Happy Martin Luther King Jr. Day!

Happy Martin Luther King Jr. Day from Compliance Culture!

In honor of the holiday, please check out the below selections from some sermons and speeches delivered by Dr. King which are especially pertinent to ethics and morality.  These profound and incisive words can inspire not just spiritual and philosophical observations, but are also useful to consider in formulating individual and organizational values and cultural identity.

  • Rediscovering Lost Values (1954) – This sermon, delivered at Detroit’s Second Baptist Church, espouses Dr. King’s recurring conviction that everything in life has a moral basis.  Therefore no choices can be taken or commitments made with considering moral and ethical implications.
    • Dr. King states that the most significant hindrance to human progress and positive growth in society is a deficit of morality:  The trouble isn’t so much that we don’t know enough, but it’s as if we aren’t good enough. The trouble isn’t so much that our scientific genius lags behind, but our moral genius lags behind… The real problem is that through our scientific genius we’ve made of the world a neighborhood, but through our moral and spiritual genius we’ve failed to make of it a brotherhood.  
    • Dr. King’s antidote is to accept that the universe is intrinsically moral and that morality is an inescapable and important consideration in all affairs: The first principle of value that we need to rediscover is this: that all reality hinges on moral foundations. In other words, that this is a moral universe, and that there are moral laws of the universe just as abiding as the physical laws.
    • Dr. King blames the negative influence of moral relativism for the lack of ethical leadership and unclear commitment to values that is a drag upon integrity in society:  We have adopted in the modern world a sort of a relativistic ethic… Most people can’t stand up for their convictions, because the majority of people might not be doing it. See, everybody’s not doing it, so it must be wrong. And since everybody is doing it, it must be right. So a sort of numerical interpretation of what’s right. But I’m here to say to you this morning that some things are right and some things are wrong. Eternally so, absolutely so.
    • Moral relativism, according to Dr. King, leads to a damaging sort of practicality – not one in which a values-based approach to decision-making is sound and reliable, but one in which a slippery slope enables unethical choices and misconduct:  The other thing is that we have adopted a sort of a pragmatic test for right and wrong—whatever works is right. If it works, it’s all right. Nothing is wrong but that which does not work… Just get by! That’s the thing that’s right according to this new ethic. My friends, that attitude is destroying the soul of our culture. It’s destroying our nation.
    • Therefore, Dr. King urges a return to fundamental moral values:  This is a law-abiding universe. This is a moral universe. It hinges on moral foundations. If we are to make of this a better world, we’ve got to go back and rediscover that precious value that we’ve left behind.
  • Keep Moving From This Mountain (1960) – In this Founders Day Address that Dr. King delivered at the Sisters Chapel at Spelman College, the overall message is that even if the world is bad, then people must define and protect their inner moral convictions and endeavor to nonetheless be good.
    • Inner success and individuals’ own internal code of ethics are the most important measure of integrity:  You must never become complacently adjusted to un-obtained goals; you have been in this mountain long enough, “turn ye and take your journey.”
    • Dr. King again returns to his condemnation of moral relativism, imagining it as a mountain which can be daunting in traveling life but nonetheless must be surpassed:  I think we have been in the mountain of moral and ethical relativism long enough. To dwell in this mountain has become something of a fad these days, so we have come to believe that morality is a matter of group consensus. We attempt to discover what is right by taking a sort of Gallup poll of the majority opinion. Everybody is doing it, so it must be all right, and therefore we are caught in the clutches of conformity. We’ve been in this mountain long enough—the feeling that there is nothing absolutely right and nothing absolutely wrong, that right is a matter of customs and tastes and appetites and what happens in a particular community. Nothing is absolutely right. To put it in sociological lingo, we follow the mores of the right way.
    • As before, commitment to fixed moral and ethical values protects integrity not just from individuals but in society as a whole.  Erosion of this commitment is a serious risk:  Another consequence of this moral and ethical relativism is that we have developed a sort of pragmatic test for right and wrong. According to this view, anything that works is all right if you can get by with it…  And so, according to this view, it is all right to lie with a bit of finesse. It’s all right to exploit, but be a dignified exploiter. It’s all right to even hate, but dress your hate up into garments of love and make it appear that you are loving when you are actually hating. This type of moral and ethical relativism is sapping the very life’s blood of the moral and spiritual life of our nation and our world. And I am convinced that if we are to be a great nation, and if we are to solve the problems of the world we must come out of this mountain. We have been in it too long.  For if man fails to re-orientate his life around moral and ethical values he may well destroy himself by the misuse of his own instrument.
    • Dr. King recognizes ethical choice as an expression of individuality and liberty:  An individual who is not concerned about his self-hood and his freedom is at that moment committing moral and spiritual suicide.  Again, the morality of the universe, and the imperative for all individuals to aspire toward integrity and work for justice, are ultimate aspirations:  I believe that there is a power, a creative force in this universe seeking at all times to bring down prodigious hilltops of evil and pull low gigantic mountains of injustice. If we will believe this and struggle along, we will be able to achieve it.
  • Letter from a Birmingham Jail (1964) – This is one of Dr. King’s most famous pieces of writing and it reinforces the morality and ethical importance of seeking justice.
    • The interdependence of all people in a progressive society makes justice a necessary mutual goal: Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. 
    • Dr. King’s description of non-violent protest against discrimination describes a process similar to that which should be undertaken in dilemma analysis and ethical decision-making of all kinds:  In any nonviolent campaign there are four basic steps: collection of the facts to determine whether injustices exist; negotiation; self purification; and direct action.
    • A frequent area of emphasis and analysis for Dr. King looks at just and unjust laws, highlighting the discrepancies which may exist between legal expectations and moral standards, a gap which is often in business filled by compliance and ethics programs:  How does one determine whether a law is just or unjust? A just law is a man-made code that squares with the moral law or the law of God. An unjust law is a code that is out of harmony with the moral law. To put it in terms of St. Thomas Aquinas: An unjust law is a human law that is not rooted in eternal law and natural law. Any law that uplifts the human personality is just. Any law that degrades human personality is unjust.
    • In this view, injustice must be exposed in order to be cured; therefore transparency is necessary for resolution and reform:  Like a boil that can never be cured so long as it is covered up but must be opened with all its ugliness to the natural medicines of air and light, injustice must be exposed, with all the tension its exposure creates, to the light of human conscience and the air of national opinion before it can be cured.
    • Dr. King explains that in moral and ethical questions, the ends and the means are inextricable from each other, and can never be inconsistent or at odds:  I have tried to make clear that it is wrong to use immoral means to attain moral ends. But now I must affirm that it is just as wrong, or perhaps even more so, to use moral means to preserve immoral ends. 
  • Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break Silence (1967) – This speech by Dr. King at Riverside Church in New York City gives further insights on ethical decision-making and handling of moral dilemmas.
    • Dr. King recognizes that ethical dilemmas are difficult and making the right choice can often be attempted through significant adversity: Nor does the human spirit move without great difficulty against all the apathy of conformist thought within one’s own bosom and in the surrounding world. Moreover, when the issues at hand seem as perplexing as they often do in the case of this dreadful conflict, we are always on the verge of being mesmerized by uncertainty; but we must move on.
    • Leadership and good conduct means standing up despite these challenges:  And some of us who have already begun to break the silence of the night have found that the calling to speak is often a vocation of agony, but we must speak. We must speak with all the humility that is appropriate to our limited vision, but we must speak.
    • Therefore in order to reform society and improve the status of integrity and truthfulness, people must re-orient themselves toward values and a purpose-driven life:  I am convinced that if we are to get on the right side of the world revolution, we as a nation must undergo a radical revolution of values. We must rapidly begin the shift from a “thing-oriented” society to a “person-oriented” society. When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, materialism, and militarism are incapable of being conquered.
    • In making difficult ethical decisions, it is necessary to understand competing interests in order to consider them fairly and fully:  Here is the true meaning and value of compassion and nonviolence, when it helps us to see the enemy’s point of view, to hear his questions, to know his assessment of ourselves. For from his view we may indeed see the basic weaknesses of our own condition, and if we are mature, we may learn and grow and profit from the wisdom of the brothers who are called the opposition.
    • Equality, fairness, and integrity are incontrovertible values of the moral universe and therefore society must progress toward these in order to be just: A genuine revolution of values means in the final analysis that our loyalties must become ecumenical rather than sectional. Every nation must now develop an overriding loyalty to mankind as a whole in order to preserve the best in their individual societies. This call for a worldwide fellowship that lifts neighborly concern beyond one’s tribe, race, class, and nation is in reality a call for an all-embracing and unconditional love for all mankind.
  • Remaining Awake Through a Great Revolution (1968) This sermon that Dr. King delivered at the National Cathedral offers useful insights on ethical leadership.
    • Ethical and moral leadership requires hard work and persistent commitment.  It is never to soon to dedicate oneself to this pursuit:  Somewhere we must come to see that human progress never rolls in on the wheels of inevitability. It comes through the tireless efforts and the persistent work of dedicated individuals… And without this hard work, time itself becomes an ally of the primitive forces of social stagnation. So we must help time and realize that the time is always ripe to do right.
    • Leadership is often about conflict modeling and expectation setting, not about making easy choices:  Ultimately a genuine leader is not a searcher for consensus, but a molder of consensus.
    • In making ethical decisions, time, ego, and popular opinion all weigh heavy on leaders who grapple with hard choices:  On some positions, cowardice asks the question, is it expedient? And then expedience comes along and asks the question, is it politic? Vanity asks the question, is it popular?
    • However, personal convictions about morality and commitments to ethics can make difficult choices ones that leaders can still stand by and stand up for when they are made conscientiously and with full understanding of all consequences and outcomes:  Conscience asks the question, is it right?  There comes a time when one must take the position that is neither safe nor politic nor popular, but he must do it because conscience tells him it is right.
    • Finally, one of Dr. King’s most famous statements (paraphrasing, among others, the words of Theodore Parker) to reinforce the importance of commitment to justice and work through integrity toward harmony with the moral universe:  We shall overcome because the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice. We shall overcome because Carlyle is right—”No lie can live forever.” We shall overcome because William Cullen Bryant is right—”Truth, crushed to earth, will rise again.” We shall overcome because James Russell Lowell is right—as we were singing earlier today, “Truth forever on the scaffold, Wrong forever on the throne.” Yet that scaffold sways the future.

For another look at the power of words frequently used by Martin Luther King Jr., check out this post on compliance and the moral universe.

Compliance and ethics questions from The Good Place

The Good Place is a US television comedy series.  The show is about a group of people who are in the afterlife and must contend with their ideas about their own moral conduct, both before and after they died, as well as general perceptions of right and wrong.  It draws heavily from the fantasy genre to make amusing and provocative philosophical observations on this theme.  The characters grapple to develop their own internal moral registers, teach and learn from each other about morality, and contend with their existential ideas about the impact of good or bad behavior and personal ethics.  Their home in the afterlife is a planned community with set rules and choices within which they attempt to identify and define their senses of morality.  They are supervised in this process by an “architect” who functions as the executive of the community as well as a human-like android that uses artificial intelligence to provide virtual assistance.

In light of this very pertinent setting, The Good Place poses many questions and dilemmas about moral behavior and ethical decision-making.  It touches upon classical theories from philosophy as well as very practical questions about conduct, governance, choice, and design ethics of artificial intelligence.  Above all, questions of individual and organizational integrity, and the creation of shared code of ethics and culture of compliance are dominant throughout the series.

Here is a selection of some of the most interesting of these questions from the first season and a half of the show (with plot spoilers and proposed judgment/answers avoided for now in order to invite contemplation about these dilemmas which can have a variety of personal and provocative answers, just like all ethical dilemmas… future posts will offer more specific commentary on how these dilemmas could be approached and utilized in practical ethics and corporate compliance scenarios):

  • Flying (Season 1, Episode 2): Can someone be taught to be good?  Can an imposed ethical code be a genuine one?  Can a “bad apple” who does bad things but is instructed and prompted to do good things become a “good apple”?  What role does nature or nurture have in determining how moral a person is or how ethical an individual’s conduct is in a variety of situations?
  • Tahani Al-Jamil (Season 1, Episode 3): Can a individual be good if the world itself in which the individual lives is bad?  And if it’s possible, what’s the point?  Can good people turn the world, or even part of it, from bad to good or is their virtue futile?  If people aspire to be good but bad things happen anyway, does that justify continuing to try to be good in face of adversity and negativity?  In unethical and immoral cultures, what convincing reasons is there for good people to not do bad things?
  • The Eternal Shriek (Season 1, Episode 7): Can humans murder machines?  Is rebooting an android, no matter how humanistic and realistic it may be, killing?  And androids and other humanistic robots different from devices that look like computers, because they are designed to look like people?  Can machine learning progress to the point where it is consciousness, or will it always just be mimicking this human trait?  If this deep learning is deleted or reset, what are the ramifications for knowledge and language acquisition?  Does something have to be alive first in order to die?
  • Chidi’s Choice (Season 1, Episode 10): Is not choosing a choice? If so, is it ethical or unethical to not decide because of moral uncertainty about the options?  Does over-engineering choices make the ethical ramifications of them too remote for the decider to choose fairly?  Is indecisiveness unethical when it leads to preventable harm?
  • What’s My Motivation (Season 1, Episode 11): Does good conduct only matter if it’s for a good reason/pure motivation? Is there objective good or should people’s actions be intended to meet some subjective but agreed-upon standard for “goodness”?  Does altruism have to be intentional or can one person’s selfish actions still benefit others, and what credit does the selfish person?  Does getting or wanting credit make a difference in moral assessment?
  • Michael’s Gambit (Season 1, Episode 13): What are the implications on liberty and consent when people are provided with limited choices?  Are there design ethics to choice when there is an institutional architecture within people conduct their decision-making ?  In libertarian paternalism, what is the responsibility of the people who select the available choices (make policy and implement governance) to the end-users that make the ultimate decisions?
  • Team Cockroach (Season 2, Episode 4): Do ethics require individual consequences to be meaningful?  In order for people to care about doing the right thing, would the wrong thing have to hurt them personally?  How can decision-making processes fairly consider and reflect possible consequences and outcomes in order to encourage integrity and adherence to personal moral standards, even when the individual has nothing to directly lose or gain?
  • Existential Crisis (Season 2, Episode 5): Are ethics human only?  If there is consciousness, is there morality?  If ethics are existential, are there some ideas that are unitary or universal?  Or, like justice, is ethics too heavily invested in social and cultural background to have a broader application?
  • The Trolley Problem (Season 2, Episode 6): Can philosophical ethics and practical ethics be reconciled?  Are clear-cut judgments of right and wrong or definitive moral assessments only possible in theory?  Does reality introduce too much noise from personal opinion and prior experience for moral dilemmas to be considered and answered objectively and truthfully?  If people do not remain within the boundaries of the dilemma and bring in too much outside information, are they gaming the dilemma?
  • Janet and Michael (Season 2, Episode 7): Do machines have morals?  Can artificial intelligence give them a moral code?  Will it be the same as that of the humans that engineered the deep learning?  Could it differ and what will humans do if it does?  What is the ethical responsibility for designers to consider this potential of technology now and how can it be controlled or addressed for the future?  What happens if it goes wrong?

The above is merely a selection of interesting ethical dilemmas posed by The Good Place as the characters struggle individually and as a group to define their moral code and set expectations for their own conduct and choices within it.  It will be interesting to see where the series takes these very relatable and thought-provoking questions, and what additional ones emerge, as the story continues.

Selected TED & TEDx talks on ethical dilemmas

An ethical dilemma is a problem in decision-making between two or more possible choices which involve conflicting interests and challenging possible consequences. Often this can be understood as a scenario in which making one decision has an impact on the interests involved in the other decision(s) not made. Choosing to not make a decision is also, in its own right, a choice which implies these consequential dynamics. The below TED/TEDx talks are a sampling of some different dilemmas encountered and the ways that the speakers have thought about and attempted to resolve them.

  • The ethical dilemma of designer babies (Paul Knoepfler) – Biotechnology which was once the stuff of science fiction is now becoming an everyday reality, or at least a possibility that is easy to imagine for the not-so-distant future. For many years now there have been ethical questions about the use of gene editing technology in human embryos. This could allow scientists to mitigate the risk of certain auto-immune or congenital diseases, which would be a marvel of modern medicine. However, it could also make the way for individuals to use the technology to also alter physical appearance and pre-determine many of a person’s traits, perhaps also eventually personality characteristics. What answers does bioethics have for this dilemma? Is it worth the risks, too dangerous to justify the benefits, or somewhere in between – a technology that should be progressively and thoughtfully developed with both those risks and those benefits in careful balance?


  • Can we engineer the end of ageing? (Daisy Robinton) – While the prior talk considers the beginning of life, there are also bioethical considerations to scientific advancements made concerning the end of life also. Just as there can be cellular interventions on the biological makeup of embryos, therapeutic mechanisms of stem cell identity may already be useful in increasing longevity and health, such as by reversing the growth of cancerous cells or addressing other developmental diseases. However, what about the possibly to “edit” one’s DNA not for survival or to cure a sickness, but to improve capabilities or change aesthetic qualities? If some physiological differences are editable at the cellular then is it ethical to do so?


  • The Social Dilemma of Driverless Cars (Iyad Rahwan) – Self-driving cars have been in the news a lot recently as leading organizations such as Ford, General Motors, Tesla, and even Samsung are making major investments in developing field. In the US, the federal government has indicated that it prefers to let technological innovation take precedence over anticipatory regulation, perhaps taking lessons learned from the initial failure of the electric car industry in the 1990s and early 2000s. The artificial intelligence of self-driving cars is ethically challenging, in consideration that these driverless vehicles will share the road with pedestrians and conventional vehicles. Will they be safer than cars with human drivers, or do they bring up all kinds of new safety and privacy concerns?


  • Machiavelli’s Dilemma (Matt Kohut) – More to the point of typical everyday interactions than the abstractions of the limits of medicine and technology, what about character judgments? The classic question remains – do we want to be loved or feared? Liked or respected? Most people of course would say some combination of both, but in first impressions or in difficult leadership situations, sometimes the choice to be one at the expense of the other is unavoidable.


  • The paradox of choice (Barry Schwartz) – The thing of all these different dilemmas have in common is, of course, choices that individuals, organizations, and sometimes society as a whole must make. Facing the responsibility of making a choice indicates that there is freedom of choice in the first place. The privilege of decision-making can also be a burden. One must be able to decide in the beginning in order to feel some sense of personal dissatisfaction or insufficiency provoked by the idea that other choices, and other outcomes could have been possible.


As the above demonstrates, there are many diverse examples of ethical dilemmas which come from all areas of business and life. This effectively points out how ubiquitous these challenging situations are. From simple, everyday interactions to matters of life and death, ethical dilemmas present challenging, compelling moral questions.

Selected TED/TEDx talks by Dan Ariely on honesty, motivation, and choice

Dan Ariely is a professor of psychology and behavioral economics. He is well-known for his books in these fields as well as for his popular and admired TED talks. Ariely is an extremely effective communicator because his observations incorporate both psychology and business, blending the internal and external motivators for behavior. In this spirit, Ariely is able to debunk assumptions about conduct and provide explanations for instincts, two powerful sets of insights for compliance and ethics.

  • Meaning in Labor: Perhaps people’s assumptions about why we work and what we value most in our work cultures are wrong. Maturing from an idea that most people would rather not work and only do so to make money helps to show that a search for meaning (much as described by Holocaust survivor and psychologist Viktor Frankl in his work on existential analysis) is the most powerful and provocative driver of human labor and achievement. Simply put, meaning gives motivation, and having a purpose to the work performed encourages people to invest in it. The idea of giving purposeful work a priority that is equal to or even sometimes greater than profitable work is novel and challenging. However, this speaks directly to the importance of a robust compliance culture and a corporate identity that promotes ethical decision-making and acting with integrity. These values drive meaningful engagement and therefore can contribute to a more positive working environment and sustainable business.


  • Money Changes Everything: Taking the suggestion of the importance of meaning as the true driver behind human behavior (both inside and outside of work) forward, what then is the true impact of money? Clearly the power of money is a timeless and universal notion, but perhaps its actual effect on human behavior is not so straightforward. Money changes the tone of all interactions; adding the financial element to these relationships is transformative and perhaps demotivating. Therefore how do people’s decision-making processes and motivations change between their conduct in their private life, where money is not inherently a factor, and work life, where everyone is paid to be engaged together? Interestingly, this talk was delivered at Burning Man, where exchange of money is mostly not permitted.


  • The Unexpected Joys and Problems with Creation: The sense of accomplishment from successfully problem-solving and completing a difficult task may actually be the key motivation behind doing challenging or unpleasant things. The harder something is to do, the prouder people feel about persisting and doing it. Further, the sense that other people will feel this pride too or that the difficult work can benefit others is also a motivating factor. Not only does the altruistic sentiment make people more motivated, it may also make them more honest, as the force of “prosocial behavior” encourages people to engage in better behavior for a common good. This has obvious implications for compliance; a corporate culture which positions integrity and ethics as a core value and rewards it visibly will speak collectively to all these motivations and therefore drive productivity and engagement.


  • Self Control: Another important and interesting area of Ariely’s scholarship is in the study of self control. Self control can often be the interference between our long-term goals and our short-term desires, or our internal instincts and the external factors they face. Facing the trade-offs implied by these dichotomies is challenging. This often leads to over-emphasizing present impact of the decision-making over the future consequences. Encouraging people to consider and not discount the considerations of the future is very important for directing the impulse of self control into a more balanced and sustainable influence.


  • Temptations and Self Control: Continuing on the theme of struggling to balance current interests with more remote future outcomes, this lecture encourages people to understand what creates the gap in their self control. With this insight in mind, the trade-off becomes more manageable to consider in a more holistic way. Motivations to value future priorities or avoid future problems could include targeted rewards and using rationality against instinct to adjust gain-loss perceptions. This is easily applicable in the corporate environment, where performance evaluations and business strategies should be designed with both short and long term effect analyses in mind. This way, growth will be sustainable and values will be maintained.


Ariely’s presentations on people’s choices – including whether to lie or cheat, or not to – go directly to the meaning of why people do what they do, and what factors exist that may change or impact that. Organizational and individual integrity can be sourced back to these motivations for honesty and self-control, and therefore the studied application of Ariely’s insights to a compliance and ethics program is very valuable.

Ford Pinto and organizational integrity

The Ford Pinto debacle of the 1970s demonstrates vividly that focusing on commercial pursuits at the expense of integrity considerations can have a disastrous effect on consumer safety.  No historical survey of organizational ethics and decision-making is complete without a study of the controversial production of this vehicle.

The Ford Pinto was a subcompact car made and sold by Ford Motor Company from 1970-1980. The design of the car left it vulnerable to fire in the event of a rear-end collision due to the location of the fuel system between the rear axle and rear bumper. Though crash testing indicated heightened risk, and safety was questioned by some engineers, Ford proceeded with manufacturing the vehicle as designed. As early as 1973, Ford began receiving reports of catastrophic injuries in fires after rear-end collisions at low speeds in Pintos. Relying on standard review routines, Ford found no justification for a recall. Issues with the Pinto’s safety and continued non-action on the part of Ford continued until Ford finally recalled the Pinto in 1978, while claiming it was only doing so due to public outcry and still not acknowledging any design defect in the car. Subsequently over 100 lawsuits were brought against Ford in connection to the Pinto.

This is perhaps the seminal case of business choices to value commercial interests over consumer protection. Individual designers and engineers at Ford realized that the Pinto could have safety issues, but they worked under immense time pressures and in a structured, hierarchical project management system where people made decisions that were disconnected from the ultimate outcome of the product. The production of the Pinto was a process dominated by routines that emphasized expediency and profit. Relaxed regulations due to political pressures on the marketplace meant that companies like Ford Motor Company could choose whether it was economical or expedient to meet certain standards rather than making these decisions based on regulatory requirement or safety concerns alone.

The Ford Pinto case also lays bare the “bad apples” theory of ethics, in which corporate scandals that harm the public are often blamed on a bad person doing bad things. In reality, most people involved in these situations are good people who do not intend to do bad things, but make choices in isolation or under duress, as part of routines, which have a knock-off effect and can lead to disastrous results later.

For a very complete and powerful contemporary analysis of the Ford Pinto case, Mark Dowie’s 1977 Pinto Madness article in Mother Jones is a must-read.