By: Donald Hubin, PhD
Professor & Chair, OSU Department of Philosophy
Principal Investigator of the Innovation Group for the OSU Center for Ethics and Human Values
One often hears reference to ethical (or moral) leadership. It sounds like a good thing—and certainly better than the opposite. But it’s worth considering what is involved in ethical leadership.
Many philosophers—especially those with a great love for theoretical simplicity—seek a single moral principle or value that will serve as the ground for all moral judgment. Regardless of the prospects for success for such endeavors, this is not how moral issues present themselves to us in ordinary life. Instead, moral conduct is guided by a variety of considerations. In particular, both moral goals and moral constraints seem indispensible in our ordinary view of proper moral evaluation. We’re all familiar with the errors that result from ignoring constraints in the pursuit of worthwhile goals: understanding the natural course of a disease like syphilis is a worthy goal; coming to that understanding by denying people medicine that is known to cure the disease is a morally impermissible way to achieve that goal.
But errors result as surely from focusing on moral constraints to the exclusion of moral goals. All too often, there is a tendency to treat the ethics of one’s profession or the ethics of leadership as if these things can be reduced, in good lawyerly fashion, to a set of requirements and prohibitions. The concept of ethical leadership is diminished if it is thought of as merely leading an organization through a maze of moral constraints. Ethical leadership requires keeping one’s eyes on a morally desirable prize, having the vision to set a course to that goal that doesn’t require treating others as mere means to its achievement, and displaying the ability to inspire others to follow that course.
What moral goals do you believe are essential for ethical leadership?