Reflection 7: A Comprehensive and Inclusive Approach to Change

In this Reflection, I discuss key ways in which Radical Decency supports a more integrated and, thus, more effective approach to change.


Radical Decency is a values-based call to action. It invites us to organize our lives around a set of values that are practical, understandable, and all encompassing:

Be decent in all that you do – to yourself, to others, and to the world.  And to do it at all times, in every context, and without exception.

We practice Radical Decency trusting that it will guide us to concrete, day by day choices that, as they accumulate, are the surest path to the philosophy’s ambitious goals: To create better lives and to meaningfully contribute to a better world.

In this way, Radical Decency is a significant departure from the visions of change that predominate in the culture. These formulations consist, largely, of high-sounding goals with far too little thought given to their implementation. We are told to “do justice” but are not told how. And, for most of us, any instinct to act dies with the realization that the contributions we are invited to make – a donation here, a volunteer day there – will have no perceptible impact.


Notice, also, that the philosophy’s values-based approach – by its very nature –drives us toward a fundamentally more inclusive and, thus, a more effective approach to change. Why? Because the predominant values it seeks to supplant – compete and win, dominate and control – are infused in every area of living.

For this reason, Radical Decency needs to unfold in virtually every sphere of life. And the obvious corollary? Everyone with a sincere interest in Radical Decency – whatever their area of activity – needs to be embraced as partner in the cause.

Business people are an excellent example of how this process works. In most social change venues, these people are viewed (at best) as part time and compromised participants. While most of their time is devoted to fundamentally amoral, profit-seeking activities, they can at least raise money and write checks.

But Radical Decency castes them in a very different light. Since business and the workplace are the epicenter of the mainstreams culture’s indecent values, it is one of the most fruitful and exciting venues in which to apply its precepts.

What better place to work for fundamental change than in the belly of the beast? Imagine how different our world would be if the prevailing view in boardrooms and executive offices was to treat co-workers, customers, and the environment with habitual decency.  How different things would be if profitability was priority 1A – vitally important but clearly subordinate to the goals of Radical Decency.


Radical Decency’s lodestar prescription for living – to be decent at all times and without exception – drives us toward more integrated change initiatives in other ways as well. Seeking to live up to this ambitious goal, we are impelled to take stock of our decency efforts in every area of living, from the most personal and intimate to the most public and political.

Several years ago, I created a “Roadmap” that attempts to enumerate specific acts of decency, contemplated by the philosophy, across the full range of activities that constitute our lives. Here are some examples, drawn from that document:

Tend to your emotional needs: Nurture, companionship, novelty, play, etc. (decency to self).

Be honest, don’t manipulate to get result; don’t mislead nonverbally (decency to others).

With strong emotions/different communication styles, stay open; when breakdown occurs, do repair work (decency to others).

Balance resources used, accumulated, offered to others, and conserved (decency to the world).

Be open, inquisitive about varieties of oppression – yours and others – and how it is resisted (decency to the world).

Working with specific aspects of Radical Decency, such as these, most of us will quickly notice that our practice is fairly strong in some areas and in obvious need of improvement in others. And, with this clarity, we are set up for greater success as we seek to improve and expand our Radical Decency practice.

We will, in addition, be primed to reach out to people with greater skill in areas where we are deficient (social justice types teaching and supporting personal growth types; personal growth types teaching and supporting decency based businesses, and so on).  And, as this process grows and deepens, there will be a natural coming together of change agents from diverse areas of activity; magnifying and improving everyone’s change efforts.


Still another way in which Radical Decency deepens and expands our change efforts lies in the habits of mind it cultivates.

Forced to confront the many complexities that arise when we seek to be decent to ourselves, even as we maintain decency to others and the world, Radical Decency is a challenging approach to living. Howard Lesnick, a law professor and gifted thinker and writer, cuts to the core of the philosophy’s intellectual and emotional challenge, in Listening for God when he “cautions against” “taking the rightness of parental preference for granted” in a society where “the degree of parental preference is far too extensive to be morally justified.”

All too frequently, there are no obvious or easy choices. We are regularly stretched to harmonize and integrate – or, failing that, to balance – what often seem inherently conflicting priorities: My career vs. my obligation to family and friends vs. larger issues of social and economic injustice. But we need to persist in these efforts despite the many situations in which, given the culture’s predominant values, our choices will be misinterpreted, misunderstood, or simply ignored.

These difficulties are, paradoxically, one on of the key benefits of the philosophy.  Seeking to be the best we can be in these “wisdom stretching” moments, we are pushed – at times of reflection – to cultivate our creativity, thoughtfulness, and intuitive awareness; and – at times of choice – to stretch our analytic skills and to exercise both courage and prudence, as situations warrant.

Most of all, Radical Decency cultivates a deepening sense of curiosity about every aspect of living – from the subtleties of own thoughts and feelings, to the intricacies of an intimate conversation, to the historical forces that repeatedly result in violent social upheaval. How else can we become the creative force for decency we aspire to be?

And as curiosity and, with it, our insight and empathy become consuming pre-occupations, the culturally engrained habits that separate us from others – judgment, possessiveness, greed, need to control – begin to wither, crowded out by these new habits of thought, feeling and action.

As this process takes root, our approach to other change agents will, once again, be fundamentally altered. Instead of seeing their efforts as different and unrelated, or in competition for scarce resources, we will be primed to be deeply curious about their goals, insights, approaches to change, and specific tactics. And, in this way as well, we will be impelled toward a path of deepening collaboration with other, reform-minded people.

Reflection 6: How the Good Guys Miss Each Other

Radical Decency grew out of my journey with the Eccoes Foundation, an organization my wife and I started in 2000. With our long involvement with personal growth and social justice causes, we were puzzled about how little overlap there was between the two. To unravel that mystery, we decided to start a public foundation that offered grants to organizations operating at the intersection of these worlds.

In our 3 years as operators of a grant-making organization, we found any number of inspiring groups that acknowledged the connection between social justice and personal growth. But true programmatic integration was hard to find. Instead there were social justice groups that, recognizing that personal healing enhanced their effectiveness, would sponsor staff retreats. On the flip side, we found personal growth groups that had social justice committees or sponsored occasional community-oriented events. But in every instance, the organizations we funded clearly existed in one world or the other.

This experience led me to a lot of head scratching, writing and, ultimately, Radical Decency. It is offered as an approach to living that, fully thought through, has the potential to integrate people and organizations with a passion for social justice and personal growth into a more unified and effective force for change. 


What can explain this separation between the worlds of social justice and personal growth? As I see it, it is a series of culturally promoted messages, relentlessly reinforced, that push us to “do our own thing,” to focus on “our” career, to be a “success.” And what is success?  The accumulation of more and more personal power, recognition, and wealth.

These attitudes, in turn, foster a pervasive sense of “personal ownership,” not just of things but also of ideas, programs and philosophies. Indeed, how many of us are immune to a sense of diminishment when our good idea is adopted – but we receive no credit?

The net effect? The many people who share a passion for creating a better life and meaningfully contributing to a better world are separated from one another; fragmenting their energy; reducing their effectiveness. 


What is less obvious is the extent to which these values are embedded: (1) in the very structure of the organizations these “good guys” join and create to promote their goals; and (2) in the ways in which they think about their lives and careers. To illustrate the point, consider the very different opportunities and rewards available to me as a commercial bankruptcy attorney, on the one hand, and as a public interest lawyer and, then, a psychotherapist on the other.

As a mainstream attorney, tending to “my career,” I developed a name for myself in a narrowly defined and financially rewarding area of the law; cultivated a stable of good paying clients who were loyal – to me; and measured my success in terms of the money I made. Playing by the predominant culture’s rules of personal aggrandizement, I was offered an easily identifiable career path and way of living, and was rewarded for that choice with the mainstream culture’s indicia of success – money and respect.

By contrast, the career paths available to me as a public interest lawyer looked very different. I could specialize in housing law – or civil rights – or environmental law.  But there was no readily available career path that allowed me to work, more generally, on the deeply flawed ways in which we live. 

Similarly, while social work school trumpeted an approach to healing that considered both the personal and political, incoming students were required to choose either a clinical or policy track. In other words, it could train you for a career that focused on social justice, or personal healing and growth – but not on both. Once again, there was no career path for someone who was interested in an integrated “big picture” approach to change.

So right from the start – in both of these reform-minded professions – the structural realities of the culture pushed me to shrink my focus; to work on a piece of the puzzle but not on the puzzle itself. Why? In retrospect, the answer seems self-evident.  The predominant culture, with its genius for self-perpetuation, tolerates small incremental improvements, but has no tolerance for – and hence offers no structures to support the work of – people who seek more fundamental change. 


This narrowing process is also deeply interwoven in the organizations the good guys create to implement their visions. As a society, we have created vast markets to finance risky new ventures and to reward organizers and early investors when they are successful. These structures are, however, only available when the prime virtue of the product is its ability to make a lot of money. In other words, access to these empowering financial structures is limited to people who embrace the predominant culture’s vision of success. 

For people seeking to create a better world, the realities are very different. Social change oriented nonprofits have no meaningful access to capital markets, their organizers and investors (donors) can never cash out, and there are legal limits on the salaries they can pay. And, in an analogous way, change agents who work in the healing professions – psychotherapy, acupuncture, yoga, etc. – are limited by modest fees and the sale of services and products that are of little or no interest to capital markets.

But financial marginalization is only a part of the story. Since they are offered enough money to survive and are able to focus on their passion for change, many of the world’s good guys are drawn to the nonprofit or healing careers. But in accepting this invitation, they are forced – in fundamental, mission compromising ways – to play by ground rules that have been crafted by the predominant culture. 

Thus, to retain the goodwill of mainstream funders – foundations, individual donors, government agencies – they focus on limited and defined substantive areas and, more often than not, on service oriented services and products. Doing so, their more radical instincts are marginalized. While they can work to make aspects of the existing system less mean spirited, even the limited support they receive from mainstream funding sources will evaporate if they focus on more fundamental change.

Moreover, the great majority of these good people are not immune to the pull of the predominant culture’s values. They worry about cost of sending their kids to college and how to support themselves when they are old. And, surrounded by the mainstream culture’s cues, sanctions, and incentives, they are susceptible to all the material things the culture so relentlessly promotes – a comfortable home in the suburbs, fancy gadgets, nice vacations, etc., etc.

So while they choose their careers for noble reasons, the tendency to protect the financial viability of the entity they depend upon for their livelihood – by adopting mainstream business outlooks and practices – is almost impossible to resist. Pushed in that direction by their lawyers, accountants, and PR advisers, they increasingly treat other good guy organizations as competitors; view their services as a proprietary brand to be preserved and protected; and see their clients and funding sources as closely held corporate assets.  Here, once again, powerful cultural forces discourage collaboration, mutual support, and a more radical agenda.

Thus, embarking on a mission of change, the typical good guy winds up in the vise of a system that offers work on important and inspiring but, in the end, narrowly focused programs; that discourages active cooperation with other change agents; and will, if fundamental change is sought, financially quash the organizations they rely upon to support themselves and their families. 

Small wonder, then, that organizations working at the intersection of social justice and personal growth are hard to find. Our world is specifically structured to prevent good guy energy from cohering into a unified and, therefore, more effective force for change.


Overcoming these cultural forces is a daunting task. And, tackling them is one of Radical Decency’s central missions.

Radical Decency’s approach to living seeks to systematically replace the cultural norms that produce these results with attitudes and behaviors based on respect, understanding, empathy, appreciation, acceptance, fairness and justice. The hope is that, building out from this values-based perspective, new outlooks and structures will emerge that will allow the energy of reform minded people – the good guys – to cohere into a more collaborative and effective movement for change. For a fuller discussion of how this might occur, see Reflection 6, Gathering in the Good Guys; Reflection 45, Re-visioning Social Change Work; Reflection 89, A Call to Action, Part 1 – Community; Reflection 90, A Call to Action, Part 2 – An Expanded Collaborative Vision; and Reflection 91, A Call to Action, Part 3 – Expanded Collaboration in Action.

Reflection 5: Radical Decency Guideposts for Healers

Radical Decency challenges us to continuously consider three realms – our selves, others, and the world – in everything we do.  We need to identify processes that are problematic in each of these areas, understand their impact, and craft effective strategies for dealing with them.

Here is the reasoning behind this approach.

The overriding problem we face in crafting better, more generative lives is that we live in a culture that, through a myriad of norms, cues, incentives and sanctions, habituates us to a fundamentally inhumane set of values – compete and win, dominate and control. As I explain in Reflection 27, these values have created a culture that fails to support us in being decent to ourselves – or to others – or to the world; in other words, a failed culture.

The sensible response, then, is to place a new, more humane set of values at the center of our lives. But complicating this task is the fact that, as the best theorists’ point out, we are biologically wired to be creatures of habit. Thus, we begin this work with deeply engrained habits of living that are at odds with our goal. In the words of Vikki Reynolds, “we are all in the dirty bathtub.”

Because we have to wean ourselves from our pre-existing “compete and win” habits, we need to practice our new habits of living – decency to self, others, and the world – at all times and in every context. If we temporize and make exceptions, the enormous pull of the predominant culture will defeat our purposes.

Overcoming the virulent cultural disease that permeates our lives requires strong medicine.


For psychotherapists and other healers, the implications of this approach to living are profound. Most healing focuses on the individual or on the individual in the context of his most immediate environments: His romantic partner, family, friends, and work. The culture’s enormous influence in our lives is either ignored or treated as a given, something to which we have to adjust.

But it doesn’t have to be this way.

Family therapy, for example, views the family as a system in which any member’s changed behaviors necessarily affects the overall system and each participant in it. This emphasis on the client’s ability to effect his environment is itself empowering and healing. Equally healing is the recognition that new behaviors, wisely conceived and executed, can provoke changes in the system that, in turn, support and magnify the healing and growth of both the client and the family system in which he operates.

The culture is, of course, a lot more complicated than a family. But since it too is a system, these same principles apply. And since the values that predominate in our culture have such a pervasive, debilitating effect on our lives, the application of systems based healing techniques, in this larger context, would seem to be an urgent concern if we are serious about being the best healers we can be.


The systematic de-emphasis of cultural factors in psychotherapy and other systems of healing is no accident. Systems tend to perpetuate themselves and the predominant culture’s self-perpetuation mechanisms are truly brilliant. Not surprisingly, then, while mainstream healers are supported in doing useful work, they are guided away from approaches that would meaningfully challenge the prevailing power structure or the belief systems that support it.

Thus, for example, we use the DSM to diagnose conditions “in the client” but are given no categories – none – to account for his or her culturally caused conditions. Then we are paid to fix the problems that the DSM defines; that is, to help clients fit more comfortably into the culture, as it currently exists.

And what is it that is ignored in the process? Any sustained attention to the problematic values that permeate our culture and play such a formative role in causing the clients’ emotional distress in the first place.

This dismal truth is confirmed by the mainstream literature. When I was in professional school, our clinical textbook advised us to avoid cultural factors because we were not “trained to deal with them.” Similarly, the “Wheel of Life” – a standard tool of life coaches – provides a comprehensive list of categories for assessing clients’ lives (work, family, leisure, etc) but fails to include their engagements in the public/cultural spheres (communal involvements, social movements, politics). And the current, standard definition of “holistic” healing – mind, body and spirit – similarly makes no reference to these larger, cultural factors; what I call the “practical” and the “radical” (see Reflection 24 Holistic Healing – Embracing the Practical and the Radical).


In making this point I am not suggesting that fitting in and getting by are bad things.  Since we will, inevitably, be crafting our lives within the existing culture, we need to creatively support clients’ efforts in this area. But if that is all we do as healers, our offerings are limited and compromised.

We also need to lay bare the unstated assumptions that flow from the mainstream culture, and so badly punish so many of us, including these messages:

  • That we are failures if we don’t make “enough” money;
  • That perfection is the goal and anything short of that – in ourselves or others – is an occasion for self-judgment and shame;
  • That confusion and vulnerability are weaknesses to be hidden;
  • That you can accomplish anything if you just try hard enough.

We also need to define with greater insight and precision the cultural disease that ails us.  This would include a clear-headed accounting, in our work with clients, of cultural realities such as these:

  • That, with rare exceptions, businesses are authoritarian places that (often despite their nice words) work against efforts to create more humane lives;
  • That we bring the culture’s problematic “win/lose” ways of interacting into our most intimate relationships.
  • That while football, movies, and popular books are entertaining and seductive, they promote the values of the predominant culture and, immersed in these entertainments, we are distracted from our efforts to create more nourishing habits of living.

Finally, in partnership with our clients, we need to develop specific techniques for molding the environments in which we live – and within which we are so deeply embedded and defined – in ways that are more just, equitable, and humane; a theme to which I frequently return. See, for example, Reflection 35 Salaried Workers – Realities and Possibilities; Reflection 43 Radical Decency in Business – A Fairy Tale; Reflection 45 Re-visioning Social Change Work; and Reflection 66 Doing Better at Work, In Authoritarian Relationships.


Seeking to confront these realities, Radical Decency is my healing technique of choice. It provides a vivid roadmap that, by orienting my day-by-day, moment-by-moment choices, effectively counteracts my tendency toward discouragement, cynicism, inaction – and, therefore, complicity – when faced with the culture’s “compete and win” values.

Striving to be radically decent I might, in a given situation:

  • Offer an intimate word of support (or, refrain, if it seems intrusive);
  • Make an uncomfortable phone call;
  • Chose a visit to a friend over a run in the park (or vice versa);
  • Invest my energy in one professional project over another; or
  • Recognizing my inability to constructively influence outcomes, more comfortably do nothing.

Because the cultural disease that ails us is everywhere, virtually every choice is an opportunity to be more decent: To others – to the world – and, very importantly, to myself as well. Steadily focusing on these goals has, I have found, brought with it an increasing sense of compassion (and self-compassion), curiosity, and zest; states of mind that have nurtured a deepening sense of gratitude for the life I am leading.


To fully realize our potential as healers, we need to forthrightly deal with the realities of the culture in which we live; creating techniques, such as those described above, to be used in our work with clients. The goals of our noble professions demand nothing less.

Reflection 4: Perspectives on Morals and Ethics

I have always been troubled by what passes for moral and ethical guidance in our culture.  I remember being in Church, as a 15 year old, and hearing the minister say “love thy fellow man.” I also remember thinking, it’s now 11:30 am and he didn’t say a single, really useful thing about how to do that between now and next Sunday when Church reconvenes.

In my 20s I joined a profession with an elaborate Code of Ethics – the law. And to this day I attend ethics seminars to maintain my license. These classes are deeply demoralizing. The standard approach is to tell us what the rule is and how close to the line we can get without risking sanctions or a malpractice lawsuit.

The approach is deeply cynical and misguided, though it is difficult to find attorneys who questions it. Preet Bharara, the current U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York, is a refreshing exception. Attorneys, he points out, would never ask their law partners to identify the minimum amount, needed to be done, to maintain profitability.  To the contrary, he would  eagerly seek new and creative ways to make more and more money — no questions asked.  So shouldn’t the same mindset apply to our moral and ethical choices? Shouldn’t we strive with equal vigor to find new and creative ways to express our  ethical ideals?


I have no problem with a socially agreed upon set of moral standards. Some actions need to be encouraged; others socially prescribed. But moral and ethical guidelines need to be rooted in a larger, coherent vision of how we should live.  Absent such a vision to inform their creation and application, moral and ethical guidelines will inexorably morph into tools that promote the values that pervade our culture – control, domination, and material self-aggrandizement.

Here is one (of many possible) examples from the legal profession.

A cardinal – and very sensible – rule of the profession is to avoid conflicts of interest.  Since one defendant could seek to assign blame to another defendant, a single attorney should not represent both defendants. But to truly guide attorneys to a more ethical vision of their work, we need to come to grips with all of the implications, inherent in this rule.

One of its inevitable consequences is multiplying lawyers fees: Two attorneys, not one, at every deposition and hearing.  And since most lawsuits are about money (the standard recompense in civil lawsuits), you would think that the Code of Ethics would deal with the financial implications of this dual representation rule.

But, it doesn’t.

Why? Because the result is wonderfully convenient for attorneys: More lawyers employed, more fees generated.

Not surprisingly, this particular “unintended consequence” is all too common in the profession’s Code of Ethics.  To cite just one other example, the injunction to  “represent your client zealously,” is an open invitation for lawyers, billing on hourly basis, to pad their fees by filing marginally useful motions and fighting the other side on every issue.

What makes it worse is that the Code of Ethics could easily deal with this financial issue.  Suppose hourly billing, without adequate safe guards, is deemed to be unethical — since it very clearly puts the attorney’s and client’s economic self interest at odds.  Impractical? Impossible? Not at all. One possible safeguard would be to require attorneys to estimate overall cost in advance and, if that number is reached, to reduce their future hourly billing rate to an amount that just covers their costs (usually about 65% of normal fees).

If an intent to grapple with this fee exploitation issue existed, guidelines such as this one, could be easily crafted. But don’t expect the ABA’s Board of Governors to take this issue on any time soon. The true bottom line of the legal profession’s Code of Ethics is not legal ethics.


This same self-interested theme exists in the code of ethics that governs my new profession, social work. For example, clinicians are enjoined not to share information about themselves with clients. Like the legal example just discussed, this is an important area in which to offer ethical guidance.  But a simple “rule against” falls far short, since it fails to account for the times when self-disclosure can be a powerful tool of healing and growth. Once again, the deeper, unspoken theme is to protect the professionals — in this case by giving them license to avoid emotionally challenging engagements with their clients, without regard to their positive or negative effect on the therapeutic process.


Finally, I want to focus on adultery as still another area where the mainstream approach to morality, by failing to offer a larger vision of right and wrong, exacts a heavy price.

A very typical example is an intimate partner who, after 20 years of fidelity, has an affair.  Our cultural norm is to condemn the partner who engages in the affair as a cheater; a liar; a bad guy. So when the hypothetical couple comes to a marital counselor, such as me, the straying partner is typically wracked with guilt and the other partner deeply aggrieved.

My point is not to judge these reactions. They are sensible and expectable.  But our simplistic and unthoughtful approach to morality – sex outside the marriage equals adultery equals bad – obscures so much else. Sadly, it is an invitation for the couple to stay stuck in their pain.

One very important reality that the couple, in my example, can easily lose sight of is that the affair partner is actually a good person, highly responsible and committed to his partner. Why do I say this? Because (in our hypothetical) the affair was preceded by 20 years of commitment and fidelity.

This does not negate the fact that affair partner’s behavior grievously damaged the couple’s intimacy and trust. But their healing would be better served if they could fearlessly judge the act, separate and apart from the actor. Unfortunately, our received moral precepts obscure this vital distinction. (Recall President Bush condemning “evil do-ers” rather than acts of terrorism).

Another crucial issue, obscured by the couples’ “good guy/bad guy” mindset, is what motivated the straying partner. In our hypothetical, that partner did not enter into the extra-marital relationship lightly. To the contrary, his or her behavior was driven by compelling, though dimly understood, emotional forces.

Life is complicated and living intimately with someone else multiples those complications. Indeed, it is the rare (maybe nonexistent) couple that doesn’t accumulate hurts and unexpressed needs and frustrations, as the years go by.  Often, an affair is an inept and ill-advised attempt to break out of a painful and deeply entrenched pattern of behavior. And since a relationship is a system, the great likelihood is that both partners – in the time leading up to the affair – were coping with unresolved pain.

Given this reality, going back to the way things were is not a good choice. Better to look at the affair as a potential turning point – a time when long standing issues can surface and be dealt with in a more satisfactory way. Once again, however, our standard moral precepts do not lead the couple in this direction. The common outcomes are either (1) a divorce (get rid of the cheating bum), or (2) an extended period of remorse followed, as the pain recedes, by the re-emergence of their old ways of doing things; that is, the very patterns that led to the affair in the first place.


Radical Decency – by focusing inclusively on decency to self, others, and the world – is designed to offer precisely the kind of larger vision of how to live that can lead to more just, equitable and humane moral standards. Applied to professional ethics it focuses on the full range of collateral consequences for all parties.

When it comes to deepening our ethical insights, and crafting wiser choices, Radical Decency can support us in doing better – a lot better.