Some initial thoughts about getting to better


James Owen has written a couple of excellent books; but the one [1] that should be on everyone’s desk, coffee table, workplace locker shelf, or other decision-making setting is Cowboy Ethics. He addresses some fundamental ethical issues in a direct and engaging way, and does so in a space that requires very little time to get through. One [1] thing that I like about his approach is his love of movies and there value in helping us see the moral dilemma and how we need to address the moment of critical choice. He starts his book with this question: Have you ever had a movie change your life? Many may not think so, but I do, although not the same movie(s) and not necessarily in the same way.

For me there are several movies that people (especially those who wish to consider themselves leaders) need to see. In no particular order, here they are:
• Margin Call (with Jeremy Irons & Kevin Spacey among others)
• Michael Clayton (George Clooney, Tom Wilkinson, Sam Pollock, Tilda Swinton)
• A Man For All Seasons (Paul Scofield)
• Erin Brockovich (Julie Roberts, Albert Finney)
• The Cardinal (Tom Tryon)
• Wall Street I & II (Michael Douglas and others)
• The Ides of March (George Clooney, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Ryan Gosling)

There are others I could mention as well, and in future conversations might well do that. My point here is simply to suggest that there is little validity in claiming one can’t make moral choices because one doesn’t have any real experience or previous opportunities to view others making good (or not so good) ethical decisions. Get these movies, watch these movies, think about these movies – and read Owen’s book!!

Of course it would also help if you have good recognition of a moral dilemma as well as significant understanding of how you reason through the moment of critical choice. When faced with an ethical challenge, at what stage (or level) of moral reasoning, do you most frequently (or comfortably) choose. For this I would encourage you to go to the Research section of this web-site and read the paper Have We Got the Cart Before the Horse.
For the moment let me simply say that when it comes to getting the world to better ethical decision-making I again concur with Owen.
To me, the fundamental problem is that we have confused rules with principles. Rules can always be bent, but principles cannot. So while bureaucratic rules may reinforce the ways we ought to behave, they are no substitute for personal principles. I believe that where human behaviour is concerned, any true, lasting change has to come from with within. So if we want to encourage better ethical practices…we need something that will touch the deepest part of us…in short, what we need is not more regulation, but more inspiration.

We need, in some variant or other, a commitment to what Owen calls The Code of the West. And we need it to start with each of us. Perhaps through our conversations we can help get the ball rolling more and more quickly. Maybe we need to buy some of these books and give them to those either running or elected to public office. Perhaps there are other leaders we know who could benefit from a quick refresher on getting to better choices. Hopefully we can have some conversations that will enhance or increase this journey to better…

6 thoughts on “Some initial thoughts about getting to better

  1. Inspiration oft times comes from unlikely sources…in my case, it was a gift from a group of students who have chosen to spend part of their summer volunteering around the world and with whom I had the privilege of working. When asked to brain storm about the meaning of the word ‘ethics’ in a pre-departure training workshop I was giving (and yes, I start with ethics!!!), the resulting posters could have come from any university ethics course, in that they commented on the task of recognizing moral dilemmas, the role of critical thinking, the tension between rules/law and morals, ethics, and values, the difficulty of moving from (theoretical) ethics to ethical behaviour, touching on the concepts of culture, respect, caring, empathy, openness, responsibilities, and ultimately, the intensely personal aspect of making any ethical decision.
    So I would agree with you, Glenn, and suggest we go to the movies as often as possible, read voraciously (including Cowboys Ethics!), listen to music of all genres, and then have conversations with friends, families, students, teachers and perhaps more challenging, with those who do not see this world through our particular lens…and in the quiet moments of the day’s fading, we can reflect on our own ethical decisions and move towards the better…one small step at a time…et merci for providing me with today’s inspiration!

  2. Cowboy ethics for me are about the ‘old fashioned’ values of family and respect that our society seems to be losing at a rapid pace. There are many books on my shelf but I am proud to display James Owens’ work on the coffee table at home.

  3. nice to read your thoughts and hear your voice in my head…well, maybe not that so much…look forward to more…


  4. Just finished moderating a panel at a conference with Public Relations specialists on Ethics, Leadership & Accountability, it was so refreshing to have ALL the panelists just relate their thoughts without reading them. Heard some interesting things that were very much in line with Owen’s book and they definitely were at Stage Five [5] moral reasoning as well. A wonderful moment that you would have enjoyed.

  5. Good to here from you Bob. One of these days I’ll comment on your well-written (and oft-times used) book “Letters to a Young Bureaucrat”. The question is tho’ — is it available these days? (in print/on line?) A gem for many, even if neither young nor in public service.

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