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“The only way to deal with an unfree world is to become so absolutely free that your very existence is an act of rebellion.”Albert Camus
I noticed an odd, disturbing pattern last month.
After years of attending and offering racial justice and equity learning experiences, I realized that I rarely initiated or participated in direct conversations about integrity, morality, or ethics. Perhaps the topics we touched implicitly referred to ethics or morals, but we never actually spent time talking about the mechanics of integrity in our work and lives.
What were the moral or ethical differences between diversity, equity, and inclusion?What was the ethical implication of explicitly naming justice as a goal – or not? How do you lead an ethical life? Run an organization with integrity?
These questions seem essential to the heart of any plan for diversity, equity, or inclusion. They must be at the core of anti-racism, and yet we skirt around the edges and margins of them. I experienced a profound silence in response to my questions above.
After I got over my initial embarrassment at uncovering another one of my blindspots (and wishing I could time travel back to a few particular rooms), I was left with some confusion.
What was the difference between ethics and morals, anyway? I definitely took a philosophy 101 course in my second year of college, and I bought that “history of philosophy” graphic novel in India a few years ago – but I couldn’t recall the difference.
That’s why I was grateful for the burger I got with Nadia just a few weeks ago. Nadia is the type of friend you can sit down with for a relaxed lunch and have fun chatting about the difference between ethics and morals. The light bulbs were flying over my head as soon as Nadia started sharing.
Here’s how I understand what I learned (I welcome emails with additions or different perspectives….):
Morals are codes of good and bad without context. They serve a rigid sense of right and wrong, and often reinforce our greatest social ills in a given moment. They police and they restrict by being slapped onto all situations without time or space for analysis, engagement, and curiosity.
Ethics are principles that guide us and must be actively applied with questions, exploration, and adaptation. You can’t know what is right or wrong by just looking at a situation from the outside. To practice ethics, you have to get into the messiness of the present moment and be open to being surprised by the outcome of their application.
As Nadia put it: Morals are pre-conceived notions of good and bad that reflect particular arrangements of power, and tend to support the interests of particular sectors of society. They are “conventions” on what is right and wrong that are not necessarily the reflection of an egalitarian sense of justice. That is how slavery could be morally right but ethically abhorrent. And, under current moral codes the exploitation of women or their lack of reproductive rights may be defended on moral bases.
Images came to my mind: morals are rigid/hard and break us like a stick, ethics are fluid and are a light that can guide us in the dark.
I started to get a pit in my stomach as I realized moments when workshops or projects I had been a part of edged towards morality by defining good and bad in such two-dimensional terms that they stopped reflecting reality. I sat with memories of when learning reinforced call-out culture or elements of policing each other that felt completely opposed to justice and freedom.
I also saw the light of when I had stopped in response to a question like “Person X did Z to person Y, what should person Y do?” Instead of just blurting out an answer, as I had seen others do, I said something like: “ I don’t know. I would need to understand so much more about the context. What was the quality of relationship? What was X’s tolerance for A? What was Y’s tolerance for B? What was their purpose?……” – encouraging learners to forego morals and learn the analytical tools of ethics – integrity in action.
I can see how an equity project based on implicit morality could lead to devastating results for an organization or an individual on a team. And, I could also see how using ethical principles to guide an inclusion or equity project would take an intense amount of work and focus. It takes energy to be alive to the present moment, to be curious about context, and actively engage in a practice of ethics. It is also disconcerting and disorienting to be without a clear sense of right or wrong. We have to actively redefine what it means to be safe or to be good in each moment.
Developing a practice of integrity is essential to any of our projects for justice. We must learn how to live practices of ethics in our organizations and teams. I get nervous that the word “ethics” sounds academic and “integrity” sounds haughty. And, I can’t see a way to doing this work without reclaiming those words and living them in more real and concrete ways.
I was grateful for the chance to reflect on integrity with Eowyn Corral of Dakota Rural Action this month. She spoke directly to the complexity of living a life with integrity and sparked a desire in me to search for my own ethical compasses. I am looking forward to experimenting more in the next few months.
Are you diving into some of these questions? Let us know, we want to keep learning.
Before I go, I’ll leave you with one of my favorite verses of the Tao te Ching, translated by Stephen Mitchell:
When people see some things as beautiful,
other things become ugly.
When people see some things as good,
other things become bad.
Being and non-being create each other.
Difficult and easy support each other.
Long and short define each other.
High and low depend on each other.
Before and after follow each other.
Therefore the Master
acts without doing anything
and teaches without saying anything.
Things arise and she lets them come;
things disappear and she lets them go.
She has but doesn’t possess,
acts but doesn’t expect.
When her work is done, she forgets it.
That is why it lasts forever.
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