants to tell it; he thinks it’s right; he thinks it will make a difference. They tell him he is wrong; don’t cause problems; stick to the written speech. Mahalia Jackson, sitting in the Second Chair, reaches out with just a few words and, for a moment only, lifts King’s Fifth Chair burden–tell them about the dream, Martin. Mahalia Jackson said to Martin Luther King, Jr., “It’s B.”

Another scene: it is 1804 and thirty-two men and a Shoshone woman drag themselves into a Nez Perce village at the western edge of the Bitterroot Mountains. The village feeds the nearly starved group. But so rich is the food that without exception they are sick and further weakened. With them they have hundreds of firearms, ammunition and powder. The Nez Perce are a small tribe in the midst of much stronger tribes.

A council of elders discusses what should be done. Strong voices speak to kill them and take their weapons. The weapons could very well change the balance of power among the tribes. Other voices speak to befriend them and nurse them to health. After all, men with such weapons are better friends than enemies and surely will trade for more weapons if befriended. The Council makes its decision: kill them while they are defenseless.

A woman lying in her deathbed within hearing of the Council rises with difficulty and joins the circle of elders. Her unexpected presence, her deathly appearance, and the legend of her life command the attention of the elders. Her name is Watkuweis which means, “Returned from a Far Country.” She had been kidnapped at 13 by a neighboring tribe and traded from tribe to tribe, in time being taken 1800 miles to the east. Her legend chronicles her deprivation and abuse. Eventually she is helped to escape by some white settlers in the Great Lakes area and given a few supplies. Miraculously and at great cost, she makes it back to her tribe. She now stands before the tribal Council and simply says, “Men like these were good to me, do them no hurt.” Watkuweis says to the Council, “It’s B” and the Council changes its decision.

Among those saved that day were Meriwether Lewis and William Clark. The Shoshone woman was Sacagawea. The Lewis and Clark expedition mapped, surveyed and explored 820,000 square miles of uncharted territory. The expedition was the tipping point for the United States’ expansion. But for the word of a dying woman, sitting in the Second Chair, saying to some on the Council sitting in the Fifth Chair, “It’s B,” the great and historically important contributions by Lewis and Clark would have ended abruptly on the western edge of the Bitterroot Mountains.

Jackie Robinson sat in the Fifth Chair. In fact, he was specifically selected and purposely placed in the Fifth Chair by Branch Rickey, general manager of the Brooklyn Dodgers. Because of his moral backbone, his controlled temper, and his athletic ability, Jackie was the perfect choice. Many times the First Chair piled on ridicule, racial epithets, and even death threats. Jackie felt alone. Once the manager of the Philadelphia Phillies, Ben Chapman, occupying the First Chair, verbally beat Jackie nearly to explosive anger while Jackie was at bat. He said things that today would be outrageous in public or private.

Jackie was at the point of breaking and almost walked over to Chapman to brain him with the bat. But one of Robinson’s teammates, Eddie Stanky, stepped out of the dugout, walked over to Chapman and said, in substance, “Stop it. You are wrong.” The comments had little effect on Chapman, but they had a powerful effect on Robinson. Robinson’s teammate sat in the Second Chair at a critical time for Jackie, who carried the burden of a terrible Fifth Chair dilemma: do I brain Chapman or do I hold my peace? Robinson’s teammate lifted that burden, for just a moment, and said to Jackie, “It’s B.”

Jackie was still in the Fifth Chair on another field in Cincinnati. Pee Wee Reese, also a teammate of Robinson, sat in the Second Chair. The people in the First Chair were family and friends of Pee Wee from across the Ohio River in Kentucky. As Jackie took the field, Pee Wee’s family began to throw verbal spears at Jackie, not too different from those of Ben Chapman. Pee Wee walked across the field to where Jackie stood and in the presence of all, his family included, simply put his arm around Jackie and began to talk. Once more, a teammate sat in the Second Chair and said to Jackie, “It’s B.”

But, that’s not the end of the story. In the stands were young nephews of Pee Wee. Unbeknownst to Pee Wee, they were also in the Fifth Chair. They did not believe the terrible things the adult family members were saying; they had a choice to make. Pee Wee, by simply putting his arm around Jackie, said loud and clear, “It’s B.” They chose not to participate in their elder’s efforts to intimidate Jackie.

We refer to these experiences as Aspirational Ethics and the Second Chair. Ethics are discretionary behaviors in relationship to morals. Ethics are about the choices we make in relation to how we see right and wrong, good and evil. Codification can limit bad behavior, but as discussed, more and more codification is required to be effective. Codification does not encourage good behavior and tends to result in less overall ethical behavior—fewer choices in relationship to right and wrong, good and evil.

The vast majority of people when asked, “Are you good?,” will hesitate to say, “Yes.” Nevertheless, when asked, “Do you want to be good?,” most say “Yes,” without much prodding. A “Yes” answer is even more forthcoming when asked, “Do you want to do good?” It is rare, indeed, for someone to actually aspire to be evil or to do evil.

Why? Why do most people readily declare that they want to do good? David, before he became king, before he slew Goliath, said to his brother, Eliab, “is there not a cause,” is there not a reason I am at this place, at this time?

Almost everyone feels deep inside themselves, purpose. Sometimes the feeling of purpose can get overshadowed by the moment or even by a lifetime of moments. But just like David of old—we have purpose, there is a cause, a reason for us being in the places we find ourselves, interacting with the people with whom we are interacting.

Sometimes, even very often, the reason is to sit in the Second Chair and say to the Fifth Chair, whose purpose is temporarily overshadowed by First Chair voices, “It’s B.” and when we do, just like a tuning fork resonates with the piano string, our Second Chair voice resonates with truth and purpose of the Fifth Chair and powerful things happen.

Aspirational Ethics and the Second Chair encourages awareness and choices in relationship to morals. It is always the Fifth Chair that has the power and carries the burden of decision. We all sit in the Fifth Chair at times. Unfortunately, we may sometimes sit in the First Chair and get it totally wrong. But we can aspire to sit in the Second Chair. We can actively look for those sitting in the Fifth Chair whose choices are burdened with the pounding voices of those sitting in the First Chair. Our aspiration does not require heroic labors; it may be as simple as a thumbs-up or a pat on the back. The Second Chair need only communicate to the Fifth Chair, you are seeing it right, “It’s B.”

While we often struggle with our own Fifth Chair choices, we can aspire to sit in the Second Chair every time the opportunity arises. Aspirational Ethics and the Second Chair is about the moment. History, individual history and collective history, is about critical moments. We never know when the moment will come or how critical the moment may be. Nevertheless, we can look for and be aware of those in the Fifth Chair. We can recognize the burden placed on them by the multitude of First Chair voices. We can lift that burden, even if it is only for a moment, and inspire the choice to do good by our reaffirming voice, “It’s B.” And, when we do, powerful things will happen!