Good Ethics Require More than a Good Feeling

In The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, I list a number of difficult employer/employee situations in church and Christian organizations and ask, “Why do churches and other Christian organizations seem to handle employee relationships so poorly? Or is it that Christian employees have unreasonable expectations of their employers? Why do apparently good, well-meaning, Christian people seem to struggle on both sides of the employer-employee relationship?”

According to Augustine’s Confessions, people always do what they feel is good or right at the time. So for example, Augustine says that he stole some pears with a group of friends even though he knew it was wrong, but at the time, it had felt right to him as a way of gaining the other boys’ friendship.

So why do churches and other Christian organizations seem to handle employee relationships so poorly? As I understand Augustine, the answer is not necessarily because corporate personnel practices have crept in as some suggest, nor that people are being deliberately mean-spirited, but because at that moment people feel they are doing the right thing.

But careful ethical decision-making requires more than a feeling that one is doing the right thing.

That’s why I appreciate Ethical Business: Cultivating the Good in Organizational Culture (Anselm Academic, 2016) by Richard Kyte, who is the Director of the D.B. Reinhart Institute for Ethics in Leadership. While written for business, this book’s ethical approach and principles apply equally well to churches and Christian organizations. As a text for post-secondary students studying ethics, it’s also an engaging read for a broader audience, with discussion questions and resources for further reading at the end of each chapter. It’s also clearly written for practitioners with many real-life illustrations and case studies.

On ethics as more than right vs. wrong

This book offers:

an expansive view of ethics, considered not just as “doing the right thing” but also as living well or flourishing. If the goal is living well, then organizational ethics should focus not just on how to respond to problems as they occur but on how to create the working conditions under which people can flourish. . . . ethics is not just about individuals doing “right things.” It is also about organizations creating conditions in which life can be “good.” (page 7)

On the importance of developing an ethical culture

a fundamental fact about ethical decision-making in the workplace: it is fully effective only within the context of an already established ethical culture. In the absence of such a culture, ethical decision-making is severely limited, because the open dialogue upon which it depends cannot take place. (page 10)

On the importance of treating one another with respect

The movie [Desk Set] suggests that the real threat of the modern, highly efficient bureaucratic workplace may not be that machines are replacing people, but rather that people are often treated like machines. This raises a significant ethical question for anyone who works in an organization, especially for those who have significant leadership roles. What does it mean to treat a person with dignity and respect and not as a thing? And why is that important? (page 42) . . . . To treat them as if their subjectivity were irrelevant is to do violence to their nature. (page 47)

On the importance of character

Without virtue, even the best techniques and strategies will be employed in the wrong ways, or at the wrong times, or on the wrong people. (page 56)

For the author, training in ethical decision-making must include both “how to think clearly and consistently in difficult and confusing circumstances” and “how to engage others in constructive conversation about what to do” (page 107). To this end, he presents a four-part model of ethical thinking that includes (pages 119-133):

Truth

What are the facts and relevant laws, institutional polices, and professional standards? What are the possible actions?

Consequences

For each possible action, who is most affected and how? Which action will bring the most benefit and the least harm?

Character

Can the possible action be carried out with wisdom and compassion, in a way that builds trust?

Fairness

Do the possible actions treat others with respect, the way that you would want to be treated? Do they enhance the autonomy of others or diminish them?

There’s a lot more to each of these four areas and to this helpful introduction to ethical thinking. Please visit the Anselm Academic website to read an excerpt of the first twenty pages of Ethical Business, and/or if you’re a course instructor considering a textbook for a class, you can request a review copy.

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Thank you for reading. If you’re concerned about the good, the bad, and the ugly of church employment and how we can all do better, please share this article and consider signing up for my free updates. I’m praying and working for positive change, and hope you’ll join me.

Lead Pastor of a mid-size, multi-staff church and the author of Christ is For Us, Sacred Pauses, and other books on Christian living. Blogging on Writing and Other Acts of Faith (aprilyamasaki.com) and When You Work for the Church: the good, the bad, and the ugly, and how we can all do better (whenyouworkforthechurch.com).

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