Living the Moral Duty of Leadership

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Honoring the moral duties of leadership requires some consciousness of how moral judgment and responsibility work: Whence arises the moral ought that not only informs but motivates moral action? And how and when are we to “trust our gut” (moral sense), and when must we use moral reasoning?

The moral ought registers with an immediate felt force. It thereby becomes a motive for action, and the reasons that explain its virtue need only be known intuitively – it’s simply the right thing to do. This is what it means to have a moral sense.

Its intuitive operation does not impugn or run contrary to our rational nature as agents. It complements our capacities for thought and deliberation by expressing immediately and through force of habit those actions that bear the stamp of established virtues.

But when our moral sense faces a confusing scene of conflicting interests, or when it's strained by fatigue, it operates less perfectly. At this time, and upon taking a reflective pause, we may need to rationally examine our situation and sort things out to discern what is good, right, and proper. In that way, moral reasoning comes to our aid.

Still it remains the work of our moral sense to be moved and to move us. Reasoning unburdens our intuitive ways of knowing. It calms our passions, tamps down the noise of reactive emotions, letting the moral facts speak for themselves. And each time we do this, we strengthen our awareness of how reason and moral sense work together.

Therefore, we can be thankful for virtuous habits and the quickened judgment our moral sense allows. For if we had to rationally deliberate on all matters of right and wrong, we would accomplish far fewer of our necessary and routine duties to others. Thus, cultivating a keen moral sense ensures a more timely and virtuous quality of leadership action.

But we must also recognize that mature adult responsibility involves recognizing when a reflective pause is needed. It arises when we would otherwise be at risk of failing in our role-based duties to act properly and for the benefit of those to whom we have a duty of care and justice. And this suggests an even more basic imperative.

It's an imperative of self-care. Why? Because our rational capacities for reflection can also become impaired or "decompensate" (see my article Development at the Inflection Point) due to building levels of stress, strain, and fatigue. Thus, learning to meet our personal needs for renewal underlie our ability to live the moral duties of leadership.