In my last post I said leaders make decisions, and all decisions that affect others are moral decisions. Therefore in order to lead effectively we must understand the correct and incorrect ways of approaching these moral decisions. The good news is there are only three overall approaches—two beneficial and one harmful, in my opinion.
Since this is such an important topic I will spend the next few weeks explaining each of these three approaches to moral decision making and discussing objections against each approach. This week I’ll discuss the first of these three approaches. Then over the following two weeks I’ll raise and respond to three common objections.
Approach One: Our Duty to Live and Lead by Transcendent Principles
The first approach begins with the assumption that objective moral values (transcendent principles) exist. Therefore they “transcend” what we, our society or our current time happens to think is right or wrong. So we have a duty to understand and apply these transcendent principles to the decisions we make. This “duty-based” ethic is called “Deontology” from “dei,” the Greek word for “duty.”
Three Ways To Know These Transcendent Principles
These transcendent principles can be known in a variety of ways. Some are known through God’s Special Revelation. For instance, the “Beatitudes” in Matthew 5:3-10 contain many transcendent principles such as seek justice (5:6), be merciful (5:7), and pursue peace (5:9).
Others are known by simply observing the creation around us (“General Revelation”). The principles are literally “embedded” in what we see every day, if we just pay attention. For instance, we can know the value of hard work and saving for lean times by studying the activities of ants (Proverbs 6-8). As Romans 2:14 summarizes, “Even Gentiles, who do not have God’s written law, show that they know his law when they instinctively obey it, even without having heard it.” As the Declaration of Independence puts it, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among them are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”
Some, like Immanuel Kant, argue transcendent principles can also be known by reason alone, apart from any Revelation (Special or General) by applying the principle, “You should always do that which you would be OK with everyone else always doing.” For instance, if you take your young daughter to the park and she picks a flower from a public flowerbed, you might say, “Honey, what if everyone picked a flower from here? There would be no more flowers for others to enjoy. So you shouldn’t pick those flowers.”
The Good News: Most Agree Many Transcendent Principles Exist
The good news is that there is widespread agreement on many transcendent principles. We hear these transcendent principles (these “moral absolutes”) espoused daily in statements such as, “We should treat people fairly,” “We must seek justice for those unfairly discriminated against,” “We have a duty to care for the environment,” “We should be tolerant,” and “It is our responsibility protect and preserve life when it is within our power to do so.”
In fact, transcendent principles are so obvious that children at a very young age already recognize them. For instance, when the transcendent principle of justice is violated they are quick to say, “That’s not fair!” Earlier I wrote a bit on how these transcendent principles regularly show up in movies, and we all cheer for those living by these values.
Since These Principles Reflect Reality, Leading By Them Is Preferable
There is such widespread agreement because these transcendent principles are hard to miss--they are part of reality and so they “show up” everywhere. And we know that things go well for us (personally and as a society) when we live according to reality.
Dallas Willard defines reality as “that thing you bump into when you are wrong.” When we think we have more in our bank account than we do we “bump into” a bounced check and bank charge--that is reality. When we think the light is green when it is actually red we “bump into” the other car in the intersection—that is reality.
In the same way the decisions we make, based on the reality of these transcendent principles, lead to good outcomes for those affected by our decisions. Conversely, decisions we make not based on the reality of these transcendent principles lead to harmful outcomes for those affected by our decisions. This is the essential message of the book of Proverbs, and what we see in countless ways every day.
We Should Make Decisions Based on These Transcendent Principles
Therefore, we should not succumb to the temptation to make decisions based on values representing only this or that special interest group, culture or time, which conflict with one or more transcendent principles. Rather we must have the wisdom and courage to make decisions that reflect these objective moral values—therefore reflecting reality. Only by doing so will our decisions lead to human flourishing and the common good.
A number of objections can be raised against this approach to moral decision making by leaders. In the next two weeks I’ll discuss three common objections and provide responses.
Until then, grace and peace!
For further reading, I suggest Moral Choices: An Introduction to Ethics by Scott Rae