The Ethics of Ethics

(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 www.mediate.com,
The Ethics Forum. Because Mediate.com 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
rbenjamin@mediate.com.

                        author

Robert Benjamin

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… MORE >

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