Golden means or ends?

The desirability of ethical behaviour is universally acknowledged, and this has been particularly evident as we review the findings of recent Royal Commissions in this country. Unethical decisions made by senior personnel holding ‘positions of trust’ appear to have been one of the consistent themes.

Politicians, pundits and the media tend to characterise these behaviours in polarised terms, with those found guilty of wrongdoing often demonised – as if their behaviour is so extreme that they are not like ‘us’.

Certainly, there has been a strong self-serving motivation behind the many errors of judgment highlighted in commission hearings. Self-interest is juxtaposed against consumer, client, or public interest in a way which suggests there are only two choices – good vs bad, right vs wrong, altruism vs greed.

In the case of the financial institutions, the profit motive (or ‘golden end‘) was frequently shown to have won out over community expectations of consumer benefit and customer service. These institutions have consequently damaged their ‘social license‘ to operate, and must now deal with the regulatory and community response.

Not all commentary on the commission hearings has painted such a ‘black and white’ analysis, but much of the social media response (as for so many issues it seems) has been expressed in these dichotomous and simplistic terms.

An antidote to this polarised view of events was advocated by Aristotle, whose moral philosophy argued that the Golden Mean, or golden middle way, is the desirable middle between the extremes of excess and deficiency. For example, while courage is a virtue, in excess it would be considered recklessness, and in deficiency it would be regarded as cowardice.

The Golden Mean might sound like it only offers a third option between the dualistic or polarised approach, but in fact it suggests many more gradations between the extremities, with each quality or virtue having its own continuum. (Hence the scale bar on the Virtue Continuum chart above).

Before Aristotle, the principle of the golden middle way was the moral of the mythical tale of Daedalus and Icarus. Daedalus built feathered wings for himself and his son so that they might escape the clutches of King Minos. Daedalus cautioned his son to “fly the middle course”, between the cool sea spray and the heat of the sun. Ignoring his father, Icarus flew too close to the sun and melted the wax off his wings. Failing to take the recommended middle course, he fell into the sea and drowned.

Jacob Peter Gowy [Public domain]

Polarised debates fail to acknowledge the many ‘degrees of deviation’ that may exist on either side of the Golden Mean. All too often the opportunity to shift behaviour towards the mean is overlooked, in favour of locking people into their labelled extremity. In doing so, we might ourselves suffer an excess towards judgmentalism, rather than expressing the virtue of discernment.

Those of us responsible for the culture of our organisations may also want to consider how our explicit values, and implicit ‘shadow values‘, encourage and support ‘middle way’ behaviours by our directors, staff and volunteers.