Saturday, February 28, 2009

Ethics and the Prince - Situational Ethics Today

In 1513 Niccolo Machiavelli published a book titled The Prince, a work that would become synonymous with a complete lack of moral and ethical behavior in the pursuit of power. In the 496 years that have passed since its first publication, The Prince has been reviled and rejected by many, while it has been studied and embraced by various leaders and scholars for its raw and unvarnished assessment of how leaders (Princes) come to power, and how they retain their position in the world.

One chapter (chapter XVIII) titled "In What Way Princes Should Keep Their Word", is of particular interest for those studying leadership in both public and private positions. Machiavelli has the uncanny knack of putting into words behaviors, feelings, and beliefs that exist deep within many who find themselves in leadership positions, and exposing the related costs and benefits in nonjudgmental terms. He applies no value systems other than those related to the desire to obtain and retain power. (Peter Koestenbaum would refer to this dark side of human behavior as the shadow side of the Leadership Diamond).

Here is an example from the beginning of chapter XVIII:
How praiseworthy it is that a prince keeps his word, and governs by candor instead of craft, everyone knows. Yet, the experience of our own time shows that those princes who had little regard for their word and had the craftiness to turn men's minds have accomplished great things and, in the end, have overcome those who governed their actions by their pledges. (P. 62, The Prince, Bantam Classic edition, March 1981)

Today's headlines are filled with examples of leaders who, knowingly or unknowingly, still subscribe to Machiavelli's assertion that those who have the "craftiness to turn men's minds" will be the ones who succeed in our society.

Machiavelli goes on to say:
... a wise prince cannot and should not keep his pledge when it is against his interest to do so and when his reasons for making the pledge are no longer operative. If all men were good, this would be a bad precept, but since they are evil and would not keep a pledge to you, then you need not keep yours to them. Nor did a prince ever lack legitimate reasons by which to color his bad faith." (P. 62, The Prince, Bantam Classic edition, March 1981)

Today, as in Machiavelli's time, situational ethics often come into play. When I assume that you are not ethical, or will not live up to your promises to me, I am immediately freed from any responsibility to keep my promises to you. Or, when the situation under which a promise was made changes, I am no longer expected to live up to my promise. I am free to behave as necessary under the new circumstances.

How often have we used this reasoning to excuse our decision to abandon a promise, contract, or pledge? This happens in both private industry and government. It happens in both national politics and local city councils. It happens among families and friends. We have seen this in many debates over the financial crisis, pension reform, and employment relationships. We have seen this in international business, foreign relations, and cultural conflicts.

The challenge for leaders is to be conscious of this natural and deeply rooted ability to rationalize away reasons to maintain ethical standards when situations change. Peter Koestenbaum writes that "... ethics contains two important elements. One is the profound value of empathy and the other is the overarching power of principle." (P. 108, The Philosophic Consultant) Maintaining a leader's connection to empathy and principle in a world of changing realities is challenging at best.

Koestenbaum goes on to say that "Being ethical is always a decision."(P. 114, The Philosophic Consultant) It is a choice, an act of free will. Therefore, it is necessary that leaders remain conscious that they have a choice when it comes to how they will demonstrate their ethics to the world.

Machiavelli explains that we can easily sacrifice our ethics to achieve what we see as a necessary end. Koestenbaum challenges us to keep empathy and principle in our minds as we choose what our behavior will be.

For leaders, the constant struggle is that what is easy is not always ethical, and what is ethical is not always easy.