Good Persons, Good Workers, Good Citizens

“I’m interested in the word ‘good,’ ” said Howard Gardner, Harvard professor and recipient of a MacArthur “genius” grant. But in studies, Gardner has learned there are important differences in how the word is used in public conversations.

Delivering the 2011 Crown Lecture in Ethics Thursday at the Sanford School of Public Policy, Gardner described his efforts with the GoodWork Project. The project focuses on how people succeed in times of rapid change, when everyone’s sense of time and space is being altered by technology and when there is little to counterbalance powerful market forces. He defined good work as having three qualities: excellence—being technically good; engaging—people want to do it; and ethical—done in a responsible way.

Howard Gardner speaks at 2011 Crown LectureGardner said there is an important distinction between “good” in the realm of “neighborly morality” and in the context of the ethical behaviors required of workers and citizens. Neighborly morality can be traced to the earliest human civilizations and works for small communities, while the ethical decisions we make in our roles as workers and citizens are newer, more complex concepts, he said.

He used the example of three adults who may influence a high school student applying to college: a neighbor asked to write recommendation, the college admissions officer and a voter voting on a binding referendum on affirmative action. The neighbor may write a recommendation for the sake of keeping good relations with the family – the sake of the tribe. The admissions officer is required to act in the interests of the college and his or her profession. The voter must consider the needs of the community—whether affirmative action will create a better society.

Alignment within the workplace was another element of good work, Gardner said. A workplace is aligned if there is agreement on goals and ethics.

“Two dramatic examples were the fields of genetics and journalism,” he said. Over the past two decades, “genetics was well aligned and journalism was massively misaligned.” Misalignment within a profession leads to “compromised work.”

One of the more disturbing findings of the project was the prevalence of compromised work among young people, Gardner said. They knew “the right thing,” but many didn’t do it. To get ahead, they felt they couldn’t be good workers now but would make up for it later. The book, “Making Good: How Young People Cope with Moral Dilemmas at Work,” came out of that finding.

During the question and answer period that followed, Duke President Richard Brodhead asked whether willingness among young people to accept compromised work might be in part because of developmental factors, and whether young people might “grow into the obligation of goodness.”

Gardner replied that it might be some combination of development and society. He discussed the example of the dean of admissions at MIT who was fired for providing false information on her resume.  Many young people thought she had done a good job, shouldn’t have been fired and that everyone lies on resumes anyway.  Gardner said he pointed out that lying on a resume is a firing offense.

Books and papers from the GoodWork Project, in progress since 1994, are available online at http://www.goodworkproject.org.

The Crown Lecture in Ethics is named for benefactor Lester Crown, and brings speakers to Duke to explore ethical issues in the arts, sciences, medicine, business and other fields. Previous Crown lecturers include Rwandan Paul Rusesabagina, Pulitzer Prize-winning author and conservationist Jared Diamond, Nobel Peace Prize-winner Jody Williams, and former U.S. Sen. Bill Bradley.