The Civilizing Effects of Choice

In business—and in the knowledge creation fields, especially—we are under pressure to learn and adapt our mental models and practices to new information and knowledge rapidly and frequently.  Sometimes it seems that we not only can but must learn something new every day.  Wonderful ideas—some supported by empirical research, some supported by careful reasoning, and some supported by little more than wishful thinking—abound.  How have we gotten along so very long without current understandings of such fields of thought as systems science, neuroscience, quantum physics, bioethics, and healthcare informatics?  And, yet, we have.

Because of the work I do, I spend a good deal of my time reading and researching.  Increasingly, it seems to me that, all things considered, there has been an element of human choice and discernment that has always been the difference between civility in social and scientific progress and marked incivility that can risk the ability to think clearly, let alone risk interpersonal and nation-state peace.

We choose.  It is unavoidable.

I will acknowledge that the apparent difficulty of choosing varies and sometimes our options are so challenging that they may not seem like options at all.  For instance, pointing to groupthink effectively when your thinking is the outlier in the discussion and resisting what appears to be overwhelming force by choosing not to comply with that force’s tactics or objectives.  But, ultimately, we choose our actions and are accountable for them.

If natural systems are amoral, then surely it lies within the purview of humanity to choose so that those systems tend toward the moral—or ethical, and I don’t mean to conflate morality and ethics here.  One thinking human can make an amazing difference—whether that’s on a project team or in the executive suite.

Sometimes in organizations we find ourselves in contexts that seem in the moment to only give us one choice.  The fear of symbolic death—loss of face or loss of employment—can be powerful.  Loss of self or self-respect is often longer lasting and more damaging to the whole person and those they care most about, however.

When faced with a difficult choice and feeling like you have no way out but to follow the crowd, stop.  Take time to reflect.  Ask yourself what choice you can really live with in the long run.  Little choices matter and aggregate over time.

It can seem that we are part of a system and cannot rise above it.  Tolstoy challenged this logic repeatedly in War and Peace wherein he pointed out that Napoleon could not have prosecuted his wars across Europe if his soldiers had not supported him in doing so.  He drove his point home repeatedly and showed examples of courageous individuals who fought back against the inhumane system even knowing it could cost them their real lives–not just their employment.

No, life is not a novel, but even in the worst examples in real life–Enron comes to mind–there are whistle blowers who see the problem and cry out against it.  How many of those silent alongside the whistleblower might wish they had not complied and become part of the problem but had stood up and blown a whistle or refused to comply with an unethical or inhumane practice?

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