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A Conversation with Ethicist Mark Pastin

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Mark Pastin is an award-winning ethics thought leader, ethics consultant, and keynote speaker. The CEO of the Council of Ethical Organizations, a nonprofit dedicated to promoting ethics in business and government, he is author of a new book, Make an Ethical Difference: Tools for Better Action (Berrett-Koehler, 2013).

David Gebler: As the author of The 3 Power Values, a book about how to create an ethics and values-based business, I was grabbed by the first line of your book: "I don't like ethics books." Why don't you, and how is your book different from the rest?

Mark Pastin: I don't like ethics books because I don't like people telling me what to do or how to feel about things. My book is for people who want to sharpen their own innate ability to reason ethically and, especially, for people who want to be a source of ethical influence where they work. People who believe that ethics are proven in action will like the book. People looking for an esoteric treatise may be disappointed.

DG: You talk about an "ethics sense," and say neuroscientists are very close to identifying a part of the brain that's responsible for making ethical decisions. Give some reasons why you feel this is an innate sense rather than, say, a personality trait or a learned behavior.

MP: The ethics sense is based on two attributes hard-wired into humans: sympathy and empathy. Learning or culture may shape these attributes, but the attributes themselves are as innate as sight or hearing. And there are good evolutionary reasons why these attributes are wired in -- they are essential to our ability to form groups.

DG: I liked your five tools for sharpening our own ethics sense because they're really practical and concrete -- and seem to be adaptable to just about any ethical problem. The other piece of your model is a four-step process for reaching an ethical agreement, which you call the Convergence Process. I hope people will get the book and use those tools. They're terrific.

MP: Thanks. I wrote this book for people who want to do the right thing, who want to have justified confidence in their ethical beliefs, and who are willing to learn how to help connect their ethical wishes with the actions of the groups and organizations to which they belong. The Five Tools and the Convergence Process make this possible for anyone who is willing to learn them and use them systematically.

DG: What advice would you offer to a team leader seeking ethical agreement who is up against a particularly intractable adversary -- someone who believes they are 100% right?

MP: First, identify the principles or ground rules that underlie the adversary's position and see if they provide a basis for influencing him. In other words, see if you can argue your position using the adversary's own principles.

Second, identify the stated and unstated interests of the adversary, as they may allow you to find common ground. People who think they are 100% right often change their views when it is in their interest to do so.

Third, make sure that you and the adversary agree on a core set of facts about the situation. If facts separate the parties, there are ways, such as getting more information, of resolving factual disagreements.

And fourth, if the adversary is certain they are 100% right, there is some reward for them in clinging to their position. What does the adversary gain by being so intractable? Once you know this, you may be able to shift the rewards in the situation.

DG: What do you hope readers will take away from the book?
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MP: I would like readers to understand that being ethical is not about what you say or even what you believe. It's about what you do. Give me an individual whose actions make a difference over any individual who is so convinced they know what is right that they accomplish nothing.

The recent budget gridlock shows that those who are unwilling to compromise do not advance their principles. But they may cause tremendous collateral damage to innocent bystanders in the process. My book is about actions as opposed to opinions. The goal of ethics is not a warm fuzzy feeling. It is about actions that have a reasonable chance of producing better outcomes.