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Want ethical responses to a world of trouble? Focus on character

Self-interest and greed drive the decision-making of too many of the professional classes who most influential global policies.

We read a lot these days about corruption, self-interest and personal tragedies. The latest report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change for the first time explicitly considers climate change as an ethical challenge. Increasingly, our globalised 24/7 cultures seem to offer little in the way of secular hope in the face of all this.

Has it struck you how odd it is that most of us brighten at the thought of having children, when we know (or ought to know) that more kids (multiplied a gazillion times over) must mean most of them have little chance of having decent lives if we persist on our current course?

But unless we have more or less given up and think mostly about My Kitchen Rules, the AFL or the next Netflix download, we cling to hope that a way will be found to survive it. Perhaps, somehow, common sense will prevail and world leaders will implement all sorts of things like significant renewable energy targets, first-rate education for girls and global health promotion, instead of exponential rises in spending on so-called personalised medication.

What stands in the way of true progress here? Obviously, a lot of interconnected and short-term self-interest. This has always been so. So is it not naïve to think there might be a way of alleviating the global despair about what is turning into a race to find safe countries, safe currencies, safe water, safe anything?

Character-building works

Perhaps it is not naïve. Within overseas aid networks and countless United Nations Development Programs, it has long been recognised that the so-called strength-based approach to human happiness works better than any other when the objective is sustainable change and development.

Such programs grow the capacity of individuals and groups to decide for themselves to make real changes in their lives. They take time and patience and involve interior, reflective changes, but they are there and working. They strengthen character by focusing on building the virtues of courage, resilience, compassion and integrity.

What has not been attempted so far is the extension of this proven approach into key wealth-creation and professional sectors – such as business management, law, medicine and education. The professional occupants of these sectors control what is developed, what resource is exploited, who benefits and who does not. Regardless of national governments, their members will also decide if we are ever to take planetary notice of the fact that our population is about to do the same as the Easter Islanders did to themselves.

If the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals are to have any hope of success, we need to find a way of strengthening key professionals’ capacity to support sustainability rather than undermine it through tacit or overt participation in conflicts of interest, corruption, bribery and tax evasion, as well as the chaos of increasingly unstable economic cycles.

Have we fully accepted that the condoned greed of certain financiers, entrepreneurs and lawyers triggered the 2007-08 global financial crisis? Would the GFC have been less likely if the character of just some of those players had been “intercepted” earlier in their careers and reinforced with appropriate character-development initiatives?

We already know how to strengthen personal character, thanks to the work in positive psychology of Christopher Petersen and Martin Seligman, among others. We know how to apply their insights in conventional aid and development environments.

UN Development Programs build the capacity of individuals to improve their communities. Flickr/United Nations Photo, CC BY

Raise the bar for decision-makers

We try to “train up” managers, lawyers and medical professionals to be conscious of codes of ethics and all sorts of rules with, it seems, only some effect. But we don’t seriously attempt to build character capacity in those sectors where the most important and long-term global agendas are at stake.

How would we strengthen personal character enough to deal with these humungous challenges? Are we, in fact, faced with a species-imperative need to regulate for character?

That goal may be almost impossible unless a way is found to assess an individual doctor, lawyer or business manager in their progress towards character strengthening. No such assessments have been developed, although most educators know that education without assessment is incomplete. No attempt has been made to develop a mechanism that strengthens and assesses personal character, as a condition of continued licensing.

We suggest education, testing and licensing for character as nothing less than a central priority in global sustainability. Let’s develop exercises and psychological tests to energise character awareness and measure virtues in our future doctors, business managers, lawyers and educators. These tests or scales can be developed specifically to strengthen honesty, integrity and sensitivity to conflicts of interest and promote those who show, over time, that they can be trusted.

Some will say virtue cannot be assessed or that the process is oppressive, but that remains to be seen. Character regulation, in itself, appears to us as a fundamental sustainable development goal. It is perhaps the only one that will truly make a difference in the time we have left to act.

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