Is Ethical Behavior Disruptive?

In her engagement with Bob Giacalone and Mark Promislo’s AMLE article “Broken When Entering” (2013, vol 12, no 1), Kathy Lund Dean raises an important and somewhat disturbing possibility about ethical behavior. Giacolone and Promislo’s concerns about the “stigma of goodness”, she explains, suggest

… not just that some people act in virtuous ways that others may think are ridiculous as they pursue their own agendas toward wealth and power, but that the virtuous themselves represent a disruption to carefully cultivated bottom-line norms that may be emotionally disconfirming to the extent that virtuous employees must be stopped.

That’s a pretty stark truth to consider, but I have to say that I agree that it’s an issue. Virtues are only meaningful if they are sometimes, and perhaps characteristically, “inconvenient” (in Al Gore’s sense). That means both that virtuous behavior will necessarily constitute an impediment to other personal and organizational projects (“agendas toward wealth and power”) and that virtuous people (at least those who don’t hide their virtue very well) will be perceived as a threat by others. Those others may themselves be virtuous (indeed, they may worry about how their own virtue will undermine their organizational ambitions), but they will nonetheless be afraid that “higher aims” will take precedence over the organization. No matter how “good” you are, it’s a strange situation to be in to recognize that there’s a sense in which it’s counter to your interests.

Obviously, this is itself an organizational issue. We can imagine organizations that are highly vulnerable to ethical behavior. But we can also imagine organizations in which what Kathy calls “the costs of ethical behavior” are already, as it were, “sunk” into the daily organizational routines. This is what we sometimes call “due process”, and, by insisting on it even before an ethical issue has arisen, we create a space for ethical behavior that is already “paid for”, if you will. Being virtuous will then not be a disruption, but business as usual. This is certainly what we’d hope is true of our academic environments.

As always, these are just provisional thoughts. I’d love to hear what readers think.

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