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Ethics Debated on Maine's Seashore - 2002-10-05

The concept of ethical behavior is one that many people have a hard time grasping. Ethics often seems unrelated to our daily lives an unnecessary complication to the distinction between right and wrong. But in the aftermath of last year's terror attacks and the imploding economy marked by the scandals at Enron and WorldCom, many Americans are talking seriously about ethics.

Tourists crowd the docks along Camden's blue-green harbor and wave to those aboard expensive yachts off-shore.

A few yards from the water's edge at the top of these stairs 16 strangers from as far away as California and Alaska have come together in a conference room. They are corporate CEO's, consultants, academics, non-profit managers and members of government, here to discuss the role of ethics in their professional lives. "I'm Tony Wilhoit. I'm director of the legislative ethics commission in Kentucky. And, frankly, one of the reason I'm here is by law I'm required to teach ethics courses every year to legislators and lobbyists and the legislators are required to take those courses, though the lobbyists are not."

Chris McGoff, the head of a company in Washington DC, says it's mainly ethical issues closer to home that have spurred his interest. "I think the reason I was excited to come here is that I'm also am privileged to be raising children right now that are getting older and I just felt a need to see what you're up against and to see what's here," he said.

What's here is the Institute for Global Ethics, a not-for-profit organization founded in this New England town in 1990. Since then, the Institute has trained an estimated 15,000 business leaders, military officers, journalists and others in what co-founder Rushworth Kidder calls "ethical fitness." Mr. Kidder, now the Institute's President, says there's never been an easier time to engage Americans in questions about ethics. "Following September 11 ordinary Americans were found walking around the streets of this country asking some of the most profound moral and metaphysical questions that humanity can put together," he said. "Who am I? What's the meaning of life? Right about the time we'd gotten accustomed to thinking that way, Enron hit."

Though the financial misdeeds of the Enron executives form the backdrop to this seminar, Rushworth Kidder says that the terrorist attacks of September 11, the abuse scandals involving Catholic priests, and the high-level fraud committed at Worldcom and the accounting firm Arthur Anderson have ALL contributed to a sense of shattered mutual responsibility. The first step toward rebuilding trust in the nation, insuring fairness and honestly in their work, and maintaining integrity in their liveshe says is to establish ethical fitness. "The idea that ethics isn't an inoculation," he said. "It's a process. so that when the big ethical dilemma hits you're ready."

Rushworth Kidder suggest three models as possible resolutions to difficult ethical crises. John Stuart Mill's principle of utilitarianism the idea of the greatest good for the greatest number; Emmanuel Kant's notion of standing steadfast by principle regardless of consequences; and the Golden Rule: do onto others as you would have them do unto you.

With that the 16 participants break into four groups to test these principles on ethical dilemmas that they had personally faced.

In this group, Tony Wilhoit, a former judge in Kentucky, talks about his difficulty in deciding to free a man charged with drunk driving. Sitting across from him is Paula Shively, a business executive from Indiana. Not long ago, her daughter and husband were run-over by a drunk driver. The group members consider what they would do about a man who depended on his truck driving license to feed his family versus concerns about what might happen if he is allowed to drive again? The debate within the group represents a clash of core values.

In this case, mercy versus justice. The next day, all of the participants reassemble in the conference room to discuss outcomes. Judge Wilhoit shares with them what happened in the case of the drunk driver. As it turns out, he had allowed the defendant to keep his license as long as he received professional help during a probationary period. Mr. Wilhoit resolved his ethical dilemma by choosing Mercy and Justice. It's the kind of ethical examination that the seminar leaders expect the participants to take with them back to their jobs and businesses… and lives.

Chris McGoffthe, Washington DC based CEO and a father of six, says he will leave the ethics seminar and return to his family stronger than when he arrived. "I have a real thirst right now for more fitness in this ethical conversation and I want that to result in moral courage," said Chris McGoffthe. "I want when my boy says, 'hey dad I cheated on this exam and its really bothering me' I want to have the moral courage to go into that conversation and really tell him what I think is right and wrong and what I stand for. And I don't want to blink. And it's easy to blink and I don't think we have the option to blink anymore."