Rushworth Kidder Examines “Moral Courage”

When the chips are down, when something important is at stake, when temptation offers an easy out, sometimes some people take a tough stand and do the right thing. What sets these people apart from the crowd? Moral courage — “the quality of mind and spirit that enables one to face up to ethical challenges firmly and confidently, without flinching or retreating.”

Rushworth M. Kidder, founder of the Institute for Global Ethics and an advisor on other ethical research boards, has made moral courage a subject of study. What is moral courage? Is it a distinct virtue, or a combination of others? To what extent is it universal, and to what extent culturally-defined? Is it an ability that some people are naturally endowed with, or is it a skill that must be learned and practiced?

In Kidder’s framework, if you’re looking for moral courage (or its absence), you should look at occasions when principles, danger, and endurance combine. Principles are what distinguish moral courage from ordinary courage. The presence of danger is the only way to know that real courageousness is at issue. And endurance is a combination of character and attitudes of confidence and trust that enables people to risk dangers to defend principles.

In order to be morally courageous, you have to honor each of these three components. You have to have principles, and really value them, and be astute enough to apply them and prioritize them in the ambiguous real world. You have to recognize the risks, and look honestly at the consequences of action and inaction. And you have to draw on your character and your experience to give you the faith that allows you to take risks for your principles.

If you don’t work with all three components, you end up with a lopsided and ineffective counterfeit of moral courage. If you know your principles, and are willing to endure hardship, but you haven’t really assessed the risks of action and inaction, you’ll end up exhibiting foolhardiness or self-righteousness. If you know the danger and can endure it, but you are not acting on principle, you’re exhibiting a different virtue: mere physical courage. If you know how your principles apply, and you know the dangers, but you don’t think you have the character to stand and fight, you’re exhibiting timidity.

This reminded me very much of Ammon Hennacy’s characterization of the “one in a million who moves the world”:

Love without courage and wisdom is sentimentality, as with the ordinary church member. Courage without love and wisdom is foolhardiness, as with the ordinary soldier. Wisdom without love and courage is cowardice, as with the ordinary intellectual. Therefore one who has love, courage and wisdom is one in a million who moves the world, as with Jesus, Buddha and Gandhi.

Now that we’ve got a definition of moral courage, we can move on to the question of how to get ahold of some: Can you get moral courage by studying its attributes? Is it in the genes? Can you summon it forth by exercising your will? Can it be taught and learned?

Kidder is of the opinion that moral courage is a teachable skill. Indeed, his Institute for Global Ethics runs seminars in Moral Courage and Ethical Fitness®. Moral Courage reads much like a workbook from one of these seminars. So much so that I could almost feel it transformed in my hands into a comb-bound, letter-sized, plastic-covered booklet lying on a conference table in the glow of PowerPoint slides.

Kidder’s main method is to describe an aspect of his framework, and then to illustrate it with exemplars. So for instance, to illustrate the identification of values, he tells the story of Daniel Webster weighing the values of abolitionism versus the preservation of the Union when deciding to support the Compromise of ; to illustrate the assessment of risks, he tells the story of the head of the Northern California ACLU who had to decide whether to continue with a planned radio interview in the face of a bomb threat from someone upset at the organization’s support of a bookseller selling The Satanic Verses; to illustrate endurance, he tells the story of one of Nixon’s White House Plumbers, Egil Krogh, who decided to come clean and plead guilty and face prison time.

There are many other examples, too, ranging from the ordinary to the extraordinary. One struck me as being particularly weird. Directly after discussing the case of a Chilean human rights worker who had been threatened with assassination by Pinochet’s death squads, Kidder segues into the case of James K. Baker, the chairman and CEO of Arvin Industries, an auto parts manufacturer.

During , Arvin was losing a lot of market share to Japanese suppliers, who had come into Arvin’s territory in the American Midwest, and were undercutting Arvin’s prices when selling to Detroit’s auto manufacturers. They could do this because while Arvin’s workforce was unionized, and typically made about $11 per hour, its competitors’ non-unionized workforce typically made around $8 per hour.

Arvin knew that if he asked the union to accept a $3 per hour pay cut, he’d face opposition and probably strikes. If he didn’t, the company’s competitiveness and market share would probably continue to decline, or the company might be forced to shut down the local plants entirely and try to hire cheaper labor elsewhere.

So he made the morally courageous decision to go ahead with the pay cut.

And I’m thinking, “uh, wha?” Is Kidder really trying to sell this decision to cut a bunch of other people’s salaries by a quarter — tough and correct business decision though it may have been — as some sort of morally courageous stand? What was the principle at work here?

Was he confident that things would turn out well when he took that stand and asked for a wage cut? “I knew it would be a tough sell,” he says, “but I knew it was going to work out.” How? Because the only other option he could see was that the workers would walk off the job, and the company would then begin rehiring — causing serious delay and disruption but ultimately making Arvin more competitive. And competitiveness, for Baker, was the principle that undergirded his decision making and gave him confidence.

I thought I must be missing something — maybe there are more elements to this story that are well-known in business circles that I’m just not savvy to but that explain why this episode stands out as one that exemplifies moral courage — so I did a Google search for James Baker and Arvin.

Baker apparently likes to talk about his tough business decisions using the language of ethics. Another article I found has these gems:

Sometimes the right decision appears to be to accept lower ethical standards in an emerging country. James Baker, retired CEO of Arvin Industries, recalls a painful decision during in Taiwan. To get Arvin auto-part shipments off the dock and shipped to the U.S. and Canada, Taiwanese longshoremen demanded small bribes, roughly $40 each. Baker couldn’t stomach the idea, but he couldn’t see a way around it, either.

“[The decision] came to me,” he says, “because we had a policy against facilitating payments. Period.” His solution: Rather than hiding the bribes, he authorized them as long as they were openly accounted for monthly. “We said we’d compromise our principles, but we’re going to compromise above the board and not below the board.”

Like many CEOs, Baker retained the prerogative to craft solutions himself. “My role was as the chief ethics officer of the corporation,” he says. “That’s not something I delegated.” In this case, Baker lowered the bar. But how should he have analyzed such a case?

Arvin’s Baker has struggled with a second issue: doing business with repressive regimes, which he’s done in South Africa. In the face of U.S. State Department economic sanctions and demonstrating students, Baker recalls how he decided to retain two South African auto-part plants, each employing about 500 workers. “It made sense to us that the best way to treat people was not to shut down their jobs,” he says.

So Baker is fond of making ethically dubious decisions — ones that just happen to correspond with his own bottom-line interests — and then assuaging his conscience by trying to wrap these decisions in the mantle of moral courage. He can use all the help he can get, I’d imagine.

James K. Baker is on the Advisory Board of Kidder’s Institute for Global Ethics. The Institute’s latest Annual Report puts him in their highest category of “$5,000 and above” donors and notes that he’s in the “Heritage Society, recognizing ten or more years of membership.” The Institute also awards a “Beverly B. and James K. Baker research fellowship.”

Revealing none of this to the reader (which strikes me as a breach of journalistic ethics at least), Kidder holds up Baker as an exemplar of moral courage for making the sort of tough, bottom-line-driven decision that you’d think would be expected from somebody earning the big bucks as chairman and CEO. He took risks? He stood firm and endured? Tell that to the people looking at 25%+ pay cuts who went on strike.

I can’t help but look at this and think sycophancy — Kidder appears to be flattering and balming the troubled conscience of a major donor to his Institute. That he appears to do so sneakily, without revealing the apparent conflict of interest, and in a book that is all about identifying and applying principles in the face of temptation, naturally soured me on his project as a whole.