On civility

Bill Sledzik, a friend and former faculty colleague at Kent State, has an insightful post on his ToughSledding blog, “Rush was right! But did we listen?” Well, no. The “Rush” here is Rushworth M. Kidder who has written extensively on ethics and ethical conduct, and his book “How Good People Make Tough Choices” should be required reading for everyone in government, business, education and community service work.

Bill’s point: Our current problems are directly related to unethical conduct on the part of a host of individuals. That’s a gross generalization of a thoughtful post. So I encourage you to read Bill’s post. Then come back here because I have been thinking about this question of ethics all weekend. And again this morning during my run.

I equate ethics with civility. And without getting into definitions, I really believe the two from a practical matter are the same. Respect yourself. Respect others. Respect society. Meet those tests and you have civility — and ethical conduct.

Right now in this country we don’t have much of either. The financial meltdown stems directly from an ethical collapse coupled with unchecked greed. The result: no trust, confidence. And we can’t even discuss the issues during a presidential campaign because of a lack of civility. John McCain, after some nasty confrontations with his own supporters last week, “Supporters jeer as McCain calls Obama a ‘decent person,'” now says he will be tough when campaigning, but respectful. We’ll see.

John Ong, then the CEO of my employer BFGoodrich, gave the commencement address at Ohio State University in 1996. His talk was titled simply, “On Civility.” I’m proud to say that I had a small part in shaping the remarks. I’m even more proud of what Ong, an honorable, ethical business manager, had to say because his points resonate very much today.

Since 1996 was the dark ages before widespread use of the Internet, I’ll have to retype the main points of Ong’s talk. If you want a copy let me know and I’ll mail one to you.

On Civility — John Ong

Just after the end of the first World War, a distinguished English judge, Lord Moulton, made a thoughtful address to the Authors’ Club in London on the subject of law and manners. He observed that, in a democratic society, there is a spectrum of actions by individuals which society regards in different ways. At one end of the spectrum, there is the realm of law which constrains individual action according to the moral and statutory standards which society has decreed. One cannot commit murder, or violate the antitrust laws, or operate one’s business in violation of environmental regulations, to cite just three disparate examples.

At the other end of the spectrum is the realm of absolute freedom. As citizens of a democratic state, we have a wide area of discretion in which we can act as we please. We may, for instance, travel where we want, live where we will, and associate with those we wish.

Between these two realms, however, Moulton saw an intermediate zone which he, being an early 20th century Englishman, designated the domain of good form or the domain of manners. It was his view, which I share, that in this intermediate zone, all of us are, or should be, limited in our freedom of action by a host of ethical attitudes, social conventions, and behavorial standards which, while unenforceable, represent a code of conduct which many generations have found necessary to the maintenance of a cohesive social fabric.

Our ability to remain a great and vibrant democracy is dependent on our ability to obey these self-imposed restrictions on our freedom of action. Otherwise, we will either see the significant extension of prescriptive laws, a situation likely to lead to a tyrannical government and a timorous people, or we will experience an anarchistic expansion of free will which will lead to the centrifugal destruction of our social order.

It is our collective observance of these unenforceable, self-imposed social practices that I call civility.

While Moulton was an Englishman, his remarks some 70 years ago applied perfectly to our country as well as his. Much change has occurred in both countries over the intervening years, and some of those changes have involved an erosion of civility which Moulton would find distressing and which I believe represent a very real threat to our long-term survival as a great and democratic nation.

And in the conclusion to this talk more than a decade ago, Ong provides some guidance for what we need to do to resolve the mess we are in today. He said: “Only a resumption of civility within our country shows promise of providing relief from our social ills.”

Here’s the full text:

We have much to gain by striving as individuals or as groups to regain a large measure of civility. No great nation has long survived a massive regime of intrusive prescriptive law. No great society was even created without the willingness of its members to sublimate themselves to a reasonable degree in the interests of social cohesion.

We can all agree that our society today has many problems and weaknesses. I suggest that we cannot address these, for the most part, by either legislation or an expansion of individual permissiveness. Only a resumption of civility within our country shows promise of providing relief from our social ills.

Civility — and ethics. Might just be worth a try.

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One response to “On civility

  1. Pingback: A nation of cheaters? « PR on the run

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