An Ethical Voice Silenced

I was riding in the back of a cab some where between Detroit and Troy, Michigan when I knew he had died.  The Maine area code on my iPhone told me even before I heard the voice on the other end that Rush Kidder was no more.

 

I remember the day I started reading How Good People Make Tough Choices.  Or rather, I remember the day when I came upon the concept that would change my life: right versus wrong is easy; it's right versus right that's hard.  Whether he knew it or not, with that idea Rush captured the essence of the corporate responsibility movement.

 

As the cab sped on to the next sustainability conference, one in a series I would speak at this week, I thought about the people I would encounter.  Earnest, well meaning.  The kind of people that often ask me if I think that companies will, "ever finally come around," and that's when I miss Rush most.

 

It's easy to paint the world in white hats and black hats, good guys and bad.  But Rush realized the world is made of little hats and big hats.  Business people aren't inherently bad.  They -- we -- have to make trade-offs.  Short-term versus long-term.  The few versus the many.  Justice versus mercy.  It's not a question of profits versus planet.  It's a question of the health and wellbeing of the employees today versus the health and wellbeing of their grandchildren tomorrow.  The very present "now" of laying people off versus the very distant "then" of unknown risks to future generations.  Sometimes we wear the little hat of our narrow now -- our own interests or those of our family, group, or organization.  Sometimes we wear the big hat of our community, our society, or our human race.

 

Rush knew all those things, defined them all in understandable models, and set a bunch of people -- me included -- on fire.  His words put a very needed boot in my very intellectually lazy backside, making me think differently about business as a wholly owned subsidiary of society.  About every business as a solution to a social problem.  About the need for teaching a whole generation to think about their place in the world as a series of right versus right decisions.

 

I thought about all that as the cab sped down the highway, as I heard the words, and knew that my friend, my colleague, my inspiration was no more.

 

Dr. Rushworth Kidder, founder of the Institute for Global Ethics and author of many books including How Good People Make Tough Choices, died of natural causes on March 5th in Florida.  Rush was a keynote speaker at the 2011 COMMIT!Forum and helped inspire the theme for this year’s program as well.

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