Ethical Self Reflection

Custom Student Mr. Teacher ENG 1001-04 15 October 2016

Ethical Self Reflection


In many cases, a person must choose between two or more “rights” that may or may not align with both one’s moral and ethical standards. The care-based, rule-based, ends-based thinking to arrive at a decision rather than rationalizing after the fact are necessary for analyzing ethical dilemmas (Hughes, Ginnett, & Curphy, 2012, pp. 164-165). The self-reflection needed to identify one’s fundamental nature, and to understand the morals, ethics and values one uses to make decisions are critical to becoming an authentic leader who is a moral manager that serves the people that follow him or her (Hughes,, pp. 152-153).

Ethical Self Reflection

What is right? Morals define personal character related to the ideas of both right and wrong. Ethics, while inherently linked to morals and one’s moral obligations, is a set of moral principles used in a social system in which those morals are applied. In other words, ethics point to standards or codes of behavior expected by the group to which the individual belongs. These standards could be national ethics, social ethics, company ethics, professional ethics, or even family ethics. So while a person’s moral code is usually unchanging, the ethics he or she practices can be dependent on exogenous factors not controlled by the individual or the group to which the individual belongs. Care-based thinking describes what is commonly referred to as the Golden Rule, “Do unto others as you want others to do to you”, of conduct and is most closely aligned with Aristotle’s writings concerning happiness. Aristotle writes in Nichomachean Ethics that, “If happiness is activity in accordance with virtue, it is reasonable that it should be in accordance with the highest virtue; and this will be that of the best thing in us” (Aristotle, 1992, p. 7).

Thus the idea of ethics does not begin with the morals of either right or wrong, but starts with the premise that we all desire what is good or what seems so to us (Brennan, 1992, p. 64). Happiness, then, is to live in an objectively good way according to several virtues that conform to the best and most complete aspects of human activity including wisdom, knowledge, courage, self-control, magnanimity, and honorable ambition (Brennan, pp. 65-67). These virtues describe the character of a good person whose acts are ethically free, not compelled; voluntary and not forced. Unlike Aristotle’s character based ethics, Immanuel Kant proposes a rule-based thinking that actions of true moral worth are done when a person does the right thing because it is right and not for what benefit the person can get out of the act (Hughes,, p. 165).

This type of thinking largely negates the external factors that may influence a person’s inclination to wiegh the decision to act based on the greatest hapiness provided to thegreatest number of people. When one takes the results or consequences of an act into consideration moreso than the act’s rightness or wrongness, then the act can be said to be based on ends-based thinking (Hughes,, p. 165). This thinking is largely based on Utilitariansim proposed by JohnStuart Mill in 1863 who defines it as: The creed which accepts as the foundation of morals, Utility, or the Greatest Happiness Principle, holds that actions are right in proportion as they tend to promote happiness, wrong as they tend to produce the happiness. By happiness is intended plea sure, and the absence of pain; by unhappiness, pain, and the privation of pleasure (Mill, 1863, pp. 9-10).

Mill, however, did not propose that the ends of an action justified the means, for justice, to Mills, is paramount to the creation of good organizations and societies (Mill, pp. 42-43). The principle of ends-based thinking or utilitarianism requires that each person count for as much as the next, and that no single man or woman should be made to suffer injustice in order to increase the happiness of all the rest (Brennan, p. 98). Determining why we say what we are going to say; why we do what we are going to do; and why we feel what we feel in an ethical dilemma presupposes that moral choice is rational. However, “man is not a rational animal; he is a rationalizing animal…[and] one of the hardest things to believe is the abysmal depth of human stupidity” (Heinlein, 1953, p. 18). This Sartrean brand of existentialism is based on the idea that we act first, and then look around for reason afterward (Brennan, p. 122).

This rationalizing does not operate at the level of our own behavior alone. We, as social animals, are prone to adapt to the reality as others find it. We tend to conform, even if, when rationally examined, the reality of the group does not make sense. “To thine own self be true, and it must follow, as the night the day, thou canst not then be false to any man” (Shakespeare, Hamlet, Act I scene 3, 78-82). Shakespeare provides Polonius a voice that resonates clearly in present contexts the importance of being true with one’s morals and virtues. True, not in the Elizabethan sense of making certain you had your home and finances in order to allow you to better help others, but true in a sense of Plato’s maxim “Know Thyself”. Jean-Jacques Rousseau, whose name is strongly associated with the Enlightenment movement, believed that the knowledge of oneself is the beginning of wisdom (Brennan, J., p.75). Gaining this knowledge requires self-reflection. Reflection links changed awareness with changed action. Reflection is a valuable part of any worthwhile effort.

When one takes the time to thoughtfully reflect about an experience, one is given the opportunity to learn from it, to enjoy success, understand failures, and to gain insights that will be helpful to you in future activities The knowledge of self is essential to enable leaders and followers who aspire to lead to clarify their own values as they model the way for others to follow (Barry P., Kouzes J., 2012). However, lifting the cloud of the false personal perceptions we all build from the front of our observation lenses is no easy task. Our implicit prejudices, in-group favoritism, claims of imagined credit and misjudged conflicts of interest are the fuel to the clouds that provide us an over-inflated sense of self-importance (Hughes R.L., et al., 2012, pp. 161-163) Simple self-reflection or introspection is useful when we are trying to decide to make for dinner. During the 2012 Human Capital Institute (HCI) Learning and Leader Development Conference, BG (Ret) Thomas Kolditz said that, “You can’t become in 30 seconds what you haven’t been in 30 years” (Fakalata, 2012).

Whether a leader is in a corporate boardroom, watching the company’s price point per share fall so low that you need a special ticket into the New York Stock Exchange’s stinking underbelly to see how far it really sunk, or whether a leader is watching his ladder and hose crews battle an industrial chemical fire near a suburban Alabama community, the situations that test leadership are also the events that produce competent and selfless leaders driven by moral obligation and social conscience (Kolditz, 2007). Likewise, these same situations produce the corporate and local government villains that are ridiculed for their selfishness, incompetence, inattentiveness and greed. Motive provides one the reason for doing something and may be considered the “why” that inspires the “what” needs to be done (Covey, 2006, p. 78). Values are constructs representing generalized behaviors or states of affairs that are considered by the individual to be important (Hughes, Ginnett, & Curphy, 2012, p. 152).

With these definitions in mind, one may surmise that values – what is important to us – guide us to adopt motives that become visible to others through our behavior towards and with others to complete the “what” needs to be done. Loyalty to a leader is engendered when followers can place their full trust in leaders who are perceived as persons with high moral integrity (Wakin, 1976, p. 587). The moral obligations one has influences the values that drive us toward a certain set of motives that cause us to take action under varying circumstances. Leaders who are consistent with their behaviors with respect to their perceived moral obligations are viewed as having high moral integrity and worthy of trust. The ability of a person to lead a group is often dependent on the culture and the group’s beliefs in right and wrong – the ethical climate (Hughes, Ginnett, & Curphy, p. 155). For example, a person who values money, reducing expenses, realizing profits, and maximizing business opportunities is motivated by finance or financial wealth.

This person, leading a group that values devotion to duty, hard work, and respect for authority, may experience difficulty because the values are not shared and will seldom align to the tradition that motivates the group being led. The financial leader in a group of traditionalists may be viewed negatively because the obtaining financial success is considered the wrong “why” to do work that requires – from the groups perspective – duty, loyalty, hard work and respect. In any context where leadership is a critical component to success, moral absolutists whose values reflect strict adherence to a defined rule-based thought process may be viewed as uncompromising and hide-bound. Likewise, a pragmatist or a person that uses end-based thinking to justify actions may be viewed as one who uses any method to expediently achieve the organizations goals and objectives. In either case, the appellation of absolutist or pragmatist may be viewed as a pejorative depending on what values are shared by the followers and the organization.

However, neither moral archetype explanation is sufficient when dealing with human actions and the values that drive the motives behind these actions. Truth-telling, promise-keeping, preservation of life, respect for property may not be absolute moral obligations, but they are not relative either. Rather, as Hughes describes, the situation significantly influences both the priority of moral obligations and the leadership interaction between the leader and followers in a particular situation (Hughes, Ginnett, & Curphy, p. 26). In terms perhaps more easily understood, moral obligations like promise-keeping may be at odds, depending on the situation, with an equal universal obligation like preserving life. Neither obligation is absolute and neither is relative, however circumstances may arise when one must prioritize the obligation that shapes what one values and provides the motive to take action. Leadership is about getting results in a way that inspires trust (Covey, 2006, p. 40).

Trust of oneself, trust in the relationships we have with our constituents and the organization of which we are part. The means to accomplish a task and get the expected results are just as important as the ends. Leaders possessing a set of morals consistent with the ethics of a given society (organization) are better able to get results in a way that maintains or increases trust. The non-conformists and the dissidents who openly oppose dominant social attitudes and ideologies are not necessarily more correct or more rational. But we might take their criticism as an opportunity for honest self-reflection and examination of even our most dearly held views of ourselves and our society. Congruence with morals, values, motives and behavior results in what we might call integrity. There are no gaps between what the person believes and how they act, and therefore we can trust that actions are done in accordance with who the individual really is.

Aristotle. (1992, January 3). Nichomachean Ethics. The Internet Classics Archive, X. (D. C. Stevenson, Ed., & W. D. Ross, Trans.) Cambridge, MA, United States. Retrieved from Brennan, J. G. (1992). Foundations of Moral Obligation; The Stockdale Course. Newport, RI: Naval War College Press. Covey, S. (2006). The Speed of Trust: The One Thing That
Changes Everything. New York, NY: Free Press. Heinlein, R. A. (1953). Assignment in Eternity. NY, New York: Baen Publishing Enterprises. Hughes, R. L., Ginnett, R. C., & Curphy, G. J. (2012). Leadership: Enhancing the Lessons of Experience. New York, NY: McGraw-Hill Companies Inc. Mill, J. S. (1863). Utilitarianism. London, England: Parker, Son and Bourne. Retrieved from Wakin, M. M. (1976). The Ethics of Leadership. American Behavioral Scientist (Pre-1986), 19(5), 567-588. Retrieved from


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