Ethics Hero Emeritus: Rushworth Kidder (1944-2012)

Not everyone named Rush is an uncivil blow-hard. This Rush, Rushworth Kidder, was a dedicated ethicist, teacher, author and philanthropist who was one of the pioneers in the field of professional ethics. His trademark phrase was “moral courage,” but it was more than a motto: Rush thought about it, taught it, and lived it.

He founded his Institute for Global Ethics in 1990, just as the idea was beginning to take hold that organizational ethics was something that needed to be formalized and made part of the culture in companies and professional communities, and unlike many who were to enter the field as it grew, Kidder never sold out. He wasn’t in the field of ethics to make a buck. He believed.

I knew Rush through e-mail exchanges only; we were both on an advice panel assembled to give ethics and etiquette advice for “O” Magazine. I got the distinct impression that he thought the exercise trivialized his passion, and he was only occasionally engaged by it. For a man who would write pages about how a student should handle the situation where he finds out that a close friend has cheated on an exam, the dilemma faced by a woman who thinks her friend is too old and fat to wear short skirts and can’t decide whether to tell her didn’t seem worth the time. Nor was Rush interested in personal fame or publicity. He didn’t promote himself; I had a hard time finding a good photo of him on-line, despite his many public appearances. For Rushworth Kidder, it wasn’t about him, it was all about his Institute’s mission: “promoting ethical action in a global context” and  exploring “the global common ground of values” while providing “practical tools for making ethical decisions” and encouraging “moral actions based on those decisions.”

I could write about Rush and his career, but you should read it from those who knew him best: his Institute’s tribute is here. He had the kind of influence and impact that I can only aspire to. The ethical mission he helped launch goes on, and whatever it achieves in making this a kinder and fairer culture and a better world, Rushworth Kidder will deserve a great measure of the credit.

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