The Ethics of Ethics

by Robert Benjamin
April 2001 Robert Benjamin
(On Being Too Fussy About Values In Mediation: Consider The Hedgehog And The Fox)

This is the inaugural column of what is to be a regular feature at, The Ethics Forum. Because has become an important resource and much frequented location in the conflict management community, it seemed only appropriate that there be a regular place dedicated to the discussion of professional and ethical concerns and issues of practice. I am honored to be the first editor of the Ethics Forum.

There is, of course, in this prestigious appointment, a valid question with regard to my qualifications. That is where the trouble begins. I would like to operate on the now familiar modus operandi of "don't ask, don't tell, "but it does not seem to work elsewhere and I have my doubts as to how well it would go over here. On the credibility side of the ledger, I formerly served as the Chair of the Academy of Family Mediators Ethics Committee, and was a member of the Society for Professionals in Dispute Resolution Ethics Committee and have written often about ethical issues over the last twenty-some years.

On the dubious side, I have authored two articles that might, at least on the surface, call into question my ethical proclivities or lack thereof. The first is, "The Mediator as Trickster: The Folkloric Figure as Professional Role Model,"and a companion piece, "The Constructive Uses of Deception: Skills, Strategies and Techniques of the Folkloric Trickster Figure and Their Application by Mediators" (1995). Some might challenge the sufficiency of my rectitude to be anywhere near an ethical discussion given my penchant for the study of the often less than noble methods required for effective conflict management.

In any event, I contend who better to convene a discussion about professional duties and ethical responsibilities than one endlessly fascinated with the ingrained necessity of human beings to self-deceive and to deceive others in order to survive. I am naturally skeptical and wary of simplistic ethical pronouncements about what others should or should not do.

While there is little doubt that professional responsibility and competency obligate us to pay careful attention to ethical practice concerns, I often find myself pondering the ethics of ethical deliberations about other peoples' behavior. The magazine column I most love to hate is "The Ethicist,"a regular feature in the New York Times Magazine, where the author gives his "thumbs up" or "thumbs down" pronouncements to questions posed by readers. (These readers must be the same people who frequent Jerry Springer and Oprah Winfrey - people who have some masochistic need to be publically ridiculed) Steve Martin wrote an apt parody that neatly captures the tenor of the questions and the nature of the responses in THE NEW YORKER, (March 5, 2001). A brief clip for texture:

Question: "I am going to a country where it is legal and socially acceptable to eat people.I would like to eat my brother-in-law, who will be on the trip with me and is Canadian. I am from Iowa. Would this be ethical?

Response: "I am sure cannibalism is illegal in Iowa, but I'm not sure about Canada. I would suggest you stop in Canada first, take your brother-in-law to a police station and eat his foot, and see if anyone objects. If not, you can feel assured that the complete ingestion of your brother-in-law in a permissive country is perfectly ethical.

As with all good twisted humor, it touches the truth enough to hurt and makes a point. Beyond taunting us all for our pretense and self-indulgent obsession with ethics, note the close connection drawn between ethical and savage behavior. This clip hits close to home especially for us in the emerging profession of dispute resolution. Not infrequently, one practitioner's style is cast as unethical behavior by others. There appears to be too little restraint exercised in making such ethical judgments or in the downright savaging of other styles of practice and the practitioner. Notwithstanding the oft heard disclaimer that the judgment is offered under the guise of constructive criticism and "nothing personal," it is just that and meant to be so.

Despite my healthy regard for the lurking dangers inherent in the field of ethics, the discussion must proceed, not for the professionalization of the field, but for professionalism to further develop. In that vein, note that it is not the outcome of the discussion but rather the process of discussion that is most important and most challenging. I look forward to addressing professional responsibility topics of concern, and to invite guest columnists to do likewise, and to present reader responses. As much as possible, while not a chat room, I want to foment and provoke dialogue.

To offer some historical perspective and set the tone for this column, I thought a revised version of an article previously published in Mediation News, the newsletter of the former Academy of Family Mediators (Vol.19, No.2, Summer 2000),(On Being Too Fussy About Values In Mediation: Consider The Hedgehog And The Fox), might be useful and encourage you to review it online. In the meantime, please be thinking of topics for discussion or presentation of your own. Contact me c/o THE ETHICS FORUM, through


Robert Benjamin, M.S.W., J.D., has been a practicing mediator since 1979, working in most dispute contexts including: business/civil, family/divorce, employment, and health care. A lawyer and social worker by training, he practiced law for over 25 years and now teaches and presents professional negotiation, mediation, and conflict management seminars and training courses nationally and internationally. He is a standing Adjunct Professor at the Straus Institute for Conflict Resolution of the Pepperdine University School of Law, at Southern Methodist University’s Program on Conflict Resolution and in several other schools and universities. He is a past President of the Academy of Family Mediators, a Practitioner Member of the Association for Conflict Resolution, and the American Bar Association’s Section on Dispute Resolution. He is the author of numerous book contributions and articles, including “The Mediator As Trickster,” “Guerilla Negotiation,” and “The Beauty of Conflict,” and is a Senior Editor and regular columnist for

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