“What ought one do?” a question often asked by leaders when considering how to make a tough decision a good decision.
It’s a question the great philosopher Plato put to his wise teacher Socrates, around 400 years BC as they sat in the Greek Agora, probably discussing the political issues of the day.
I like to imagine that, in response, Socrates turned to his bright precocious student, gave a big sigh and delivered his philosophy advice on an ethical decision by saying something like:
“It’s pretty simple Plato, one must follow one’s purpose and do what is good and right”.
But if it was that simple why is our trust in politicians and those who lead our corporations and financial institutions at such a low in terms of public satisfaction? What can today’s leaders learn from those ancient Greek philosophers that’s useful when considering how to make tough decisions and stay true to what is good?
What the Greeks left us to think about
Socrates’ teaching has informed philosophical discussion on morals and ethics for the past two millennia. Perhaps you have heard of his famous quote that the unexamined life is not worth living.
For many leaders, this call to examine the purpose of life, can be a useful prompt to examine the values that drive your behaviour in life, work and public office.
Like Plato, leaders have been pondering the question of “what should I do?” ever since those ancient times when democracy seemed like a brilliant idea for those Athenians.
Unfortunately, the Athenians didn’t think to include women, foreigners or slaves in their democracy; that would come eventually many centuries later (women finally got the vote in 1952). However, although suffering from a severe case of unconscious bias towards anyone that wasn’t an adult, of male gender or a Greek citizen, the great philosophers did leave western civilisation with a useful ethical framework to assist us to think through how to make good decisions.
The three considerations of making a difficult decision a good one
As part of my work, I coach Mayors and deliver training to local government councillors in good governance. Discussions cover issues such as how to manage potential conflicts of interests or how to ensure fair consultation when gathering information to assist in their decision making. Often circumstances arise where a councillor needs to make a tough decision about ‘what ought I do’.
By taking a philosophical approach to decision making we can consider three components of thinking. These have been outlined by ethicist Dr Simon Longstaff of The Ethics Centre in his very practical book, Everyday Ethics.
According to Dr Longstaff, ethics “can be viewed through the prism of values, principles and purpose”. This forms the basic structure of human choice and hence decision making.
When it comes to making a tough decision, I suggest to leaders that this ethical framework can assist them. Put simply, it’s these three questions:
- What are your values that underpin your choices about what is good?
Dr Longstaff calls values the “guideposts giving you direction on your life journey”. Can you list yours? If you need a prompt, there are various check lists and tests on-line you can take to determine your values.
2. Is your decision informed by a framework of principles that covers what is right?
The principles that inform what is right could be religious (such as “do unto others what you would have them do to you”) or even legislation such as the good governance rules of a Local Government Act. Can you list some of your principles?
3. It your decision aligned to your purpose of why you are here?
It can be useful to contemplate your purpose in life and consider why you choose to do the work you do, whether it’s as an elected official, community leader or a manager leading a team or organisation. Consider what is the difference you wish to make in the world through your actions.
What role does ethics play in politics? It seems that we are losing confidence in our political leaders to make good (ethical) decisions for our nation. In fact, a number of recent studies measuring Australian’s satisfaction with democracy have shown the level of satisfaction in our politicians is plummeting.
Last year, the Eldeman Trust Barometer found that a majority of Australians believe their government is a broken institution. Another study by Australian National University researchers reported on attitudes towards democracy following the July 2016 Australian Election Study (AES). Disturbingly, they found that 40% of Australians surveyed said they were not satisfied with democracy in Australia (levels not recorded since the days following the 1975 dismissal of the Whitlam Labor government).
While levels of trust in our politicians are low now, sadly it’s probably going to get worse. This survey was conducted before the debacle around Section 44 of our constitution where 12 sitting MPs had to resign from parliament after admitting that they failed to declare they were duel citizens before nominating for office. It was also before news surfaced of the personal affairs of the ex-Deputy Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce.
Holding leaders accountable for making good decisions
Is it any wonder trust in politicians is so low when much of the current political discourse focuses on personalities, media performance and poll results?
It’s time to hold our leaders accountable for their decision making and bring trust back into our political system.
Imagine what the debate could be like if we challenged our leaders on their values, purpose and principles? In the end, it might give them pause to reflect a little bit more on ‘what ought I do”? It could even lead to better decision making.
Ruth McGowan OAM is a consultant, trainer and coach in local government with a passion for politics and good decision making. www.ruthmcgowan.com
*Photo credit: Wikimedia commons detail from The School of Athens, by Raphael.