Rushworth Kidder started thinking deeply about ethics when he wrote for the Christian Science Monitor.

In the 1980s, Kidder wrote a series of 22 interviews with leading thinkers around the world, exploring the biggest issues the world would face in the 21st century. One of those leaders, historian Barbara Tuchman, named the breakdown of private and public morality as one of the defining issues of the future.

Kidder spun that into an ethics beat, writing weekly columns about how to talk about ethics and frame ethical issues for public discussion. Soon, bouncing around ethical conundrums became his primary focus, and 21 years ago, he founded the Institute for Global Ethics in Rockport. The institute is an independent nonprofit whose mission is, among other things, to elevate public discussion of ethical issues and provide practical tools for making ethical decisions.

Kidder is the author of several books, including “Good Kids, Tough Choices: How Parents Can Help Their Children Do the Right Thing” (Jossey-Bass, $16.95), which was published last fall. He lives with his wife, Elizabeth, in Lincolnville. 

Q: You talk in your book about how a lot of children today are being raised to have “continuous partial attention” because of the widespread influence of new media. They’re texting while driving, or talking on their cellphones while doing homework on their laptops. Do you think parents will have a more difficult time teaching this generation ethics than our parents did?

A: That’s a very interesting question. I think in earlier ages, we went about it in a less deliberate and self-conscious way. I don’t recall great conversations around our dinner table about ethics, but my parents were highly ethical, and I clearly understood what they valued and all that. I think what’s going to happen is the process will be more deliberate, and by that I mean parents are going to need to find ways to get the conversation going in the face of a lot of distractions that my parents’ generation didn’t have. 

Q: Is there a most common issue parents ask you about?

A: I think it probably has to do with the question of, “How do you get the attention of this generation around the questions that I think are the important ethical ones?” My response is, look, this generation is already giving an enormous amount of attention to ethical questions. They’re just not doing it in perhaps the way you were expecting.

This generation is very much taking up arms through Twitter, through Facebook, through everything else. We can talk about whether that’s a good thing or not, but at least there’s a medium there in which they’re responding happily or whatever to what’s going on in the world.

Now the challenge for me, I think, is not so much getting the attention but getting the depth — getting them to understand that a simple chat about ethical ideas, where I give one opinion, you give another opinion, then somebody else gives an opinion and pretty soon we have a room full of opinions — that’s an interesting exercise. It doesn’t really produce good ethical thinking, if you see what I mean.

What’s needed is some kind of framework, and that’s what this book is all about, trying to provide frameworks around which you can build ethical thinking so that the kids have a pattern, they have a template, for understanding how to apply it when the next ethical question comes up. 

Q: What’s the worst ethical dilemma you’ve ever heard from a parent? Or are they all difficult in their own way?

A: (Laughs) Well, they’re all difficult in their own way. And I would hate to say there’s a better or a worse one. My task, really, is to provide people with the framework and the structures for thinking about ethics. Really, for doing three things: For understanding that there is a set of shared values, which flies in the face of a lot of relativistic thinking, which says everyone has a different set of values. Our research is quite clear on the fact that there is a set of values that you as a parent can expect to be held broadly in society and that your child is going to encounter.

The second thing I’m trying to do is to help people understand that ethics, while it is about right versus wrong, far more interesting are the questions about right versus right. And actually, you can make far more progress in a conversation with a child or a student by approaching it as though we are talking about right versus right.

And the third thing I’m talking about in the book is simply moral courage. Having made the decision about what’s ethical, do you have the guts to stand up and take the stand for it? 

Q: By right versus right, do you mean that there’s more than one way to solve an issue?

A: What I mean by that is, the really tough issues most of us face are not questions of right versus wrong, even in a child’s life. A child is not typically drawn into an enormously difficult choice between the good thing and the bad thing. They tend to understand that the bad thing is bad. They may be tempted to do it, of course, but the point is, how do they sort through those tough questions where both sides are right? The classic example: Your best friend has just told you something and sworn you to secrecy. And the next day, the principal of the school comes to you and says, “What did your friend say?”

Now, if what your friend said had to do with somebody they’re planning to have a date with next weekend, that’s one kind of issue. If what your friend said was, “I’ve hidden a gun in my locker,” that’s another kind of issue.

The point here is that the very asking of that question by the principal plunges that child into a wrenching right-versus-right dilemma of the sort that we describe as truth versus loyalty. Of course, there are powerful arguments for being loyal. If you say, “I will keep a secret,” that has some power. Promises matter, and kids need to understand that. If the truth of the situation is something that would be destructive and nefarious and explosive, then probably truth ought to trump loyalty in that situation, which doesn’t make loyalty bad.

Loyalty is a very good thing. It’s just that the truth in that situation appears to be the better thing. We’re looking for the higher right rather than the right versus wrong in so many of these cases, and when kids are allowed to talk about situations in that way, it takes the threat out of it. It takes the moralizing out of it. It takes away the parent coming in and saying, “Look, kid, I’m right and you’re wrong. I know what’s right and you don’t know what’s right, so let’s have a conversation.” That’s pretty much the end of the conversation, right there, right? If you come in saying, “This is a complicated case. Wow, I can see that you really ought to say something to the principal, and I can see why you really don’t want to. Let’s think this through. Let’s figure out what kind of ethical standards we want to bring to the table so that we can figure out which is the higher right. Because one thing is obvious: you can’t both say something and not say something. You have to make a decision.” 

Q: Should parents be talking to their kids about current events? This generation has watched the banks get bailed out, and no one’s gone to jail for anything they did. What are we teaching them as a society?

A: I think they’re wonderful examples to put on the table. The problem is that even well-meaning parents will tend to have formed an opinion about what’s right and what’s wrong on any one of these issues. The danger, then, is that the ethical conversation simply becomes well, here’s what’s right about my point of view, and here’s why the other side is wrong.

Kids will learn what their parents think from that, but it’s going to be far more helpful if you can frame this as a question of right versus right: Look, it’s absolutely right to hold a lid on spending. This question of debt is really getting out of hand. On the other hand, it’s absolutely right not to make cuts that cause Grandma to be thrown out of her nursing home and for people to be impoverished and to keep the economy from prospering. It’s right to spend, and it’s right to save. And that gets it right down to what any teenager understands if they have an allowance, right? 

Q: Are there any other current events going on right now that parents could turn into a lesson in ethics?

A: Depending on the age of your children and your willingness to get into that kind of a conversation, what do we think about predatory sexuality in terms of Dominique Strauss-Kahn? (Editor’s note: Kahn is a former managing director of the International Monetary Fund accused of raping a hotel maid.) There’s all of these sorts of questions, but the ones that the kids themselves may resonate more closely to are the ones that have to do with the world in which they operate, which in many ways has to do with the new media.

I was just reading the other day about a firm that’s apparently quite successful in advising companies who are recruiting young people, and what they do is simply go through all of the messages, tweets and everything on Facebook about the candidate and see if there’s anything there that raises questions about terrorism, or about nasty gender-based bias, or racial epithets, or anything of that sort, and they will turn that over to the prospective employer.

What does your child think of that? Are they going to say, “Well, that’s terrible. That’s wrong. That’s an invasion of my privacy.” OK, but what if that was never done and it turns out your teacher becomes a violent obsessive difficult person and ends up killing somebody in school, and you could have found that out? Should you not have found that out? Where do you draw the line?

Staff Writer Meredith Goad can be contacted at 791-6332 or at:

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