Gray Areas and Integrity

Notes for a talk given at the University of Southern California on January 26, 2006.


The invitation I received was to provide a brief discussion of ethical “gray areas” in professional practice. I was told to “explore how to analyze the ethical issues at hand and somehow encourage students to develop integrity (“courage”) to do the right thing.” Since this is USC Leadership Week, I presume there is some special concern for leaders, but the main things at issue here seem to concern everyone, so I will not go into leadership roles as such.

“Gray areas” occur in any area where one applies more or less general rules to practice or action. It is impossible exhaustively to cover concrete reality and action with general rules where the appropriate action clicks out as from a computer. This is as true of farming as of surgery. And of course it is true of ethics. In some cases—philosophical hair-splitting aside—what one morally ought or ought not to do is clear. In other cases it is not. Sometimes because rules have not thoughtfully been provided. Sometimes because the decision is simply beyond the range of reasonable provision of rules. For example, you don’t provide explicit rules concerning how much company money should be spent on shower curtains and umbrella stands for private use—to take a case from CEO immoral dramas of the recent past.

In gray areas, one has to exercise judgment, and judgment is always fallible—which does not mean it is always wrong, and certainly not that it is always irresponsible. The necessity of fallible judgment is, in itself, no threat to moral integrity. But such a threat can arise in two ways. One way we can be morally irresponsible in gray areas is to fail to develop strategies to hedge our fallibility. This can happen through arrogance, dogmatism, or simple failure to exercise due diligence. Practices such as second opinions, consultations, exercises with case studies, and check-lists are strategies for being morally responsible for fallible judgment. Of course their utility extends far beyond gray areas. But an appropriate moral concern for the good the particular practice or action is there to promote imposes a moral obligation, and not just a technical one, to develop and implement appropriate strategies of judgment that become a constant and reliable element in the practitioners character and life. They can never guarantee that our judgments are right, whether in grading papers or in doing brain surgery. But they can guarantee that we have done our duty, even when our judgment was mistaken.

Moral integrity is a matter of living a life unified around, integrated with, our concern to be a good person and do the right thing. We can reasonably think of a morally good person as one who is effectively intent upon advancing the various goods of human life with which they are effectively in contact, in a manner that respects the relative degrees of importance of those goods and the extent to which the actions of the person in question can actually promote the existence and maintenance of those goods. (This is just an elaborate formulation of “The Golden Rule,” once your think it out.) Roughly, the right thing is the sort of thing a morally good person would do in given circumstances. Moral disintegration—lack of moral integrity—occurs insofar as one’s life and action is not effectively organized around the objective of being a good person and doing the right thing. Moral integrity is a great attainment, and one that must be consciously and intelligently striven for through implementation of appropriate means, and the means will vary significantly depending upon the circumstances and gifting and “calling” of the particular person. One way to fail to “advance the various goods of human life with which one is effectively in contact,” and thus to be morally irresponsible and lack integrity, is to fail to develop strategies for dealing with areas where there are no clear moral guidelines.

The second way to be morally irresponsible in gray areas is to use the grayness of the area to favor your own private goods, of whatever kind, over the various goods which your situation and vocation are suited to serve. Familiar private goods are things like security, power, money, reputation or just plain “feel-good.” Not that these are inherently bad, or never to be pursued. But when they are pursued without regard to other goods with which one is “effectively in contact,” and especially when those goods are the ones your practice or profession is explicitly designed to serve—say health, learning, or justice—then that leads to moral disintegration and lack of integrity. One thing never to be forgotten is that, in human life, one may be required to sacrifice things that are very valuable, or at least very dear to them, in order to maintain moral integrity. A part of responsible “moral preparedness” is to recognize and keep in mind this possibility and embrace it. We rightly speak of “conflict of interests,” and recognize the threat they carry to moral or just professional integrity. Of course it is not the “conflict”—having the conflict—but caving into the wrong interests that violates moral integrity. When “conflicts of interest” occur, being in a gray area makes it even more difficult because the area is gray and therefore does not provide clear and recognized standards by which to fortify your intention to “do the right thing.” Here too one needs some strategies, which might include being alert to and especially wary of decisions that are greatly to your personal advantage or being in moral “accountability” relations to others close to you.

Today, there are special problems for professionals because of the growing tendency to think of excellence in one’s profession as having to do with technical excellence only. Being a good person, having good moral character, and any involvement with “the greater good,” is increasingly thought to have nothing to do with being a good professional. There are many profound issues involved here, and certainly one cannot—morally cannot—try to substitute moral goodness for technical competence. But, rightly understood, one does not have to choose between these, and there is good reason to found the drive toward greater technical competence upon the drive toward moral integrity. (What else can sustain it, egotism, money, reputation? If reputation and success are the goals, why not cheat to get it? The will to truth, on the other hand, is one indispensable part of moral integrity as here explained.)

Rules of “respectability,” even “professional respectability,” are not enough for moral integrity, not only because there will always be gray areas, but also because devious motivations will always find some ways of satisfying the rules in ways that allow or even justify moral evil and wrongdoing. To have the courage and character and means routinely to do what is morally good and right must rest, among other things, upon the resolute intentionally and settled character to be a person devoted to the goods of human life in the way suggested here.

Related Resources

You may also like...