The Collective Responsibility Behind Ethical Decisions

What drives people to be ethical?

The skills to make personal ethical decisions — and a community that understands and supports the decision-making process.

For 25 years the Institute for Global Ethics (IGE) has focused its research and training on how core values inform ethical decisions. Our unique methodology has helped train leaders from a wide variety of organizations, including corporate, nonprofit, and academic institutions. The skills we teach aren’t dogmatic. We’re educators, not advocates. We don't tell people what to think — but rather provide them with skills and a shared language with which to arrive at decisions that hold moral legitimacy. Our process is equitable, transparent, explainable, and repeatable. We show people how to follow simple, actionable steps to navigate complex ethical quandaries.

But what happens when the individuals we train return to their community and workplace? It can be demoralizing to navigate ethical decisions when the people around you haven’t learned and practiced the same skills.

Most ethical failures on the institutional level aren’t caused by one bad actor’s wrong decision, but rather by a series of decisions made by confused individuals who wanted to do right but lacked the skills and organizational support to see the bigger ethical picture. Since IGE was founded in 1990, our world has become increasingly complex and interdependent. As the pace of technological change increases, the potential consequences arising from poor decision-making likewise increase exponentially.

That’s why IGE has expanded its focus in recent years to include collective skill development for whole groups and organizations. An example of this broadened scope is our Cultures of Integrity project, the initial phase of which was funded by the John Templeton Foundation.

I’m widening the scope even more with our new City-Wide Training Initiatives.

It’s a nationwide effort to blanket the civic infrastructure of target communities with subsidized ethics training. IGE trainers will go into local businesses, grade schools, community colleges, universities, nonprofits, and municipal government offices — anywhere we’re invited in each target city, and particularly in organizations that may not otherwise have the resources to provide ethics training to their members.

We started our first City-Wide Training Initiatives last month in Philadelphia, thanks to a $25,000 Hamilton Family Foundation grant.The initiatives’ kick-off event in August was so successful that we’ve added a second date: Wednesday, September 30, from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., at the Pew Charitable Trusts on Market Street in Philadelphia. It’s a free ethics training open to leaders from area businesses, K-12 schools, universities and nonprofits. We’re also busy planning our next City-Wide Training Initiatives in Kansas City, Detroit, and Madison, WI.

Ultimately my goal with City-Wide Training Initiatives is to make a lasting impact on the ethical climate of local communities across the country by providing a methodology and shared language to help elevate ethical standards and skills sets in dozens more target cities.

Ethics thrive in any community that embraces ethical decision-making skills in its culture.

I saw this phenomenon in action a couple of years ago at Church Farm School, a boys’ college prep institution near Philadelphia. Our trainers worked with Director of Curriculum Doug Magee to build a school-wide focus on integrity using the IGE ethical framework.

The high school environment bristles with ethical choices for young people. It’s a hotbed of social interactions among teenagers who are just starting to test and define their values. The ethical literacy initiative at Church Farm School sparked a conversation to define the community’s shared values, and then it trained the students, teachers and administrators in cognitive tools to handle the dilemmas that inevitably develop when values collide.

I recently looked back at a video we shot at the school and was struck by a comment Magee made. He said the ethics program at Church Farm School “helped us define who we are collectively.”

A collective sense of self — that’s at the core of any ethical community. Transformations like this are why I’m excited to expand IGE’s mission to include building organizational, community-embedded ethics skills.

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