Where There Is a Problem There Is a Workshop ... or a Camp

07/07/2006 12:43 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Americans seem to believe that there is a "workshop" to solve every problem. There are diversity workshops, sensitivity workshops, and of course, most popular of all, ethics and leadership workshops.

Last year, I asked the cultural observer and renowned sociologist, the late Philip Rieff, for his reading of the workshop phenomenon. Professor Rieff remarked, "The idea of the workshop helps present the illusion that there is a concrete product of these assemblages. But in truth, there is nothing of the sort."

Lately, the lifestyle engineers have come up with another image. In addition to the workshop there is the idea of a camp, as in ethics and leadership camps. Last week Santa Clara University's Markkula Center for Applied Ethics sponsored a two-day ethics camp for politicians and public officials. According to a report, camp counselors wore moral compasses around their necks to help awaken a sense of conscience and moral accountability.

Words carry the spirit because they have flocks of connotations. The connotations of a camp include images of lake swims, marshmallow roasts, and three-legged races. Thanks to boot and sports versions, camp also calls up the idea of practice, drills, and conditioning. How does the camp image jibe with the ethical enterprise?

The lyrical philosopher Soren Kierkegaard insisted that there is a mood proper to every concept and where the mood is wrong, "the concept is falsified." For example, a person, no matter how knowledgeable, who thinks about the Holocaust in a mood of indifference or curiosity, has somehow failed to understand the Holocaust. According to Kierkegaard, the mood appropriate to ethics is "earnestness." Though this term carries many meanings for Kierkegaard, it primarily points to a firm resolve to avoid transgression.

And what is the mood that lurks behind the idea of an ethics camp? Perhaps that of a sort of playful concentration. The kind of mindset that you might get into doing a crossword puzzle. In the Santa Clara version of ethics camp, mayors and councilpersons were bombarded with moral conundrums. For example, what would you do if you were a city council member and an acquaintance told you that a certain bill would benefit your brother? Truth be told, I really don't know. Be as careful as you can that you don't let that knowledge sway your vote?

Perhaps these exercises sharpen our moral senses. It could also be that they dull them in that they encourage the belief that righteousness is really a matter of reflection and knowledge, which would be to say, that egg heads are not just intellectually talented but ethically gifted as well.

Kierkegaard and the great moral philosopher Immanuel Kant argued that in the form of conscience, we all have the knowledge that we need to be moral. The challenge is not to acquire more knowledge or to sharpen our analytic skills but rather to avoid the temptation to reflect ourselves out of what we know.

A decade ago, I was involved in coaching a sport with a certification procedure. When I went to take the exam, I learned that the person administering it was buddies with a number of people sitting for the test. As the proctor read the multiple choice questions aloud, he would change the inflection of his voice to signify the answer to everyone. At first, I thought he was joking but then I realized what he was doing and I was about to object. But I decided to take a deep breath and think about it for a minute. It was clear that to say anything here would entail getting the silent treatment from my fellow coaches. I reasoned that we are all good coaches. I know that from experience. So who cares about a stupid test that is designed to reveal what I already know. And along I went for the ride. In other words, I reflected my way out of what were actually the proper moral coordinates.

The ethics workshop and camps, to say nothing of all the certified experts on good and evil, conjure up the fantasy that ethics is mostly a matter of knowledge and reflection. It isn't. It is a matter of holding on to what you know, of not talking yourself out of your conscience.