Yale Professor Thomas Pogge admonishes us to “pause for a while and reflect on what it would be like to live on [$2 per day], equivalent in 2012 to $16.50 per week or $71.70 per month or $860 for the entire year…” and to “ask yourself whether you would consider such an existence to accord with what is affirmed in Article 25 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, that ‘…everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for health and well-being of himself and of his family…’.” Professor Pogge then reminds us that this $2 per day is 60% above the poverty line of $1.25 per day (each 2005 value) that is “actually used within Millennium Development Goal 1” to track poverty progress.As I engage with leaders and organizations in highly complex and nuanced discussions of ethical issues and strategies, there are many moments of tortured reflection. However, few address this bottom line: the ethics analysis is incomplete without careful consideration of how the analysis might change if we “paused for a while” and imagined ourselves in the situation of those most affected by the ultimate outcomes of the ethics decisions. (Please note that I do not take a position here on the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (or even on the universality of human rights). It is one example of many ethics matters that actually or potentially infringe on human security, rights or dignity triggering an obligation to “swap shoes”.
Reasons vary. Organizations may take refuge in ethics box-ticking. Leaders may prefer not to face the reality of the ultimate outcome of their organization’s decisions and/or actions. Often organizations feel they receive adequate perspective through board expertise such as a cancer researcher or development expert. Models or buzz words trump outcome, for example believing that impact investing and social entrepreneurship should displace charity completely. Sometimes (often in privileged offices) grand conclusions about “data” on the impact of longer-term outcomes versus shorter-term action justify leaving horrifying violations of human dignity and threats to human security unremedied.
Irrespective of the reason, failure to address outcomes, see from the non-expert eyes affected, focus on the results over the model, or force data to live in context (shoes) leads to failed, or at least incomplete, ethics. Sometimes the needs just don’t bring investment returns within a reasonable time frame. Sometimes there’s no time to “teach a starving child to fish”. I would respectfully suggest that if most of us were deciding which of our starving children to leave to die on a roadside in Somalia because we could only carry one through miles of heat and danger to a refugee camp, we might not find “learning to fish” the most ethical choice. Moreover, our view of prioritizing short-term assistance over long-term quantitative results might differ – not least because likely our view of the ultimate risks of doing so beyond the impact on ourselves might also differ.
I am not suggesting that organizational ethics should be personal. Indeed, I strongly warn leaders of the risk of personalizing ethics rather than filtering ethics through the well-being of the organization and its stakeholders (see: It isn’t personal). For example, board members of medical institutions with ill family members may care less about the long-term (or even technical legal requirements) than curing a disease. (This may worsen when the board member is a major donor feeling able to control use of funds.) Most importantly, I am not suggesting that standing in someone else’s shoes is the only criterion or even the deciding factor driving an ethics decision. Rather from the standpoint of quality of ethics oversight, trying on a result oneself offers essential perspective (even for interpretation of data), compassion, and assurance that the ethical analysis best suits the context.
Finally, many of the ethics issues I address have no perfect answer. Limited resources, human error, increasingly complex global challenges, and evolving ethics analyses all contribute to the reality: sometimes the choice is between children dying and leaving violent rapists unchecked. When faced with the seemingly impossible choice, pause for a while now because you and others will live (or not) with the consequences of your ethics analysis for much longer.
 Thomas Pogge, “Poverty, Human Rights and the Global Order: Framing the Post-2015 Agenda,” pp. 2-3. http://ssm.com/abstract=2046985
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