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100 MAY 2007
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Thus conscience does make cowards of us all: The need for moral courage in these times

Frances Ricks

The 100th Issue of this journal seems like a good place to explore the question, “Why when we know the right thing to do (say for the 100th time), don’t we do it?” My own research and that of Rushworth Kidder (2006) demonstrates what Euripides said years ago,

Once in a while in the long night I ponder moral life and how it is ruined. Not from bad judgment do people go wrong, many are quite reasonable. No like, it’s this: we know what is right, we understand it, but we do not carry it out. Either from laziness or we value something else, some pleasure. (Euripides, Hippolytos)

I have spent many of my 25 years as a Child and Youth Care educator and trainer wrestling with matters of ethics and standards of practice:

At the time such experiences surprised, alarmed, and dismayed me. Then I came across this quote that gave me some understanding and comfort as I struggled with my conscience and my indetermination to act.

Ethics which rely on the (political) categories of established thought and/or seeks to solidify or cement them – into institutionalized rights and freedoms, rules and regulations, and principles of practice – is not so much an ethic as an abdication of ethics for politics under another description (Finn, 1994, p. 101).

I have come to believe that we have been lulled to sleep in determining our ethical choices by these “categories of established” thought which have led us to believe that there are right answers and that we should know what they are.

So why, when we know the right thing to do, don’t we do it?
This is a complex question about which I have concluded that “timing is everything”. When I track my own moral development I recall there was a time when I didn’t know that I didn’t know I was doing something wrong. There was a time when others thought I was doing something wrong; I was confused but too young to express confusion, and felt shamed when they pointed out how wrong I was. Later there were times when I knew the right thing to do and other people didn't, especially my parents! There was a seemingly “long time” that I wished I could figure out how to get others to see it my way. Then came the realization that I simply saw things differently and I said to my self, “Well, isn’t that different!” Later larger social issues loamed on every horizon and I began to wonder what my responsibilities were in terms of making things right. I began to see injustices and was in a position to do something about them. So, why didn’t I?

Some years back I summarized significant learning about moral thinking and acting from two ideas noted by my experience and read about in the literature. First was the idea of cultural values, how they vary from culture to culture and how powerful they are in shaping behaviour. For example, we live in a time when compliance is valued, (Miller, 1986); when someone says the “emperor is wearing no clothes” that person is hushed, if not punished (Hunt, 2000); or we stand by and watch evil deeds or damage to others without stepping in to stop what is happening (Miller, 2,000). It seems we dare not take on the system or the circumstances in it unless we are prepared to take some fall dished out by the culture.

Second was the research by Robert Kegan (1994) on adult cognitive development. He states it this way,

“Our current cultural curriculum design requires of adults a qualitative transformation of mind every bit as fundamental as the transformation from magical thinking to concrete thinking of the school age child, or the transformation from concrete to abstract thinking required of the adolescent.”

He goes on to say that this transformation occurs at different ages for adults and that we rarely take adult development into account when considering what people should be able to do. Adults are expected to follow the laws, standards and values of the larger culture by the time they are 21 years old, give or take a few years. In essence he is saying that we expect far too much from adults given their cognitive capacity and capability. This perspective suggests that my choices across “the times” cited earlier were simply a function of my cognitive capacity and that my intentions of selecting right, good or best choices were restricted by my capacity during those times.

Time to rethink the moral thinking and acting process
It is generally agreed that dealing with ethical choices is a matter of dealing with the unique and unusual. Such decisions cannot be prescriptive. For John Caputo (2002) this is due to ethical judgments being beset by two difficulties:

“They are not derived from a theoretical premise upon which they depend for the “justification – ethical judgments occur in the singular, in the unprecedented and unrepeatable situations of individual lives” (p.180).

Much earlier Aristotle argued that a schema was required so that we can have the wit to cope with the shifting circumstances of singularity that call for different things at different times. Both are saying that ethical reasoning must occur when we are challenged with peculiar circumstances that outwit our usual coping strategies. In an effort to overcome those circumstances we struggle to fit them into our categories of established thought rather than rely on our capacity to generate the unusual solutions that are warranted and required.

We know that we can do this. In difficult circumstances we can generate creative solutions. We have been making such decisions for many years across all professions. But what do others think? What will happen to me if I take an unusual path when I know it is the right thing to do? Do I dare? What will others think?

Because of the complexities in our reality, because we may be limited in terms of our ethical capacity as noted by Kegan (1994), and because unimplemented ethical decision making is pointless and we are responsible for that, (Kidder, 2006), I propose that we need a different perspective about ethics and ethical decision making. While we may continue to use our codes of ethics and standards of practice, select our members in Child and Youth Care, use tools for ethical decision-making, and even dare to teach courses on ethics, I suggest that it is time to put some emphasis on our members having “moral courage”. Perhaps moral courage is really what we need in order to enact any code and use any tools in making good choices about what to do.

Moral courage???
First, a word about moral courage. There are different perspectives on what is meant by moral courage. While the term is not often used, it is not a new term. Indeed, it is an old-fashioned term.

Moral courage is what characterizes people who face the pains and dangers of disapproval in the performance of what they believe to be duty. Henry Sedgwick (1913, p.333)

Moral courage is readiness to expose oneself to suffering or inconvenience which does not affect the body. It arises from firmness of moral principle and is independent of the physical constitution. One of the hardest test of a man's moral courage is his ability to face the disapproval even of his friends for an action which strikes at all the traditions of his class but which nevertheless he feels compelled to take in order to be at ease with his own conscience. Compton Mackenzie (1962, p. 11)

(Moral) Courage is the capacity to overcome the fear of shame and humiliation to admit one’s mistakes, to confess a wrong, to reject evil conformity to denounce injustice, and also to defy immoral and imprudent orders. William Ian Miller (2000, p.5)

Students in our ethics project on “Perspectives of Ethics in Child and Youth Care” (Ricks, 1997) concluded that,

Ethical practice was less about the lofty determination of right from wrong and more about the common experience of endeavoring to be personal while engaging in a process of ethical reasoning, moral thinking and personal determination of what matters. Most importantly, ethical endeavor requires being able to act on that determination.

To overcome these tendencies it may be useful to think of moral courage. However, in order to act from a place of moral courage I suggest that we need a different process. Moral courage is at the heart of this process.

What keeps us from acting on our choices/can moral courage help?

I think there are three things that get in our way of making good choices:

Self Protection: self protection is what we engage in to avoid being hurt, shamed, the dangers of disapproval, the humiliation to admit our mistakes, to confess a wrong, to reject evil conformity to denounce injustice, and to defy immoral and imprudent orders. It is what we do to save ourselves in order to feel safe and not have to confront others or the system because of the perceived “fallout” of what might happen.

Self-Serving: self-serving behaviour is putting the self first in terms of benefits, financial, social or personal gain. Mr. Dalainey of Enron put it this way, “I knew the right thing to do; I did not have the courage to do it – I was pretty high on myself” (quoted in the Globe and Mail, 2006). Self-serving behaviour likely involves some peculiar twist of mind or deception of self relative to others e.g. the rules do not apply to me.

Uninformed and confused/Don’t know that we don’t know: this is the absence of knowing, the lack of information, on matters such as “best practices”, good choices and how to make them, or on generally accepted knowledge of practice and practice issues. It is the absence of awareness that we do not know.

“Taking heart” from moral courage

Rushworth Kidder (2006) has pointed out:

While people may have fine values and develop great skill at moral reasoning and ethical decision-making, such mental activity counts for little if their decisions sit unimplemented on the shelf. What so often is needed is a third step: the moral courage to put these decisions into action.

I would agree with Kidder on this point, but want to suggest that we must first understand that all ethical decisions are personal decisions and within the realm of personal responsibility and commitment. Further, these decisions occur within our immediate space within a specified period of time and in an instant. At the same time there are demand characteristics in our midst which set off our alarm bells, causing us to fidget, lie, and make up something in order to get us out of the situation. Afterward we are likely to act as if nothing happened or as if it was a non-event even though it shows up in our bodies (headaches, backaches, neck aches), or dreams, or similar events that demand moral courage from us. We will continue to be like this until we see it differently.

We need some shifts in how “we think and how we be” in conducting ethical practice.

I list some ideas that are not in any particular order but attempt to take us to a different place in moral reasoning. Following the ideas are thought provoking questions so that you can play with each idea.

Ethics involves engaging in relative skepticism, while learning that “many are the ways”. If we came from a place of “many are the ways” we could avoid those political categories of established thought and generate solutions that are creative and specific to the peculiar life circumstances of everyone involved.

Ethics is a matter of making “best choices” rather that “right choices”, while doing no harm. If we came from a place of doing no harm we would enjoy a freedom from the institutionalized rights, rules and regulations of the day and see new possibilities.

Ethical comportment requires moral courage. This involves personal understanding of our “self-protection behaviours”, “self-serving behaviours”, and knowing when we don’t know that we don’t know and are confused. Self-awareness is the key to understanding the self and others. Inquiry is the pathway to knowing the self and others.

We are related to all things and require skills in realizing our conscience and consciousness while experiencing in each moment “the unfolding of the future”. We rarely stop and think in the moment “Where is this going? It seems to be so off and messy. How can I get this back on track so that we can co-create a solution?” This level of consciousness is the key to self-awareness. Further, it is the skill that opens the door to greater awareness of the subtleties and complexities of our moral encounters and endeavors. It is through the understanding of the subtlety and complexity of the encounters in the moment that we realize new opportunities for our future.

Living ethics requires compassion for and from everyone. If we were to live with compassion in our ethical decision-making then “right” and “wrong” would disappear. Right and wrong would be replaced with acceptance of “what is” in order to move toward greater acceptance of what might be.

Wouldn’t it be grand to think that ethical conduct could be clearly codified, to know that it is founded on certainties, and that to “be good” is simply to conform to these certainties? Unfortunately, that is not how it works. Our daily ethical encounters are encounters of great complexity and subtlety. To even begin to know what to do requires much honesty and awareness, an ongoing exploration in the moment, and our constant steering of moral inquiry that depends on accurate information, not theory or bluster. The challenge is to focus our attention on what we and others think and feel, as well as on what actually happens so that with consciousness we can affect that encounter as it unfolds, thereby creating our future. No small task.


Caputo, John D. (2002). A Passion for the Impossible: John D. Caputo in Focus. (ed. Mark Dooley), Suny Press.

Hunt, Geoffrey (2000). Whistleblowing, Accountability & Ethical Accounting, in. Clinical Risk 6(3): 115-16. 

Kegan, Robert (1994). In Over Our Heads: the Mental Demands of Modern Life, Harvard University Press.

Kidder, Rushworth (2006). Moral Courage. New York: Harper Collins Publishers.

Mackenzie, Compton (1962). On Moral Courage. London: The Quality Book Club.

Miller, Arthur G., (1986) The Obedience Experiments: A Case Study of Controversy in Social Science. New York: Praeger.

Miller, Ian (2000). The Mystery of Courage. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press).

Ricks, F. (1997). Perspective on Ethics in Child and Youth Care. Child and Youth Care Forum, 26(3), 1997, p. 187-204.

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