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.