Monday, 7 February 2011


At Christchurch, Clarendon Park, for the fourth session in the course on Mindfulness & Morality, offered by Christians Aware as part of their Faith Awareness programme. This 12-week course has been devised by Ian Grayling and Kevin Commons from the Leicester Serene Reflection Meditation Group.

It's a Buddhist perspective this evening, led by Rev Master Saido Kennaway, who has come over from Telford (on the left in the photo above, speaking with Devon Stuart).

I get there just before 1930, but to judge by the amount of writing on the flipchart, things have already been underway for a good few minutes.

Here's the moral dilemma we're given this evening, which we discuss in small groups, then come back together to share our insights.
Cecelia's dilemma
Cecelia worked as a section head in the social services department at Northshire County Council.  The impact of the government’s austerity measures meant that all local authorities were seeking ways of reducing their spending to bring it into line with the substantially lower grant expected from central government.  Cecelia had been involved in departmental discussions to review current staffing levels and was privy to a list of post holders who were to be made redundant so that the department could balance its new, lower, budget.  Like all those involved she had promised not to reveal the names of the staff involved until the County Council announced its decision for all departments. Many of the staff in Social Services had worked with Cecelia for a long time and as rumours began to circulate about the redundancies she was approached many times for information.  Not unreasonably, some people wanted to know whether they should be applying for jobs in other organisations. What is the moral dilemma facing Cecelia?
Should she reveal what she knows if she is asked directly?
Should she say she doesn’t know?
Why? Or why not?
Give your reasons and share your feelings about the case.
One day when the tension at work was really rising, Cecelia received, by accident, a copy of a confidential  e-mail from the Chief Executive to the Director of Social services stating that they were seriously thinking of out-sourcing the whole of the Social Services Department and that all staff would be made redundant. Does this latest information make any difference to what Cecelia should do?

Here are some of the observations made and questions raised in the group discussions:
  • This is the kind of dilemma that our facilitator had said earlier is a staple of soap operas. Were Cecilia to divulge what she knows, it would be like tearing open a pillowcase on a mountaintop and the feathers blowing everywhere. Once let out, it would be impossible to predict where they would go - or to gather them all up again and put them back in the pillowcase.
  • It's hard to disentangle politics from ethics in this case. Many people here this evening claimed personal experience of this sort of situation.
  • Cecilia has made a professional commitment to confidentiality, but she's privy to information about some people that will affect their lives. What if those who are made redundant find out that Cecilia knew about their situation but didn't tell them?
  • Do any of Cecilia's options allow her to act truthfully? If she says she doesn't know, then she'd be lying. Be as truthful as possible - which doesn't necessarily mean revealing everything she knows.
  • Do we assume that "being truthful" equals spilling all the beans all the time?
  • Can we assume that the employer would carry out this process in a human and sensitive way?
  • It's only fair that everyone involved in the process is informed of the outcome at the same time and in the same way - or is it?
  • What if there were some special, overriding reason why one person needed to know this information: for instance, if one of the people on Cecilia's team is able to remain in this country only if they have a job; and if they don't, they are in danger of being sent back to their country of origin, which would place them in harm's way?
  • Could Cecilia consider herself beholden to a higher principle of truthfulness that that of employer/employee confidentiality?
  • From a certain point of view, it could be said that losing one's job might allow one to break the cycle of dependency on material possessions.
  • Is taking refuge in the Buddha the same as praying?
  • Our discussion is a kind of "taking refuge".
  • When we're talking about this, do we assume that Cecilia is exercised by the same moral wranglings that we are going through this evening? Are we to assume that Cecilia is a Buddhist? Are we doing that anyway?
  • It's a Buddhist principle that one should take responsibility for one's actions. It's also a Buddhist principle that we must recognise that actions have consequences. Cecilia can't mimic the accidental forwarding of that email, for example. Whatever she does - even if she takes no deliberate action - Cecilia's involvement here will have repercussions.
  • We recognise the place in this dilemma of the Buddhist precept of doing least harm. But if one wants to do good, then how is that measured - in the short term, medium term and/or long term.
  • At the end of the day, you've got to be able to live with yourself, to be able to say that you've done your best to do good. We acknowledge the role of conscience, heart, intuition in this.

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