Brad Rourke's Blog

Entries categorized as ‘ethics’

Building a Different Kind of Political Candidate

January 25, 2014 · Leave a Comment

I’m in the middle of doing one of my favorite activities, something I’ve been involved in since the late 1990’s. It’s the Candidate Training Program, run by the Sorensen Institute for Political Leadership at the University of Virginia.

1533885_10152639661618438_164317675_nI was a part of the design team for this program and have been involved in different ways every since. It’s a multipartisan group (D, R, I) of people who are running for their first political office. Over the course of four days, some of the top political consultants in Virginia share the nuts and bolts of running campaigns from the standpoint of planning, direct mail, fundraising, media relations, crisis management, and more. It’s top-drawer advice and is very effective: roughly a third of alumni have gone on to win races, an astronomical statistic considering that most first time candidates lose.

Here’s what makes the program different from other candidate training programs, though: It is built around ethical decision making. The design of the program is meant to elicit thoughtful reflection by the candidates on what they feel their relationship with the public ought to be. We open with an in-depth discussion of ethical decision-making principles, and then check in repeatedly throughout the weekend to unpack what the experts are saying, relating it to the kinds of relationships the candidates are trying to foster.

Over the years, I’ve written a number of blog posts from and about these sessions. Some of the notable ones are:

  1. Resistance” — things I’ve noticed candidates just don’t want to do . . . but must.
  2. Oh, D.E.A.R.” — Tips on campaign crisis management from a real pro.
  3. Free Advice For Candidates” — Just a compendium of tips I’ve heard the experts tell first-time candidates over the years.
  4. On The Lam” — A scenario for discussion that I developed and distribute, based loosely on true events. 
  5. All The News That Fits” — Another ethics scenario, again based on true events.

 

Categories: ethics · leadership · politics

In Praise Of Effort Over Time

September 17, 2013 · Leave a Comment

A dozen years ago, I was completing my stint leading a national election-ethics project, encouraging candidates to negotiate, sign, and abide by “clean campaign” pledges. It was, as you might imagine, an uphill battle. I was excited when a group in Toledo, Ohio, picked up the idea on their own and pressed for the 2001 mayoral race — which was getting quite brutal in the context of the times — to adopt such a pledge.

For the weekly newsletter of my organization, the Institute for Global Ethics, I penned a piece titled Toledo, Cradle of Civility, which began:

Great civic movements start in the unlikeliest of places — the front section of the Montgomery bus from which Rosa Parks refused to move, the Sacramento steak house where Mothers Against Drunk Driving first met, Sproul Plaza at UC Berkeley where Mario Savio’s filibuster began the Free Speech Movement. To these history may one day allow us to add another: the restaurant in Toledo, Ohio, where a group of citizens met one night last August to discuss what they could do to demand a better quality of political campaign.

After a particularly tense debate between the mayoral candidates, the local daily newspaper, the Toledo Blade, had called on the front-runners (Lucas County treasurer Ray Kest and state representative Jack Ford) to sign a code of conduct to help keep the campaign out of the mud. To the surprise of many observers, they agreed. Brought together by the Toledo League of Women Voters, a group of citizens came together at Mountain Jack’s restaurant on the outskirts of town for the first of many meetings devoted to monitoring the code. Thus was born the Lucas County Citizens Clean Campaign Committee.

It was an effort that succeeded where many thought it would fail. By the end of the campaign, the talk radio hosts who had derided the committee were quoting it, and the Blade would only cover accusations of negative campaigning if the committee had already weighed in.

Since that time, the nascent, local effort has had its ups and downs. The Lucas County Citizens Clean Campaign Committee disbanded in 2004 under the weight of little public notice and other political interests its members wanted to pursue. Campaigns continued to increase in intensity and nastiness. But the Toledo Blade continued the effort after a fashion, calling on every mayoral candidate since then to adopt the pledge, and then holding them to its standards.

So I was delighted when I saw this week’s Blade editorial, calling on the current candidates for mayor to agree to and abide by a pledge:

Screenshot

Click to go to article

As we have done during every Toledo mayoral campaign since 2001, The Blade is publicly challenging the general-election candidates to sign the Clean Campaign Pledge developed by the Institute of Global Ethics, a Maine-based nonpartisan group that promotes ethical behavior and integrity in public and private life.

The voluntary pledge appears on this page. Its language hasn’t changed since the institute composed it 15 years ago, but political campaigns at all levels surely have. They’ve gotten nastier, dirtier, less transparent, more polarized, and much more awash in money for go-for-the jugular TV ads.

Negative campaigning often does more to alienate voters than to educate them. And as the shameful 15-percent turnout for last week’s Toledo primary makes clear, we can’t afford to turn off any more voters.

That’s why this year’s campaign between Mayor Mike Bell and his challenger, City Councilman D. Michael Collins, needs to be civil and respectful — of the candidates as well as of voters’ intelligence. The contenders must focus on issues and ideas, rather than personal insults and toxic attacks.

. . .

In its coverage of this year’s campaign, The Blade will continue to fact-check what the candidates say, whether or not they sign the pledge. If we see bad behavior, we’ll call the candidates on it.

In past campaigns, independent citizens’ groups reviewed candidates’ compliance with the pledge they had signed, and investigated and publicized charges of violations. It would be great if similar watchdogs emerged in the remaining weeks of this campaign, but it’s getting late.

Kudos to The Blade for keeping this effort going. Culture change can be a thankless business and it takes time.

Thank you for my friend and colleague Paula Mirk for passing on the news.

 

 

Categories: ethics · politics

Means And Ends

September 14, 2013 · Leave a Comment

Today, and for the past few months, I have been thinking a great deal about moral philosophy. I’ve observed my own convictions becoming unsteady, so I wanted to spend time considering — and articulating — what I fundamentally believe. What is the basis of right action? How do I define right action in my own case? How ought I comport myself?

Immanuel Kant (1724-1804)

Immanuel Kant (1724-1804)

These thoughts bring me back to my old friend, the philosopher Immanuel Kant (1724-1804). His thinking revolutionized our approach to reason and morality. Kant’s thinking outlined a deontological ethics — meaning an ethics based on duty. An act is right not due to their particular consequences, but due to the motives of the actor.

The Categorical Imperative

Kant articulated what he termed a categorical imperative — that is, an overarching duty from which all other moral duties flow. In his 1785 Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals, he formulates it in various ways. The first two are of most interest to me:

  1. Act only according to that maxim whereby you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law without contradiction.
  2. Act in such a way that you treat humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of any other, never merely as a means to an end, but always at the same time as an end.

If there is a standard of behavior that I try to aspire to, it is encompassed in the second formulation above: Act as if people are ends in themselves, not simply means.

In the modern world, this often shows up as treating others — especially strangers — with dignity. Look the homeless person in the eye and greet them. Thank the server at the food truck. Make eye contact with other drivers and apologize when you cut them off.

When you consider what it really means to treat others as ends in themselves, it can become daunting. It means giving those around us the freedom to make decisions. It involves trusting others even when risky.

I see the categorical imperative as something to strive for, something ideal to try to order my life around. I know I frequently fall short. But I try.

Categories: ethics

Nine Rules For Discussing Tough Issues Online

December 18, 2012 · 6 Comments

Apropos of yesterday’s lament about uncivil behavior online, here are some rules I try to follow when discussing contentious issues on social media and in blog comment threads:

  1. Say nothing online I would not say in person
  2. Be very mild with language because it can be misconstrued and taken the wrong way
  3. Remember my conversation is public
  4. Never call someone by name if I am criticizing a view they hold (“Some people have argued that _____” not “Bill said ___”)
  5. Include statements that allow for disagreements (“I recognize others may disagree . . . “)
  6. Be mild in my proclamations (“I tend to think cats deserve cuddling” not “You should cuddle cats”)
  7. Protect others when they are attacked (on threads I am hosting, and sometimes elsewhere)
  8. If I change my mind, admit it and thank others for widening my views
  9. If I offend, apologize sincerely (without turning the blame back on them by saying I’m sorry they misunderstood me — a non-apology)

What would you add?

Categories: blogs · ethics

Anger In Online Interactions

December 17, 2012 · 3 Comments

The horrific events at Sandy Hook Elementary School have set people across the nation on edge. People are shocked, grieving, angry, confused, frightened, and more. People are reaching out to one another. In person (on the street, in coffee houses) and on social media (Facebook, Twitter, blog comment threads) people are conversing.

As a proponent of dialogue throughout my career, in some ways this is heartening. We don’t engage in serious conversation about public issues nearly enough. Still, it is dispiriting to think it takes a national tragedy of such magnitude to get us talking.

scream and shout

Scream and Shout, by Flickr user mdanys

More troubling, though, is to observe how difficult it seems to be for people to be civil to one another. I see thread after thread (especially on Facebook) devolve into name calling. This is not new, of course. It comes with the territory online — people are not really themselves online. Or, rather: they are themselves without the filters we usually have to enable us to operate in polite company. I will say something online that I would not say to your face.

This is a challenge those of us who try to hold open spaces for people to talk about difficult issues often face. Over the past few days, I found myself reliving my time as publisher of the local news site, Rockville Central — which my friend Cynthia Cotte Griffiths and I ran in order to provide a space for dialogue. One of the reasons that we shut it down after a number of successful years was the sheer nervous energy we had to expend maintaining the norms and decorum. On Facebook, I have experienced the same anxiety as I watch personal friends who don’t know one another go at it on threads I established. Then, sometimes, when I ask them to be civil, they attack me in turn.

I like to believe that, as a society, we have not yet adapted to social media as a medium of conversation. We behave in very crude ways to one another because we haven’t collectively figured out what the rules are.

However, I often fear I am wrong — that, in fact, we have figured out what the rules are and, in general, they are anything goes.

Photo credit: Flickr user mdanys.

Categories: blogs · ethics

Time For A Conversation

November 2, 2012 · 1 Comment

A good friend writes on Facebook:

Now is not the time, but sometime soon, while the searing memories are still fresh, we must have a candid conversation about how we all will live in the new world climate change is bringing to us. After a disaster, there is a defiant urge to remake what was lost, brick for brick and beam for beam. But the real challenge before us will be not to remake what was, but to make something different. As our case is new, so we must think anew and act anew.

Stilt Houses

By Flickr user dpu-ucl

I think he’s right . . . and I believe there is a growing consensus that it is time to have a national (or global) conversation about climate change and how to live with it. This conversation would not simply be an argument over what causes it or whether it is occurring. Neither would it be simply about how to stop, or slow it.

It would be about what we should do — how should we live, how can we adapt, how can we mitigate?

This is not a technical conversation, but a political (small p) conversation. That is, it is rooted in what we hold valuable. We have mistaken the problem as something that experts can handle, and because all the answers really cause us to face tensions between things held valuable, we slide into partisan rancor. It’s time to hold a conversation on that level, rooted in our concerns and aspirations.

There is a very interesting piece by Andrew J. Hoffman in the latest Stanford Social Innovation Review on this topic — sorry to say, it may be behind a paywall.

Photo credit: Flickr user dpu-ucl

Categories: culture · ethics · leadership · politics

Creating Values Skeptics: My Latest Column at Ethics Newsline

August 14, 2012 · Leave a Comment

I write a monthly column published at Ethics Newsline, the flagship publication for the Institute for Global Ethics and one which I helped develop when I worked at that organization. This month’s column is about the “ethics fatigue” that has grown up around today’s young people, as they are constantly bombarded with aspirational messages and lists of important values and virtues.

Ethics Newsline

I recently had the good fortune to lead a session on leadership and ethics for a group of high school students. It went well — all except for one part, which fell sort of flat. As I reflected on the ups and downs of the talk, I realized that I had been having the same experience with high schoolers for some time.

I’ve been giving addresses on ethics and leadership in public life for many years and in front of many audiences. These events almost always go well and generate insights in the attendees. I liberally mix my experience with the Institute for Global Ethics, my experience in civic engagement, and my experience in politics to make the basic point that, in public life, we ought to root our decision-making in shared values rather than solely in policy or law. A part of these sessions often includes an exercise in which people identify and discuss what their shared, core values might be. Later in my address, I typically use this as a foundation for other points about how to analyze situations and make decisions.

It is this “shared values” portion that fell flat with my high school audience — as it has been for some time. Why? Students these days continually are bombarded with messages throughout school and extracurricular activities that remind them of what their “core values” ought to be. There are posters in the hallways with acronyms designed to generate pep and morals all at once. There are T-shirts, stickers, decals, pencils, and more — all boasting aspirational lists of values and virtues to be memorized, abided by, and spread the message.

What’s more, many students also have been subjected to meetings, classes, lectures, and rallies designed to underscore these values. They’ve broken into small groups, shared their feelings, written on white boards, and addressed postcards to themselves as reminders, all in workshops designed with the same attention to psychology that an adult-education specialist might use when designing a high-stakes board retreat.

The end result increasingly appears to be cynicism and fatigue.

(Continued . . . )

Read the full piece here.

Categories: ethics · leadership

The University of Virginia and The New Transparency: My Latest Column At Ethics Newsline

July 10, 2012 · Leave a Comment

As many friends know, I have a monthly column published at Ethics Newsline, the flagship publication for the Institute for Global Ethics and one which I helped develop when I worked at that organization. This month’s column is about the lessons organizational leaders should take from the recent University of Virginia contretemps.

Ethics Newsline

One email caught my eye recently. On Sunday morning, June 10, I received an announcement that the University of Virginia’s president was stepping down. The announcement was terse. “On behalf of the Board of Visitors, we are writing to tell you that the Board and President Teresa Sullivan today mutually agreed that she will step down as president of the University of Virginia effective August 15, 2012.” Later in the announcement, a statement from President Sullivan referred to “a philosophical difference of opinion.”

Odd, I thought to myself. She’s new on the job. This sounds like she was fired.

Odd indeed. The announcement email, which had been sent under the name of Helen Dragas, Rector of the Board of Visitors (akin to board chair), turned out to be just the opening act of an intense drama that played out over the next 16 days.

This drama has forever changed how the university of Virginia will do its business. Beyond that, however, it also perfectly illustrates a new set of institutional ethics that leaders must deal with.

(Continued . . . )

Read the full piece here.

Categories: ethics · leadership

Only Divided Because We Think We Are: My Latest Column At Ethics Newsline

June 12, 2012 · Leave a Comment

As some know, I have begun a monthly column published at Ethics Newsline, the flagship publication for the Institute for Global Ethics and one which I helped develop when I worked at that organization. This month’s column is about recent research that sheds light on just how divided we are — in public vs. in private life.

Ethics Newsline

Only Divided Because We Think We Are

It is conventional wisdom among those who worry about the strength of civil society that Americans are polarized due in large part to the rhetoric of the political and media elites. Deep down, we are not so different from our neighbors, but the messages we hear from the news shows and from political podiums is that we must vanquish our foes lest the nation spiral ever downward.

New research by the Pew Research Center adds nuance to that, and provides a troubling counterpoint. According to this new report, Americans have remained moderately divided on important issues when traditional demographic measures are taken into account — race, gender, age, income status, etc. The differences have remained steady at (depending on the marker) between 4 and 14 percent from 1987 to 2012.

During this same period, however, the difference between Democrats and Republicans has climbed rather steadily and steeply, from 10 percent in 1987 to 18 percent today.

Put simply, the parties are pulling farther and farther apart.

And it’s not just the parties. While it is true that people have been abandoning both parties in public opinion surveys, so that “Independent” is now an important designation, the truth is that most Independents lean one way or another.

“Even when the definition of the party bases is extended to include these leaning independents, the values gap has about doubled between 1987 and 2012,” according to the researchers.

That’s the bad news. But there is also good news, mixed with a warning call, when we look more closely. Because it is not truly the case that people are drifting apart when it comes to values — it is our institutions drifting apart, leaving us behind.

(Continued . . .)

Read the full piece here.

Categories: ethics · politics

When The Curtain Parts: My Latest Column At Ethics Newsline

May 8, 2012 · Leave a Comment

As some know, I have begun a monthly column published at Ethics Newsline, the flagship publication for the Institute for Global Ethics and one which I helped develop when I worked at that organization. This month’s column is about the lessons to be drawn for leaders from the Secret Service and DEA scandals.

Ethics Newsline

When The Curtain Parts

Last week, two figures at the heart of separate scandals spoke up, adding another side to each of their stories. Together, they offer a sobering view to those who lead organizations about what can happen when the curtains are parted.

The first: A woman who appears to be the Cartagena prostitute whose early morning dispute over payment with a U.S. Secret Service officer touched off a controversy that already has claimed the careers of nine officers came forward and spoke to Caracol News in Cartagena. Dania Suarez described a night of carousing with more than one American on the night in question. Her interview has spurred members of Congress to ask why the Secret Service had not been able to interview her in their own investigation, which they now say is closed.

Meanwhile, in the United States, the University of California San Diego student who was forgotten in a holding cell for five days and who barely survived by drinking his own urine, told his story. He was swept up in a raid as U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) officers cracked down on a major Ecstasy distribution ring. Daniel Chong, however, appeared to be at the raided house in order to smoke some marijuana. DEA agents later decided to cut him loose, along with others who had been picked up in the raid, but never returned to his cell after telling him he would soon be free to go. He says he could hear agents outside of his cell and called for their help. They either never heard him or ignored his pleas. When he finally was discovered, he was near kidney failure and had to be hospitalized. This event is building momentum, there are investigations pending, and he is suing.

Each of these situations was touched off by one unfortunate event: an early morning dispute over payment, a misplaced prisoner. Each event then pulled the covers off of what may be bigger problems. . . .

Read the full piece here.

Categories: ethics