Philosophy Faculty Publications


The Colour of Ethics

Document Type

Book Chapter

Publication Date


Publication Source

Thoughtful Fundraising: Concepts, Issues and Perspectives


'Ethics as grey' is a potent metaphor, and as with all things potent it needs to be used with great care. Some ethical choices are clearly right or wrong and to call ethics 'grey' in these cases is a way of hiding from ethical truths and ethical responsibilities. But in other cases choices are not so clear, and it is important to identify and acknowledge the ways in which ethics can be grey. In some cases, It may be true that no alternative course of action is ethically pure, and all alternatives require uncomfortable compromises. A second type of greyness arises when ethically decent people prioritize their values differently. Some members of a social service agency may want to emphasize relieving immediate needs for food and shelter; others may want to stress education and job training as long-term self-sufficiency skills. A third type of greyness arises from the way that the same acts can accomplish both ethical and unethical purposes . For example, in the early twentieth century, the Phillis Wheatley Home in Cleveland offered shelter, safety, friendship and job training to young black women. Many white women contributed financial support to the Wheatley Home, but historian Darlene Clark Hine sees a racist underside to their generosity. It gave them a way to keep the Young Women's Christian Association exclusively white and to get more highly trained maids for themselves. Non-profit fundraisers, educators, and facilitators of the gifts that build community must sort through such strings and complications every day.

When ethical situations look grey, it is important to sort out just which sense of greyness applies. If the real difficulty is that morally decent people prioritize their values differently, but those involved think the greyness results from good mixed with evil, organizations may become needlessly polarized.

When an ethical quandary feels grey, thinking of ethics as story-telling can be helpful. When the full story of the ethical dilemma is told carefully, with sympathetic understanding of each person' s perspective, this sort of polarization can be minimized. In this chapter, a method of ethical decision-making is presented that will help fundraisers construct stories in a way that clarifies the greyness and brings basic ethical commitments to the foreground. The method encourages sympathetic understanding and imagination as tools for resolving ethically troubling situations .

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Taylor & Francis

Place of Publication

London, England