the right time to do the right thing is right now

Posted By: Damian Kavanagh Beyond Ordinary,

Dilemmas are much easier to unravel when there is a clear right choice and a clear wrong choice, but it is rarely so simple. Teachers, facilitators, and researchers use scenarios to help understand the complexities involved in decisions made when facing moral and ethical dilemmas. One of the more well-known is the Heinz Dilemma, used to understand Kohlberg’s Stages of Moral Development.

A woman was near death from a disease for which the local scientist had discovered a drug that could save her. The scientist was charging more than the wife’s husband, Heinz, could afford. Heinz tried to borrow money from everyone he knew but he only could come up with about half of what he needed. Heinz asked the scientist to sell him the drug for half or let him pay later. The scientist refused. Heinz broke into the scientist’s lab and stole the drug for his wife. Should he have done that? Why?

Kohlberg identified six distinct stages, grounded in one’s view of self and the wider social order. Each successive stage demonstrates a more complex, mature, and nuanced view of moral development. By definition, moral dilemmas are those of an internal nature based on individualized concepts of right and wrong, while ethical dilemmas are based on community codes of behavior and conduct and derived from external sources: laws, rules, statutes, edicts, codes. Most of the dilemmas we face do not have right versus wrong choices but right versus right choices where the path is not clear.

One of the more effective speeches at a school assembly I ever heard was about character development. The person delivering the address quoted Emerson: “Watch your thoughts, for they become words. Watch your words, for they become actions. Watch your actions, for they become habits. Watch your habits, for they become character. Watch your character, for it becomes your destiny.” The speaker concluded by reminding us all that character is defined by how you behave when no one is watching.

My first project at MISBO this summer gathered an extraordinary cohort of school leaders and vendors to discuss ethics related to purchasing in independent schools. The conversations and reflective articles we read were wide-ranging and delved into the concept of aligning a school’s mission to the way in which the adults in the school community interact with those in the world outside their doors. Since many schools have decentralized the purchasing process, purchasing in independent schools is therefore a small part of many people’s jobs, rather than a large part of a few people’s jobs. I am proud of the work this group did to think through issues and produce something that will be helpful to the entire independent school community. Soon, we will publish “The Ethics of Purchasing in Independent Schools” and you will see a well-thought-out list of areas to consider as your school matches its programs with its values. Cohort learning of this type is important and yields meaningful results that help schools fulfill their missions. The 2017 MISBO Fall Conference has been designed with this concept in mind and features a unique model of deep dives with facilitators to help you imagine, inspire, and innovate.

Our thoughts as a community turn towards those families and schools in Houston and the southwest recovering from the devastation of Harvey and those in the path of Irma throughout the Caribbean, the Florida peninsula, and other areas as the storm decides which way it wants to go. One of my mentors used to say, the right time to do the right thing is right now. There are numerous examples of people and schools choosing to serve each other throughout these crises and learning what moral and ethical decision making looks like in the face of physical and emotional danger. From putting together care packages to raising money, sending much needed supplies to sending much needed people – these are the values we choose. Here is a video that demonstrates what one school can do to help.