Of Could vs. Should, Ethical Theory, and Mosques

The Barometer demands reasoning and analysis from her students, not “I feel.”  Were well trained ethics students charged with the assignment of evaluating whether a Muslim community center and mosque should be built three blocks away from Ground Zero in New York City, they would seize first on the word “should.” “Should” grabs them because they are trained to avoid confusing “could” with “should.”  In this emotional debate, the two have been confused. The First Amendment and religious freedom being what they and federal courts being staffed ideologically as they are, students would probably conclude as an unassailable proposition that a Muslim community center/mosque “could” be built as proposed.  They would research, however, and find that zoning laws have restricted, with the imprimatur of the courts, locations, heights, and appearances of religious structures.  Further, the time, place, and manner constraints of the First Amendment do make a ding here and there on the absolutism of “could.”  But, for sake of argument, give them the “could.”


Oh, but that “should” question is the more difficult question and the one that requires higher quality ethical analysis than it has received.  Rights-based ethical theory is but one view in a constellation of ethical theories, some shedding more light than others. Thoughtful students would then apply a few questions from other schools of ethical thought.


For a utilitarian, the overarching question grapples with whether the placement of the community center/mosque does the most good for the most people.  Students would list here all the information they would have gathered about the effect the building’s presence would have on whom.  The stakeholders are numerous and diverse:


  • There are the families of the 9/11 victims.  We often give those with tender feelings a position of dominance in our analysis because they have already carried a burden we can neither fix nor explain.
  • Muslims are stakeholders because the construction proposal alone has produced feelings and reactions that will affect public perception of them and their faith. Students are trained to take into account perception, despite firm belief their decision is the correct one for their companies.  Perception, rightly or wrongly, can have a negative effect on their company.
  • Contractors and construction workers (unions) are stakeholders in the economic sense because the project brings jobs, but they too will have the risks of negative perception because 70% of the public opposes construction.
  • The United States is a stakeholder.  The decision on the proposal carries international weight. Scholars and practitioners express various views on the symbolism that allowing the construction would carry.  To some, its construction symbolizes an olive branch.  To others, its construction would symbolize acquiescence and weakness.   In the United States, we build monuments to honor our dead.  In other cultures, monuments symbolize victory.  This building at Ground Zero carries a possible double meaning and implication for U.S. perception abroad.
  • Other religious organizations are stakeholders.  What happens in New York will not stay in New York.  There is precedent for religious construction here (see below on analysis of moral absolutism).


Another ethical theory has religious foundations.  In Islam, the principle is expressed, “ No one of you is a believer until he loves for his brother what he loves for himself.” For the Jewish faith, the expression is, “What you hate, do not do to anyone.” In Christianity, Luke offered, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”  Even Aristotle picked up on this idea, “We should behave to our friends as we wish our friends to behave to us.” Translated from theory to practice  the simple question here becomes: What if I were in the other person’s shoes?  How would I feel about my decision?  My conduct?  My contract terms?  My proposal? In answering we begin to realize the pain others will experience if we proceed with our plans simply because we have a “right” to proceed.  Those who demand the application of this test to the expansion of international business operations in third-world countries abandon it in their analysis of this tender situation.  Businesses are expected to consider what their presence in a country will do to the standard of living, the health, and the stability of the government there.  The same type of analysis would help in dealing with this Ground Zero proposal.


A final theory asks us to think more universally:  Am I willing to live in a world that is governed by my rules and standards?  This question demands constancy in its adherents.  They do not falter when it is their ox that is gored. Those in this Ground Zero debate who have held firm to a moral absolute of religious freedom must be willing to occupy the same position on all such religious construction proposals, regardless of the nature and tenets of the faith of those submitting the building proposal.  Students would find a flaw in their professed moral absolutism. Such universal principles were MIA when the construction of Mormon temples around the country faced fierce opposition on more than one occasion and in quite nearly every project.  In those battles, protestors chained themselves to the gates of existing temples, not out of a desire to allow the construction to go forward, but to demand its halt because of their strong objections to the policies and tenets of the Mormon faith.  How strangely silent our noble religious rights advocates of today were in the construction projects of a slightly different faith. 


Are you willing to live in a world that follows the moral standards you tout today?  Or will you change those standards when a new set of folks with a construction proposal comes along?  If your support of a moral absolute depends upon the faith, well, logic being what it is . . . there is no absolute and we are back to “should.”  ‘Tis inconsistency that is the hobgoblin of emotional minds.  Those now weighing in on the Ground Zero proposal need to think through carefully the moral absolutes they have imposed upon themselves with their focus on “could.” If they insist on dwelling there, they will miss the depth a “should” analysis can bring.

About mmjdiary

Professor Marianne Jennings is an emeritus professor of legal and ethical studies from the W.P. Carey School of Business at Arizona State University, retiring in 2011 after 35 years of teaching undergraduate and graduate courses in ethics and the legal environment of business. During her tenure at ASU, she served as director of the Joan and David Lincoln Center for Applied Ethics from 1995-1999. In 2006, she was appointed faculty director for the W.P. Carey Executive MBA Program. She has done consulting work for businesses and professional groups including AICPA, Boeing, Dial Corporation, Edward Jones, Mattel, Motorola, CFA Institute, Southern California Edison, the Institute of Internal Auditors, AIMR, DuPont, AES, Blue Cross Blue Shield, Motorola, Hy-Vee Foods, IBM, Bell Helicopter, Amgen, Raytheon, and VIAD. The sixth edition of her textbook, Case Studies in Business Ethics, was published in February 2011. The ninth edition of her textbook, Business: lts Legal, Ethical and Global Environment was published in January 2011. The 23rd edition of her book, Business Law: Principles and Cases, will be published in January 2013. The tenth edition of her book, Real Estate Law, will also be published in January 2013. Her book, A Business Tale: A Story of Ethics, Choices, Success, and a Very Large Rabbit, a fable about business ethics, was chosen by Library Journal in 2004 as its business book of the year. A Business Tale was also a finalist for two other literary awards for 2004. In 2000 her book on corporate governance was published by the New York Times MBA Pocket Series. Her book on long-term success, Building a Business Through Good Times and Bad: Lessons from Fifteen Companies, Each With a Century of Dividends, was published in October 2002 and has been used by Booz, Allen, Hamilton for its work on business longevity. Her latest book, The Seven Signs of Ethical Collapse was published by St. Martin’s Press in July 2006 and has been a finalist for two book awards. Her weekly columns are syndicated around the country, and her work has appeared in the Wall Street Journal, the Chicago Tribune, the New York Times, Washington Post, and the Reader's Digest. A collection of her essays, Nobody Fixes Real Carrot Sticks Anymore, first published in 1994 is still being published. She has been a commentator on business issues on All Things Considered for National Public Radio. She has served on four boards of directors, including Arizona Public Service (1987-2000), Zealous Capital Corporation, and the Center for Children with Chronic Illness and Disability at the University of Minnesota. She was appointed to the board of advisors for the Institute of Nuclear Power Operators in 2004 and served on the board of trustees for Think Arizona, a public policy think tank. She has appeared on CNBC, CBS This Morning, the Today Show, and CBS Evening News. In 2010 she was named one of the Top 100 Thought Leaders in Business Ethics by Trust Across America. Her books have been translated into four different languages. She received the British Emerald award for authoring one of their top 50 articles in management publications, chosen from over 15,000 articles. Personal: Married since 1976 to Terry H. Jennings, Maricopa County Attorney’s Office Deputy County Attorney; five children: Sarah, Sam, and John, and the late Claire and Hannah Jennings.
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1 Response to Of Could vs. Should, Ethical Theory, and Mosques

  1. Jeff Brockmann says:

    Once again the author has proven herself to be my favorite ethicist – very well said and thoroughly thought out! Thank you!

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