The term moral dissonance has a variety of meanings. I learned the meaning I will discuss here in a conversation with a woman who owned a grocery store in a low-income neighborhood in a mid-size town in the US. Her grocery store brought fresh, local, mostly organic food to what had previously been a food desert. It was teeming with life, and served more functions than just being a place where people could get food. Our conversation was about her anguish when she found no other solution than to call the immigration officers as a way to deal with the violence and disruption caused by a group of young men that started showing up in the neighborhood. It wasn’t so much that she was afraid of losing her livelihood if they stayed, she told me in visible distress. She trusted that she would be able to relocate to another district and do well financially. It was her concern that if she relocated there would be no services left for the majority of the local people.
Her moral dissonance was about inviting in an agency representing aspects of the federal government she actively opposed (restricting immigration) in order to protect something that was precious to her (community empowerment and service). There was no way she saw to align all her values together in making that choice, hence the experience of dissonance.
That conversation, which took place 15 years ago, has stayed with me, because we were exploring the larger dimensions of this problem, and landed in the excruciating conclusion that this kind of impossible dilemma would become progressively more frequent as the increased pressures – from a contracting economy, depleted environment, and accelerating social alienation and dislocation – would put more and more people in situations that would challenge their capacity to choose in line with their values. Moral tradeoffs like this are costly for the human soul, I believe, and I do see them as proliferating. The options available to us, collectively, are narrowing. We cannot play outside the increasing constraints created by the harsh conditions of the market and the restrictive policies of the government. Within those constraints, we make decisions that are often in violation of things dear to us (such as care for people or care for the environment) simply because we don’t see any other option that would work. I remember vividly a friend who was working on her dissertation, raising a child, and supporting a partner who was depressed and unemployed. With tears in her eyes she confided in me that, despite knowing about landfills and other environmental and health costs of “disposable” diapers, it wasn’t an option for her to give up the modicum of ease they offered in a truly unmanageable life. What she really wanted was to be part of a community holding responsibility together, and such communities were not to be found.
Attending to a Moral Dilemma
Sometimes we don’t even know that we are making decisions, we just live our lives and in the process our actions have consequences. And sometimes there are moments in which we are called to make significant decisions that call us back from any complacent unawareness we may lull ourselves into in our daily lives. Such moments challenge us to become clear about our values and priorities, and provide a unique opportunity to deepen our self-knowledge. I recently navigated my way through one such decision. Although the specifics may be unique, I hope that providing some details about the process and my decision may support others in whatever moral dilemmas you may be facing in your own life. Because of the sensitivity of the issues I am raising, I am changing just about every detail about the story to protect the people who are involved.
I was approached by Dorota to explore the possibility of taking on working with her entire leadership team for a year, supporting them, through coaching and facilitation, to work together better. The work would include trust building along with communication and collaboration tools. Dorota was just hired by a major company to manage the company’s business in her country. Despite her extensive experience in management, she knew that the process of building her leadership team from scratch would benefit from outside support. Having heard from her brother about the depth of transformation he experienced while attending a workshop of mine some months before, she decided to reach out to me.
In fact, it was the brother who first contacted me, to see if I would be interested. I was ready to jump up and down in delight, as this is a dream project for me, just the right kind of next step in developing my capacity to work with organizations. Although the company was named in the initial email I received, I didn’t think much of it, and I immediately said I was interested before looking up the company. It was only when I got the second email that the moral dilemma hit me: I learned that the company was making and selling alcoholic beverages.
Both temperamentally and by commitment, I tend to turn to others in support of decisions and challenges. This was no exception. Throughout the weeks of reflection and conversations I kept coming back to one simple question: What would Gandhi do if he were in my shoes? What would be his way of approaching such a dilemma? Initially, as I approached the dilemma, I thought that I would have an immediate “no” if it were an arms manufacturer or tobacco, and that alcohol was such an ambiguous product. Enough people think it can be a pleasure without harm, if only it’s consumed responsibly, that the potential emotional and physical harm to those who drink it, along with the link between alcohol and violence, seemed somehow less serious, complex enough that I was left unsettled. What would help me decide one way or the other in a situation that wasn’t at all clear cut for me?
I finally distilled the dilemma into a few core considerations that I then presented to whoever was willing to engage with me, including posting them to the listserve of my fellow Nonviolent Communication trainers. Here is a modified version of the issues that guided my process, some of which emerged through engagement with others:
1. There was no question that this project would be an opportunity to learn so much – about this kind of work at this scope, about the way such organizations function, and about how people function within them.
2. I had very low trust that what I would do could be a significant contribution to the vision that burns in me. I was rather more confident that if the work were effective in waking people up, and, especially, if they began to question more seriously what the company was doing and what it means to be engaged in selling alcohol, then the more likely outcome is that they would leave the company and the alcohol business altogether rather than engage with the leadership to create change in what they do or how they do it.
3. I knew that Gandhi put a lot of intention into learning and understanding the British. I couldn’t get sufficient clarity within me about whether this project would be an opportunity to understand corporations more thoroughly in a way that would support my or others’ struggle to transform the global structures.
4. I wanted to engage with Dorota in a fully authentic manner before making a decision. I wasn’t sure how I could broach the topic, and yet I knew it was imperative to do so. I couldn’t imagine working for a year with her and a team of people without making full human connection with her about my concerns regarding alcohol.
5. I knew that if I was going to work with Dorota and her team, I would be embarking on a major inner stretching project – to maintain ongoing contact with all of their humanity, to accept the limits of my ability to make a dent in what the company was doing, and to accept my choice of working with people I believe are bringing harm to the world. As someone committed to an all-encompassing project of loving everyone, no matter what, I trusted this project would be an opportunity to grow in my ability to love people different from me in just about every respect.
The support I sought from others had two flavors to it. I asked some people to help me find, inside, what I most wanted to do in this situation. This is often what I do when I want to make a complex decision. Having others ask me questions and also tell me what they see or feel in me as I speak about something often helps me release confusion and inner constraints, and find a clear answer.
In this case, however, I saw early on that the question and the process were quite substantial, and the ramifications, especially for those of us doing this kind of work, far-reaching. As a result, I opted to ask for people’s experience and opinions.
As I look back at my life, I don’t recall any other decision about which I engaged with so many people. It’s not so much that this is a decision with such personal consequences. Rather, I made this choice to involve so many people because of the value of the process, and because of the growing pervasiveness of such dilemmas in our life. I wanted to bring as much wisdom and care to this decision as I possibly could.
What I learned
As I listened to and read so many people’s reflections on my dilemma, I noticed some repeating themes. One was a deeper crystallization of the dilemma. Several people said they would take or not take the project based on whether or not they could relate to the mission of the organization. What are we supporting with our work? – that is the core question of this path. Would that it were so simple. As life would have it, I couldn’t find a single website of a large alcohol company that doesn’t speak about responsible drinking. For the particular company in question, they also had a mission statement that, in and of itself, I had absolutely no qualms about. In the process of discernment, I looked up Monsanto’s website – as a large corporation whose policies I deeply disagree with – and realized that if I knew nothing about the company and only had to evaluate it based on the information posted on the website, I would reach very different conclusions than those I have reached based on their track record in action.
The quest for a mission that I can align with or not led me to a deeper question, an exploration of the relationship between mission and actions. How much do I believe the mission statement that a company presents? To what extent is a gap between mission and actions to be interpreted in the same way as the inevitable gaps between the values we each have and the choices we end up making, and how can I ever know if the statement is a cynical representation or genuinely believed? It is, after all, individual human beings who make the decisions in all corporations. The movie The Corporation portrays in chilling terms precisely the moral challenge of realizing that the people in decision-making positions are not monsters. Most of the ones interviewed by the film crew appeared to me entirely “decent,” beholden to the rules of the game, unable to transcend the complexity of pressures to maximize bottom line profits even when they want to, often. It’s not only about what I can trust in terms of the mission statement and values of any organization I would work to support. The logic of the world we live in goes beyond any choice that any individual can make. Even those in positions of great power are not as free as we see them from the outside. How can I even know what I would be supporting?
Another thread that showed up repeatedly in the responses was the focus on individuals while almost disregarding the systemic context. Some of my colleagues, both in the US and in Europe, focused their responses on the core commitment to support individual human beings wherever they are. If I am able to offer them something that would bring them closer to self-connection and increase their ability to collaborate with each other, so that perspective goes, I am already contributing to life. The more people we have in the world, wherever we find them, who are able to connect with self and other, the more we move towards the world of our dreams in which human needs, at all levels, guide our relationships and our institutions. Also, many said, I have no way of knowing what the ripple effects may be of people waking up to a different way of thinking and relating, anywhere in any organization.
I myself was never able to settle on this perspective. Yes, I am confident in my ability to contribute to greater collaboration and more effectiveness in this team, in any team, for the most part. I cannot make the choice to support a team just because they happen to be in front of me. In service of what are they collaborating is key to my decision. Even Dorota herself, when we talked and I brought up the conflicts feelings I had about working with an alcohol company, suddenly said: “I sometimes wonder if I am a drug dealer or a business woman.” And, after a short uncomfortable pause, she added: “I try not to think about it.” What would happen if she thought about it more? What if many on her team thought about this and the many other wrenching questions we face about where we are in these times and the direction that our actions are taking us in, both as individual players and as institutional players? Would they work inside for change? Would they leave the company? In my experience, more people choose the latter. Yes, I totally know there is mystery, and sometimes people would land somewhere and make use of what they learned with me, and I might not even know.
Is this what I want to do with my own limited resources? I knew, clearly, that I want to focus my decision elsewhere, not based on the randomness of the individuals’ lives that happen to be in that team. As Marshall Rosenberg, inventor of Nonviolent Communication, said, if we support individuals to feel better and get along with each other better without inviting them to engage with and transform the larger systems, then we are part of the problem, and what we offer becomes a narcotic rather than a tool for change.
A less common thread was the perspective that since I have dedicated my life to world transformation (likely as it is that I will die without having made much of a dent), and since I want to do it without erecting walls of separation, choosing to engage with those who are taking actions I find harmful is a core and central part of my own evolution as a change agent. Indeed, talking with Dorota, I could see how much work would be involved. Being with a group of people speaking a foreign language, who are dedicating the bulk of their hours to marketing, packaging, selling, shipping alcohol would be a personal challenge. Through this process, I came to have less of a sense of ambiguity about alcohol, to have more clarity about the level of harm – to self and others – that I associate with alcohol. The internal pull to distance myself from them would then be ever-present. Could I find and maintain open-heartedness?
The moment of clarity arrived in a conversation with a friend the night after I spoke with Dorota. Having heard my dilemma, my friend recounted her own. What if someone approached her to be on the board of a large transnational corporation she believes is doing immense harm to people and the environment. How would she respond? She told me she keeps coming back to know it would be a “yes” for her, and I immediately knew the same would be true for me. Why, then, was I so unclear about the situation with Dorota, where my sense of the harm is so much smaller?
The difference was my own level of influence. Dorota and her team, as much as they have a lot of leeway in how to run things within their country, most likely have no say in terms of the strategic decisions that the company as a whole makes. The more misgivings I have about what an entity is doing, I told my friend, the more important it is, then, to be engaging with those who are in position of power and decision-making within the entity. My friend chuckled when I said this, and shared with me her own pithy version of this sentiment. “If I dance with the devil,” a post-it she had pasted on her refrigerator says, “it better be the CEO.”
Committed to interdependence, I didn’t finalize my decision. I want to make such decisions with the team that supports me in all I do. We had a staff meeting this past Monday, and I brought up the dilemma, again, along with my emerging clarity about what I wanted and what many have said in all different directions. When we all concurred around my initial “no”, everything came to stillness inside me. The decision has been made.