Is Needing to Be “Right” Unethical?

by Linda Fisher Thornton

Abandoning Civility to Prove We’re “Right”

Why do people sometimes abandon civility at work?

One reason is that when the discussion gets heated, sometimes we just like to be “right.”  And we may abandon civility to try to prove that we are right.

We may not always be able to resist the temptation to argue that our perspective is better, more accurate, more current or more relevant than someone else’s. While there may be a sense of satisfaction (short term) that comes from loudly proving that we are “right” and they are wrong, verbally attacking someone else for what they believe is not an ethical approach.

Why is Attacking Others Unethical?

When we don’t agree with someone, attacking them and trying to discredit them is an attempt to reaffirm the status quo as we see it – to prove that things are exactly the way we understand them and that we don’t need to change our thinking. 

But attacking others with different views is not a responsible or respectful behavior. So regardless of how intelligent we think our view is, our attacking behavior will not be “right” from an ethical standpoint.

There is a danger we face when we make our point too strongly. A powerful desire to be “right” can completely blind us to how we are treating others. Ralph Waldo Emerson said “There can be no high civility without a deep morality.”

“Passively, tolerance and respect simply mean accepting that a person with different beliefs and perspectives has a right to exist and doesn’t deserve to be attacked merely because of those differences – no matter how great they are.”

August Cline, Why Be Civil? (The Ethics and Moral Obligations of Civility),

Being Careful About Our Behavior

Joshua Lederberg said that “A lack of civility is sometimes attributed to unchecked anger.” We do have to work to contain our anger and to be careful about our behavior when we don’t agree.

Michael Brannigan explains that civility “requires us to discipline our impulses” and “free ourselves from self-absorption:”

“Civility cultivates a civic code of decency. It requires us to discipline our impulses for the sake of others. It demands we free ourselves from self-absorption. By putting ethics into practice in our day-to-day encounters, civility is that moral glue without which our society would come apart.”

Michael Brannigan, The Pfaff Endowed Chair in Ethics and Moral Values at the College of St. Rose in Albany, NY [This quote is from his column in the Sunday Times Union in Albany]

Listen to Learn

When we disagree, it is responsible to listen to the other person, and to see what we can learn from their perspective. When we attack first, before listening in order to understand another view, we ignore this very important aspect of our responsibility as leaders – being open to learning. 

Responsible leadership requires that we be open-minded and civil. Fiercely defending our viewpoint as “right” without being open to learning from others does not qualify as open-minded, and demonstrates a lack of civility.

Ethical Leaders Disagree Respectfully

Ethical leaders know that respectful behavior is part of our responsibility as citizens of a global society.  Withholding respect when we disagree signals a departure from civility, but it also represents something more harmful:

The immorality of incivility goes deeper than that, however. When we withhold tolerance and respect from a person, we stop treating them as a fellow human being.

August Cline, Why Be Civil? (The Ethics and Moral Obligations of Civility),

More Leading in Context® Posts About Civility and Ethical Behavior

Civility is an Ethical Issue

Ethical Interpersonal Behavior Graphic: Red, Green and Yellow Zones

Why We Need a Strong Moral Center

Civility and Openness to Learning


For more, see new book 7 Lenses and the 21 Question Assessment: How Current is My Message About Ethics?

7 Lenses is a Bronze Axiom Business Book Award Winner in Business Ethics41cEVx-Tu4L._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_
2014 Axiom Business Book Award Winner 
About 7 Lenses  @leadingincontxt  @7Lenses

© 2012 Leading in Context LLC 


  1. I wholly agree, Linda. We have a cultural belief that one perspective can be “right.” I think that because of the dominator hierarchical elements in our culture, we tend to link “might” and “right.” There can be a fear that if we are not “right,” we are “wrong,” and the price for being “wrong” is a loss of power. However, this is based on faulty reasoning. Contemporary science, psychology, and philosophy show us that there are many–perhaps limitless–ways to experience and conceptualize reality. This whole concept is very much tied in with valuing diversity, and implies a transformation of the way that we understand power.


  2. ‘Needing to be right’ is related to being ‘Afraid to be wrong.’

    When we operate out of fear and a potential sense of loss, we often say and do things we regret (even if we won’t admit it.)

    Our reaction to a different point-of-view is often related to how we view the world: if we view it as a world of scarcity, a zero-sum game, where if you win I lose, then we tend to be combative. If, however, we view the world as a world of abundance, where we can enhance everyone’s outcome, then we tend to be supportive and more understanding of the other Point-of-View.

    Leadership must be about the latter. When it’s about the former you wind up with totalitarian forms of government and a dimunition of the common good. It’s unsustainable and ultimately self-defeating.


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