The dilemma

At the end of a long day’s walking the group of year 10 students are tired, cold and feeling pretty miserable about the trip. It has rained on and off all day, the views are obscured, the track is muddy, and the packs heavy. The campsite among a sheltered grove of snowgums lies just ahead. As a leader you want to cheer the party, lift their spirits and ward off any conflicts that may arise as camp is established. A good fire would do the trick. But is a fire appropriate here?

To use yourself as the touchstone in determining good from evil is the position known as ethical subjectivism. In this situation a fire would be a good act solely by the leader thinking it so. Clearly a roaring fire would cheer and warm the group. I would enjoy the warmth too; it would endear me to the group.It seems intuitively right.

As a means to determine a good act, subjectivism is seldom valid. Clearly in our society there are behaviours which are not condoned, yet for any given person may well feel pleasurable, serve self interest, or just seem right. Sexual harassment, stealing, or drunk driving are examples which some consider harmless enough, yet are clearly unethical in the broader community. One problem with subjectivism is that the personal gain obtained by the leader can subconsciously become the aspect most powerful in framing the decision. Determining an appropriate ethical touchstone is rarely a matter of personal opinion, open to opportunity and inclination.

The ethical positions of objectivism have sought truth through reference to external sources of morality which reach beyond the individual. Reason and faith are the two main sources of objective morality in Western culture. Certainly our judicial system is founded on Judeo-Christian ethics and traditions (such as the Ten Commandments) and relies on rational processes to ensure truth is attained ‘beyond reasonable doubt’. However most ethical leadership issues aren’t helped by legal or religious tenets. The easiest leadership decisions to make could be those where legal imperatives give little room for interpretation. A leader confronted with the use of illegal drugs, underage drinking, or overloaded vehicles has a clear direction in which to move.

If it were a total fire ban day there would be no issue here. Also, the national park recommends against alpine fires—but who would know here today? However, I should just stick with the rules, no fires in alpine national parks. But what if we left the park just after lunch?

In cases which are not so easily directed, what is right and good in outdoor leadership could also be found through reference to other external objective sources. Leadership manuals, operating guidelines, workplace practices, organisational directives, professional principles can all serve to act as objective sources for ethical leadership decision making. In each case the leader is deferring their own sources of moral judgement to some external tenet. The appropriateness of this is itself an ethical issue.

One problem with ethical decision-making based on external sources, such as leadership guidelines, is that what seems right for one set of circumstances may be quite inappropriate in another context. Outdoor leadership is clearly different for young school children, senior students, or adults from a club, yet often similar leadership guidelines are applied as an objective source directing action for all. To rely too heavily and unthinkingly on such external sources is to err towards ethical fundamentalism, where the particular responses are maintained regardless of the circumstances. Simply because something is ethically true within one context does not mean it remains so in another.

Consequences and leadership decision-making
Most outdoor leaders make ethical decisions based on the consequences of particular actions.

A fire would definitely warm everyone up. We could cut out sods of earth and light the fire in the pit. Replacing the sods would prevent a fire scar. But, what about the limited dead wood and its role in the ecology of this place? Yet what if the students hate the trip, will they also hate the alpine bush as a result?

A fundamental factor in judging consequences, although often unacknowledged, is consideration of the ultimate good. The ultimate good is the position or values the leader holds as part of their personal and professional ethics leadership. This definition includes reference to subjective and objective sources of morality. The ultimate good needs to be a position that is both personally and professionally defensible. What feels intuitively right is often regarded as a good guide to ethical decision-making (Priest & Gass 1997) but needs to be balanced with objective sources mentioned above, and a good measure of critically rational thinking. Maintaining a high sense of self and professional worth is also linked to developing ethical beliefs and actions congruent with both personal and workplace value imperatives. Understanding the ultimate good helps the leader identify the best outcome or consequence.

In the example of the alpine fire, if the leader’s ultimate good was centred on human wellbeing and growth, and that underscored the conduct of the experience in the first place, then a fire would most probably be an appropriate ethical response. Alternatively, if the ultimate good was towards developing environmental appreciation and connectedness with nature, the leader would have a more difficult task in determining right action—a fire would most likely be viewed as an unethical solution.

Ethical consequentialists are guided primarily by their ultimate good. The Australian ethicist Peter Singer (1993) is a utilitarian consequentialist. He holds that provided the consequences of actions yield the greatest happiness for the greatest number, the means to attainment are less important. His views on abortion and euthanasia are controversial but remain consistent with his ultimate good.

As well as considering the ultimate good, leaders need to determine the importance of the processes used to get there. Ethical nonconsequentialists are concerned with the way in which the means supports and justifies the end, as well as the end itself.

I know we’ll have some environmental impact here but maybe a fire will help students appreciate the other aspects of the bush. Perhaps there are other ways to warm up, such as a game? But a fire will be easier and may well be worth the cost?

Outdoor leaders should consider the way in which desirable outcomes are attained and the outcomes in terms of their ultimate good. A strict nonconsequentialist view would suggest that no means should be employed which do not support the ends.

If I’m serious about minimising environmental impact then there is no choice. A fire conflicts with my environmentally related ultimate good. I’ll need to find other ways to warm the group.