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Ethical Autonomy

  • Posted on March 19, 2014 at 10:00 AM

It’s spring break from my classes, so I wanted to use this time to share a few of the things I’ve learned in my ethics class last week. In administrative ethics, the dual focus is organizational ethics and individual ethics. Ethical autonomy is where this dual focus collides.

Apparently, there are a variety of theories that try to explain how organizations erode the individual ethic of their members. We see the results of this erosion in our government sectors, our business sectors, our nonprofit sectors, and even in our advocacy groups. I find the theories, as I understand them, of Alberto Guerreiro Ramos most compelling, because of all the theories covered in Terry L. Cooper’s The Responsible Administrator it is the only one that seems to see this tendency in the larger culture, instead of restricting it to within the organizational environment.

Essentially, human beings become compartmentalized in order to fit into society by placing themselves in one of society’s defining boxes. In order to combat this tendency, we need to emphasize our whole personhood and hold onto that, which will allow us to make individual ethical judgments, even when they go against the assertions of the organization(s) we participate in. In more loaded words, we have to remember that we are individual people—whole people—in order to keep ourselves from unwittingly selling our souls to the organizations we choose to work for/with.

Last week’s studies made me think of some of my previous employment experiences and the effort trainers and managers made to bring me into the fold. Cooper, citing Milgram (1974), describes this process as the agentic shift, which involves diminishing one’s conscience in order to conform to an organization’s hierarchal structure. I realized, quite readily, that I was never any good at this. I may “buy in” to an organization’s message, but as soon as it involves compromising my own ethical standards I disengage, reexamine, and reassert my sense of self.

I don’t know how extensive this is, but I’ve found a similar tendency among many people on the autism spectrum, and it’s one of the autistic “traits” I tend to admire most. Perhaps part of the social “deficiencies” associated with autism is an inability or an unwillingness to submit oneself to a collective conscience or ethic. Being neither a psychologist nor a sociologist, I wouldn’t know how to test this theory and I’m not even sure I would know what to look for to see if someone else had already done so. What I do know, however, is that, from my point of view, if this is true of all or part of people on the spectrum, then I must say it’s a good thing and may even be an adaptive measure to correct some of the corruption rampant in our societies.

I am conscious of my individual responsibility: It doesn’t matter who tells me to do something, if I think it’s wrong and I were to do it, then I know I would be responsible for having done it. So, I don’t do it. Apparently, this consciousness is unusual. Ethics researchers are actually investing resources in discovering how to make people conscious of their own culpability. They talk about building an ethic of awareness, which means that people need to be aware of ethical situations in order to choose ethical action. They also talk about limiting organizational loyalty, meaning they’re looking into ways to prevent people from submitting themselves completely to their organization(s).

These are things I do naturally. I haven’t always had the courage to stand up for what I knew was right, nor have I always known how to go about it, but I’ve always felt it. What does it mean for our societies that ethical autonomy is abnormal? I think the answer goes far to explain the rampant corruption in our politics, our governance, our businesses, and our culture. Perhaps the real question is this: Why, in such a society, would anyone want to be normal?