August 27, 2020


Doing the Right Thing: Twelve Portraits in Moral Courage. By Tom Cooper, Ph.D. Abramis. $24.

     In Tom Cooper’s Doing the Right Thing, the descriptive proves again and again to be the enemy of the prescriptive. And if that seems like a dry, academic formulation of a response to a book – well, yes, it is. And appropriately so. Cooper is an academic, a communications professor at Emerson College in Boston, and his claim to fame is that he was founding director of the Association for Responsible Communication, which was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize in 1988. That is a significant accomplishment, although one may wonder, a bit churlishly, what group or individual could possibly profess to be in favor of irresponsible communication (although many are the groups and individuals that practice it). Cooper has formulated a set of 10 ethical factors that he believes were considered, in whole or at least in large part, by a dozen decision-makers whom he chooses to profile in Doing the Right Thing.

     Leaving aside Cooper’s reasons for choosing these particular exemplars of “moral courage,” the central argument of the book is to take into consideration the following factors when making decisions: notions of fairness and justice; impact or consequences; ends and means; tone and atmosphere; motivation and higher law; allegiance and loyalty; values and principles; cultural context; implications; and proportion and balance. Each of these 10 areas could spawn a book in itself, but in this book, each is defined and explored at modest length as a general matter and then used for more-specific discussion after each of Cooper’s “portraits.”

     The dozen people singled out for ethical praise in the book are all very well-known in academic circles, and most are at least somewhat well-known outside of them. They are U.S. Presidents John F. Kennedy, John Adams and Harry Truman; the Biblical Queen Esther; Socrates; British slave-trade abolitionist politician William Wilberforce; Marie Curie; Mohandas Gandhi; Rachel Carson of Silent Spring fame; broadcast journalist Edward R. Murrow; Nelson Mandela; and young Pakistani activist Malala Yousafzai. In some cases, the ethical slant that Cooper gives to their stories involves focusing on elements of their lives that are not necessarily familiar: Adams’ decision on whether to take the young United States to war with France; Curie’s controversial personal relationship with Paul Langevin; Carson’s lesbianism. In others, such as Socrates’ trial and death and Nelson Mandela’s long imprisonment, Cooper focuses on matters that are quite well known. Throughout the book, he argues that the specific decisions on which these profiles focus were made largely, if not entirely, on an ethical basis that required careful and difficult balancing among many, if not all, of the 10 factors that Cooper deems essential.

     Cooper’s arguments are sometimes straightforward, sometimes rather convoluted, but thanks to his choice of these particular people to profile – and of the specific events in their lives on which to focus – his look at ethical factors in important decisions proves sound, all the more so because he carefully avoids hagiography in his portraits of his dozen chosen subjects whose “decisions wrote history.”

     But there’s the rub, as Hamlet said. Unlike these specific individuals making these specific decisions, the vast majority of individuals, emphatically including Cooper’s students, will never face grand ethical dilemmas on which rest the fate of an entire religious and ethnic group (Queen Esther and the ancient Jews) or the grand and glorious values of “fairness, civility, freedom, justice, and human dignity” (Edward R. Murrow and the TV broadcast that destroyed the rabid anti-Communist crusade of Senator Joseph McCarthy). Describing what these dozen individuals did, and how ethics fit into their decisions, is one thing; garnering kernels of value on the basis of which far-more-mundane life decisions can be made is something very different.

     Take any number of simple contemporary examples. The head of Reddit, Alexis Ohanian, resigned from his position with the specific admonition to the Board of Directors to replace him with a black person. That is, focus above all on skin color. Imagine if he had said to replace himself with a white person and you can see the ethical dilemma here: was his action an ethical one, designed to make a small attempt to correct the perceived unfairness of a relative paucity of people with a specific skin color in certain corporate environments, or was it deliberate, unethical discrimination against competence, knowledge and ability as primary leadership factors? Or take the multiple recommendations by employed scientists collecting full salaries, employed politicians collecting full salaries, employed academics collecting full salaries, and employed pundits collecting full salaries, regarding the need to shut down large segments of the U.S. economy to control the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic. Since their urgings would have no financial impact on these people themselves, but would seriously damage and potentially impoverish millions of others, should those urgings – and the actual shutdowns – be seen as ethical acts involving the greatest good for the greatest number, or unethical ones asking others to bear overwhelming financial burdens in circumstances that would have minimal effect on the scientists, politicians, academics and pundits themselves?

     To bring the questions home more clearly to students, consider Cooper’s comment on the importance of an education in which “one learns to see the world from multiple perspectives and disciplines.” Then consider the numerous recent cases in which students’ private – that is, non-public – social-media postings that included derogatory or simply insensitive remarks about specific people or ethnic groups have led colleges to rescind the students’ acceptances. Xavier University, Marquette University and the University of Florida, among others, have done this, deciding that private comments made by young teenagers who are smart and accomplished enough to deserve admission to their schools are too divergent from the schools’ acceptable “perspectives and disciplines” for the students to be allowed to attend (and perhaps learn additional and different perspectives). Are the schools thus defending crucial ethical principles of not allowing demeaning or denigrating remarks to pass without consequence, or are they ensuring uniformity of thought and narrowness of approach, and assembling a student body required to march in lockstep with one specific set of values?

     These are the sorts of questions that can be raised regarding everyday life through the profiles Cooper offers in Doing the Right Thing. And although he attempts, in his final chapter, to suggest ways that readers can use his 10 ethical factors in making their own decisions, that prescriptivist chapter falls far short of the earlier, descriptivist ones. It is not that the ideas are wrong but that they are scarcely practical to use in the very numerous quotidian situations in which virtually all readers of the book will find themselves – situations far removed in import from those Cooper discusses, and far more relevant to his readers’ everyday lives. Doing the Right Thing essentially argues that the 12 people Cooper profiles did the right things, by Cooper’s standards, in important and difficult circumstances. That does not, however, connect directly with doing the right things, by one’s own standards, in matters of far less import for the world but far greater consequence for one’s own day-to-day life.

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