Ethics in public life and supervision
As Millet observed of the events in France in 1789 ‘like Saturn, the Revolution devours its own’. A few mauvaises langues have noted the cruel irony of Justin Trudeau – possibly the most ‘woke’ of modern leaders – becoming enmeshed in a scandal of cultural appropriation and arguable racism. Predictably the Court of Twitter found him guilty. Tempting though it is to poke fun at Justin, this episode is instructive – where in the modern world has the concept of forgiveness disappeared to? (It features in all the Abrahamic religions – Christianity, Judaism and Islam.) A generally well-meaning individual with decent values, Trudeau did something daft in his youth and is condemned for all time, and respect we may have had for his accomplishments is dissipated. Although forgiven by enough Canadians narrowly to win the recent election, he only just survived the crude moral code of the lynch-mob.
Besides potentially restricting public life to ascetic saints and public discourse to the anodyne and platitudinous, this kind of episode poses the question: is there a place for ethics in modern life? Or has an atomised society and the pall of moral relativism led to an ethical free-for-all? If so, what are the implications for good social relations, which rest on a set of reciprocal obligations, often codified in various ways. These can include behaving to others as you would like them to behave to you and as a corollary: forgiving others who don’t behave to you as you would like and receiving their forgiveness if you too transgress. (We are not talking here of what Kant called ‘radical evil’ but of missteps, outbursts of temper, insensitive remarks and actions and so on. Although that said the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission even attempted to address something as monstrous as apartheid.)
Forgiveness is a cornerstone of a functioning society – without it, a whole litany of evils emerge festering hatred and resentment leading to feuds and ongoing inter-national and inter-racial bitterness that corrupt relations for decades if not centuries. At the individual and group level, a lack of forgiveness soon creates disharmony but if granted and received in good faith, it enriches forgiver and forgiven and the relationship itself; it is the peaceful sword that cuts the vicious circle. Almost always the route to forgiveness passes via understanding, as the French proverb encapsulates: Tout comprendre, c’est tout pardonner. Conceived of in this way we see that it also operates within a number of other structures: the religious, the therapeutic, and the supervisory, for instances.
To focus for present purposes on the Supervisor’s role: she or he has an ethical role to play – working with the client on precisely those missteps, incompetencies, insensitivities, and morally questionable behaviours; and helping them to work through their client’s transgressions. The supervisor’s questions are designed to elicit understanding: what and why did this happen, what were the client’s motives and intentions, what were the conscious and unconscious dynamics, what was the back-story? By ‘containing’ the client, by listening non-judgementally and exploring the issue in all its dimensions the supervisor does a number of things: creates a safe environment in which difficult matters can be discussed; allows the client to reach their own conclusion as to whether their behaviour was ethical or not; and works with them to identify any reparatory actions necessary and appropriate. Finally – and leaving aside egregious or illegal actions which can’t be sanctioned – he or she effectively pardons the individual – giving them a license to move on, committed to changing their attitude and behaviour.
The supervisor’s own sense of what is ethical may be personal, but should also be represented and shaped by a professional code. In addressing the issue of how professional groups can develop a body of ethical practice, Alasdair MacIntyre in After Virtue tries to resurrect the Aristotelian idea of generally accepted goods to which these groups should aspire. These will emerge from traditions and culture – national and professional – and will be perpetually refined as members reflect on their journeys through dilemmas, temptations, distractions, and the new challenges that technology and modern mores offer.
C.S. Lewis once observed that a structure that is well thought through and moderately flexible paradoxically allows us a good deal of freedom: obvious examples include language and etiquette. Over time and practice, we internalise the codes and protocols so that we can observe them instinctively most of the time. We are not only guided but free to work and interact with others confidently, intuitively and creatively without having to interrogate and ponder our every move and utterance. As we saw with Justin Trudeau, the ethical code of the cybersphere is notable for its absence – unless one believes that projective identification is part of a moral system. Those in public life or unfortunates thrust into the spotlight for a misjudged Tweet or unwise email – risk falling into a kind of inferno in which normal rules don’t apply and absolution is perennially unavailable.
James Mackay is a Founder and Director of the Tavistock Institute’s Course in Supervision for Coaching & Consultancy.
We are now inviting applicants for the next cohort of the Certificate in Supervision for Coaching & Consultancy, a professional development course in 3 modules accredited by the Tavistock Institute of Human Relations.
£250 early bird discount for applications received by 1 March 2020!
For further information on the Supervision course, including module dates, fees and venue or if you have any questions, please contact Anabel Navarro: firstname.lastname@example.org, Professional Development Manager.