In this paper, I deal with the following question: What does it mean for a person to be a moral leader in our modern society? But what does it mean for our society to have a moral leader? For the sake of this paper, I will make a subtle distinction between ethics and morals. By “ethics” I will generally mean: the external, theoretical principles informing one’s concept of right versus wrong that govern one’s behavior. When using the noun “morals” I will generally mean: the internal, practical activities an individual conscientiously and willfully engages in, activities that reflect one’s own internalized concept of right versus wrong. In layman’s terms, “ethics” has to do with theory, and “morals” has to do with practice.
Given the aforementioned definition of “morals,” what do we mean when we say “right versus wrong”? That is, when speaking of “morals,” what makes an action “right” and what makes an action “wrong”? And, when speaking of “ethics,” what makes a theory “right” and what makes it “wrong”? I do, as many other moral philosophers, believe that theory informs practice. One cannot, generally speaking, have morality without having an ethical rationale. Lawrence Kohlberg, a moral psychologist, discovered empirically that moral education was directly related to moral practice. The more educated one was in ethical theory, the more one would tend to act morally. It is for this reason that I will now briefly attempt to articulate guidelines for an ethical theory which sheds insight on what is right and wrong conduct before developing my thoughts on moral leadership. The following pages, then, are not meant to be exhaustive and dogmatic; rather, in this paper, I merely seek to offer what I think are tentative guidelines for ethics and moral conduct. That is, I modestly can only hope that I will offer some insight on this most thorny of issues.
Ethical theory is not yet unanimously agreed upon or universalized: many ethical theorists do not even share agreement regarding basic elements that make up concepts of right or wrong. Since there are vast amounts of disagreement, as there are also oceans of numerous and contradictory theories, I will selectively articulate my own ethical theory that informs my moral actions.
I like to begin by dealing with J. S. Mill’s “utilitarianism.” This is, perhaps, one of the simplest ethical theories. Mill writes:
“Utility” or the “greatest happiness principle” holds that actions are right in proportion as they tend to promote happiness; wrong as they tend to produce the reverse of happiness. By happiness is intended pleasure and the absence of pain…
Bentham’s phrase “the greatest good for the greatest number” succinctly reflects this view. Mill would argue that a right action is one which produced, consequentially speaking, increased (relative to a prior state) amounts of pleasure. It is an empirical fact that humans have nociceptors (neurons that send pain signals). It is an empirical fact that humans also have opioid receptors and dopamine, responsible for pleasure sensations and anticipation of pleasure, respectively. It is not hard, objectively speaking, for one to develop an ethical theory regarding that which we should universally do or not do when it is grounded on such a universal fact of human anatomy: virtually all normal, functional human bodies experience pleasure and pain. We, intuitively, seek out pleasure and avoid pain. In fact, the majority of the time, humans mostly have a heightened awareness when it comes to perceiving anything that may cause us pain: we are constantly on the look out for avoiding anything that may result consequentially in the experience of pain.
Whenever anyone develops any kind of theory, it is always a good thing to ask oneself: Is this a model of the world? and Is this a model for the world? Utilitarianism certainly understands the first question well. Utilitarian theory is grounded in objective facts, facts that are accurately portrayed in its “model of the world.” But is it also a “model for the world”? Does it say something not only about what is, but also about how things should be?
In utilitarian ethics, that which causes pain is to be avoided; it is labeled “wrong.” On the other hand, that which causes pleasure is to be pursued; it is labeled “right.” But is this form of ethical reasoning a valid way for humans to think about how the world should be? That is, is utilitarianism a model for the world? Should we wish it to be a model for all of us? I can think of many reasons why utilitarianism alone cannot function as an exhaustive ethical theory. If pleasure is the greatest ethical principle guiding moral behavior, I would argue that, according to utilitarianism, Hugh Hefner and all drug abusers are clearly more ethical than the rest of us: for they alone experience dopamine at rates that most of us have never dreamed of. But maybe, just maybe, consequentially speaking, their actions do not lead to the greatest amount of pleasure for the greatest amount of people? Maybe the drug abuser, consequentially speaking, is going to end up suffering greatly at some future point in life? In other words, would not a utilitarian argue that his actions—namely, drug abuse—are not, consequentially, in the right? But how do we go about predicting the future? How do we detach ourselves from our current experience of pleasure and think about a theoretical, future experience of pleasure? In fact, is it even possible to have this kind of omniscient knowledge beforehand? For example, if sex is a pleasurable experience, and contraception works, why not engage in all kinds of sex acts with the most amount of people? Should I wait for a monogamous marriage and, hence, betray my own principles in favor of something unseen and not currently empirical? (That is, the theoretical, future monogamous marriage is not currently and empirically being experienced by the individual.) Should the utilitarianist ever place pleasurable experiences on hold for something else?
Utilitarianism fails to account for the conflicts which arise between “the greatest good” and “the greatest number.” As Nicholas Rescher has shown, it is possible that Bentham’s statement—“the greatest good for the greatest number”—can produce chaos. Take the following distribution scheme, for example:
|Scheme I||Scheme II|
|A receives 8 units of happiness||A receives 4 units of happiness|
|B receives 1 unit||B receives 4|
|C receives 1 unit||C receives 1|
It should be quite evident that Scheme 1 is in accord with “the greatest good,” but Scheme 2 is in accord with “the greatest good for the greatest number.” So which do we honor? Which action is “right”?
Many more such critiques exist. However, it is beyond the scope of this paper to present all of them. Having said that, I would now like to deal with another famous ethical theory: Kantian deontology. It is to this ethical theory that I now turn.
Kantian ethical theory, a form of deontology, has to do with intents rather than consequences. Instead of focusing on the consequences of an action—such as the utilitarian consequentialists—the deontologist, specifically one of a Kantian bent, focuses on the intent behind the action in determining whether the action is right or wrong. If the action was intended to hurt an individual, but accidentally resulted in something positive, according to Kant, that action was not right. (According to some utilitarians it would be deemed right nonetheless, since it ended up increasing pleasure, though the individual had different original intents!) Kant believed, unsurprisingly, that consequences never mattered. In fact, “It is not possible to think of anything in the world, or indeed out of it, that can be held to be good without limitation except a good will” (GMS 4: 3935-8). Kant focused on the autonomous lawgiver, that is, the autonomous individual who followed in all of his or her actions a self-imposed moral law. In Kant’s famous categorical imperative, Kant set out to universalize his ethical theory. “Act only according to that maxim whereby you can, at the same time, will that it should become a universal law.” If an action cannot be universalized, it should not be committed. This may sound less practical than utilitarianism, but, I assure you, it is not. For example, I was once in an isolated part of northeastern Washington standing on a boardwalk over a lake. I was carrying a water bottle and became quite annoyed with it. I entertained the thought, for a split second, whether I should throw it into the pristine lake waters below. And then Kant spoke to me with that “still, small voice” of his: “Do you wish to universalize this action?” I certainly did not! “What would the lake look like if everyone dropped his or her waste into it,” I thought to myself. I ended up carrying the bottle for the rest of the trip.
But even the divine Kant has his problems. What if two categorical imperatives conflict with one another? What if I am placed in such a situation in which I must choose between one or the other? What if, to invoke Kant’s article On a Supposed Right to Lie Because of Philanthropic Concerns, an individual is faced with a choice between lying and murder, except in this case, whatever the reasons, it is a choice only between lying and murdering someone—you must commit one or the other. What do you do then? Even with Kantian ethics, we run into problems in determining what is the “right” thing to do. What if our intentions are always good and yet, strangely, our actions end up, consequentially, always harming others—are such actions “right”?
I find both utilitarianism (consequentialism) and Kantianism (deontology) useful. However, as one can tell, I also find both ethical theories to be problematic to an extent. How do I, as the moral individual, resolve these problems? In essence, I resort to a via media by attempting to reconcile the two by means of some form of compatibilism.
The theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer was perplexed as well by this problem. However, in his theological work Ethics, he found a way out, finding inspiration in Jesus’ saying, “[E]very good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit” (Mt. 7:17, NIV):
There is an old argument about whether only the will, the act of the mind, the person, can be good, or whether achievement, work, consequence, or condition can be called good as well—and if so, which comes first and which is more important. This argument, which has also seeped into theology, leading there as elsewhere to serious aberrations, proceeds from a basically perverse way of putting the question. It tears apart what is originally and essentially one, namely, the good and the real, the person and the work. The objection that Jesus, too, had this distinction between person and work in mind, when he spoke about the good tree that brings forth good fruits, distorts this saying of Jesus into its exact opposite. Its meaning is not that first the person is good and then the work, but that only the two together, only both as united in one, are to be understood as good or bad.
Like Bonhoeffer, I think that for an action to be morally right it must also be ethically right. That is, the ethical theory must be right, the intent must be right, and the consequential action must be right. The greatest good action is an action that produces the greatest good for the greatest number—according to empirical notions of pleasure and pain—being inspired by right intent; an action, at the same time, you would will to become a universal law.
How does all of this translate into helping us become better, moral leaders in a modern society? Moreover, having considered ethics and morality, I now turn to leadership: what does it mean to be a “leader”?
For the sake of clarity and simplicity, I will define “leadership” as the ability of an individual, functioning as a leader, to guide other individuals, functioning as followers, to act in accordance with the desired course of action of the leader. That is, a leader is able to get others to do what he or she desires that they should do. What, then, is moral leadership? Moral leadership, harkening back to our previous definitions, would entail the following definition:
The ability of an individual, functioning as a leader, to guide other individuals, functioning as followers, to act in accordance with the desired course of action of the leader; the “desired course of action” being informed by a theoretical ethic, which are the external, theoretical principles informing one’s concept of right versus wrong that govern one’s behavior. Such theoretical ethics are then acted upon and become moral habits, which are the internal, practical activities an individual conscientiously and willfully engages in, activities that reflect one’s own internalized concept of right versus wrong. The moral leader’s concept of right versus wrong is greatly influenced by the maxim: The greatest good action is an action that produces the greatest good for the greatest number—according to empirical notions of pleasure and pain—being inspired by right intent; an action, at the same time, you would will to become a universal law.
A moral leader, in my opinion, is inseparable from his theoretical ethic (the “stuff” floating in his head) and his practical morals (the “stuff” everyone sees him doing). A moral leader is one who is aware of basic concepts regarding pleasure and pain. A moral leader is aware that not all utilitarian actions are “right.” He is aware that not all deontological actions are “right.” He is acutely aware of the problems one encounters when dealing with morality. However, a moral leader attempts to, nonetheless, strive to do the right thing. He formulates theories and rationales for his actions. He is the guy you find thinking long and hard about his actions and why he chooses to do them. And, most importantly, a moral leader guides others, influencing them to participate in his vision, a vision that he shares both passionately and with rationality with those who follow him. In inspiring others to act like him, to reason like him, to follow his desired course of action, the leader implicitly universalizes his morality. In doing so, one could only hope that he takes Kantian ethics seriously.
Since I have offered my thoughts on moral leadership, I would now like to focus somewhat more specifically on practical ways a leader goes about bringing his “desired course of action” to fruition. In the following paragraphs, I will engage with the popular Bennis and Goldsmith text, Learning to Lead.
Bennis and Goldsmith believe that all successful leaders have the following six “competencies”:
Mastering the Context. Leaders are able to get a feel for their surroundings and understand “the big picture.”
Knowing Yourself. The leader is aware of his or her ethical commitments, subjective worldviews, being always aware of who he or she is. Such leaders are also always learning about themselves.
Creating a Vision. Leaders create a vision so real that “they live and breathe” it.
Communicating with Meaning. Leaders are able to understand and function at the level of their followers.
Building Trust Through Integrity. Leaders lead ethical lives that those who follow them witness on a daily basis. They are consistent with their actions.
Realizing Intentions Through Actions. Leaders are able to bring their ideas to fruition by making them concretely real.
Many of the above “six competencies” are quite self-explanatory; therefore, I will not pedantically engage in making superficial commentary. Rather, I will focus my remarks on a couple of them while discussing things that I believe are of utmost importance, especially for a moral leader in the modern society.
With the continuing increase in technological development—think of social media, the Internet, cell phones, etc.—humans have begun to create a context that is vastly different than all previous contexts in history. We are now living and leading in a society in which a follower may never physically meet a leader; in which relationships between boyfriend and girlfriend may span oceans and be entirely virtual. The landscape upon which we now act has become something else. How does a leader function within the present structures set in place? What is specifically different about our modern society? It seems to me that communication and human relations have now become de-personalized. A Black Lives Matter activist may use all kinds of tools that were not available to Martin Luther King, Jr. This sort of de-personalization comes with its pros and cons. We can have a leader spread her message using social media far beyond her immediate surroundings. But this comes with a cost. Such communicating lacks many features that are necessary for a leader to be successful. I may see a talking head on Facebook. The message may even inspire me. And I may not do anything about it. How do I know that she is telling the truth? How do I know that she really will do what she is claiming she will do? Do I even understand her message? What if I have questions for her but cannot bring them to her since I am not able to communicate with meaning with her? The modern leader is faced with the problem of communicating with meaning. It is common today for all kinds of quotes to be taken out of context. With the creation of Twitter’s 140-character tweets, human beings are now expected to “communicate” messages in under two or three sentences. The twitterization of human language and communication is a death sentence to a modern orator striving to be a Lincoln or a Demosthenes. What is the solution to this problem? One possible response is that we adapt to this. We may simply have to strive to say as much as possible without becoming verbose. Another option is that we try to communicate using a different platform, something akin to TED Talks.
This twitterization of language has also deformed the way we listen and hear one another, too. A leader has to understand the people he is striving to engage. With the little information people are communicating these days, it’s helpful to restate to the other person, in your own words, what you heard him/her say. This allows the leader to clarify any misunderstandings. At all points must one recognize the subjectivity of one’s audience and his/her own subjectivity. Terms and phrases such as socialist, goodness, the right thing, etc. may mean vastly different things to different people. It would be a good idea to have people define thorny terms. Robert Franklin reminds us, “Conversation is the highest form of human activity.” It’s a good idea to communicate meaningfully.
One cannot have a paper on leadership and ethics without making recourse to Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics. People sometimes forget the basic advice Aristotle left us: “by doing just things we become just…” It’s a pithy truth. One of the ways a leader builds trust is by integrity. And integrity means nothing less than being undivided, consistent, honest, and morally upright. But as with all virtues, one must practice a life of virtue in order to be considered virtuous. To be known as an honest person, one must consistently practice being honest. To be a moral leader, and to be known as one, is to consistently act like one.
While this paper is not as exhaustive as one may like—and many theoretical (and maybe practical) scenarios have not been considered—my hope has been to present a definition of moral leadership that would generally work for many people. My goal has not been to offer some dogmatic truth; rather, I have sought to offer my thoughts on a thorny subject, thoughts which I hope may stimulate my reader to make whatever progress one could towards becoming a moral leader him- or herself.
Written by: Moses Y. Mikheyev
Allison, Henry E. Kant’s Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals: A Commentary. New York: Oxford, 2011.
Bartlett, Robert C., and Susan Collins, trans. Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics: A New Translation. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2011.
Bennis, Warren and Joan Goldsmith. Learning to Lead: A Workbook on Becoming a Leader, 4th ed. New York: Basic Books, 2010.
Bonhoeffer, Dietrich. Ethics. Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works. Volume 6. Translated by Reinhard Krauss, Charles C. West, and Douglas W. Stott. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2005.
Franklin, Robert M. Liberating Visions: Human Fulfillment and Social Justice in African-American Thought. Minneapolis: Fortress, 1990.
Gielen, Uwe. “Kohlberg’s Moral Development Theory.” In The Kohlberg Legacy for the Helping Professions. Lisa Kuhmerker. Birmingham: Doxa Books, 1991.
Lebacqz, Karen. Six Theories of Justice. Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1997.
Mill, John Stuart. Utilitarianism. New York: Bobbs-Merrill, 1957.
 Uwe Gielen, “Kohlberg’s Moral Development Theory,” in The Kohlberg Legacy for the Helping Professions, Lisa Kuhmerker (Birmingham: Doxa Books, 1991), 35, 55.
 John Stuart Mill, Utilitarianism (New York: Bobbs-Merrill, 1957), 10.
 Karen Lebacqz, Six Theories of Justice (Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1997), 25.
 Table adopted from Lebacqz, Six Theories of Justice, 25.
 Most certainly the “act” utilitarians. The “rule” utilitarian may object at this point.
 Henry E. Allison, Kant’s Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals: A Commentary (New York: Oxford, 2011), 71.
 Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Ethics, Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works, Volume 6, trans. Reinhard Krauss, Charles C. West, and Douglas W. Stott (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2005), 51. Italics original.
 This is an all-inclusive “his.” I could not come up with a gender-neutral way of articulating the following sentences without making them sound cumbersome and pedantically politically correct.
 Adopted from Warren Bennis and Joan Goldsmith, Learning to Lead: A Workbook on Becoming a Leader, 4th ed. (New York: Basic Books, 2010), xxi-xxii.
 Robert M. Franklin, Liberating Visions: Human Fulfillment and Social Justice in African-American Thought (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1990), viii.
 Robert C. Bartlett and Susan D. Collins, trans., Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics: A New Translation (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2011), 27.