I have some reservations in discussing ethics, as I have found it a highly problematic area to discuss in the field of ‘doing good’. I have found people to have strong views at times about what is ethical; views that sometimes stifle open exploration. At other times, I have observed people become defensive when raising the topic of ethics, as if by raising an issue I am making an assumption that they are unethical.
Ethics strikes at the core of what we determine to be good, fair and right. My sense is that deep down, most people strive to be good and fair, and therefore an explicit exploration of ethics brings to the surface peoples intentions and also holds a mirror up to their actions. Sometimes there can be a disconnect between intention and actions. I don’t mean this in a judgemental sense; I too have had numerous occasions where the gaps between my intentions and actions have been highlighted in dilemmas I have faced. I have felt first hand that deep regret and disappointment that comes when I have realised that I have at times acted in ways that are not in accordance with my deeper intentions for doing good*.
Exploring ethics takes courage, humility and a whole lots of forgiveness. It takes courage because we need to be prepared to stay present in what are sometimes difficult situations. When difficulties arise, people have varying ways of responding – flight being one of them. To be courageous can often mean to be vulnerable. The part of us that wants to self-protect needs to become conscious and stay open and stay present.
Exploring ethics requires humility. It means at times we need to admit that we don’t know the answer, we don’t know the right way or we don’t have all the information. Again, this takes courage. Perhaps most significantly, it also means that sometimes we need to be prepared to admit when we made a decision or took an action that was perhaps not the best action to take. This is difficult enough to do, but even more challenging when one is operating within a system or culture that does not encourage the admitting of mistakes.
Forgiveness seems like the most difficult of all though, and takes such enormous courage and humility to do this. When I talk about forgiveness, I don’t mean simply forgiveness of others. Perhaps most significantly I mean self-forgiveness. I recall a couple of examples in my work where I made decisions that were founded in really good intentions. As the situation unfolded and more information came to light, I realised how my decisions caused harm to others. When this first started to occur for me, the deep personal regret and shame at causing harm to others was so strong. Acknowledging that this self-judgement or self-harm is not at all true, useful or kind is important. The act of self-forgiveness is key in truly exploring our ethical selves.
* NOTE: I did not make the self-judgement of being ‘unethical’. I will write more on this, as I feel that language that judges (even self-judges) stifles the couragous and open process that ethical exploration requires.