The Ethics of the Magnificent Seven

What I learned from the 1960 flick, writes Bob Stone, is the distinction between law and ethics. Law requires obedience to the enforceable, while ethics requires obedience to the "unenforceable."
by | April 23, 2008
 

I learned a key lesson about ethics by watching my all-time favorite movie over and over: "The Magnificent Seven," the 1960 flick with Yul Brynner, Steve McQueen and Eli Wallach.

Yul Brynner plays Chris Adams, a gunfighter who is offered a pittance by a group of poor Mexican farmers to drive away the bandit Calvera (Eli Wallach), who has been plundering their village. The farmers explain that the tiny payment is everything of value in the village. Chris accepts, saying, "I've been offered a lot for my work, but never everything."

He assembles a powerful gang of seven outlaws, and they ride into Mexico. They hide in the village and come out shooting when Calvera shows up. Calvera and his plunderers ride off, and the Magnificent Seven think he's gone to plunder somewhere else and that they've done their job.

But Calvera comes back. There's a famine in the area, and there's no place else to plunder. The Seven have gotten more than they bargained for.

The cowardly Harry (Brad Dexter) wants to bail out: "There comes a time to turn mother's picture to the wall and get out. The village will be no worse off than it was before we came."

Chris admonishes him: "You forget one thing -- we took a contract."

Chris's sidekick, Vin (Steve McQueen), tries to mediate: "It's not the kind any court would enforce."

Chris is resolute: "That's just the kind you've got to keep."

What I learned from Chris is the distinction between law and ethics, laid out in 1924 by the British jurist Lord Moulton. Law requires obedience to the enforceable, while ethics requires obedience to the "unenforceable." William Roberts, who wrote the screenply for "The Magnificent Seven," put flesh onto Moulton's theory.

What is the "unenforceable" to which ethics demands obedience? For Chris Adams, it's his commitment. He had to keep his word, even though -- or perhaps, in Chris' case, because -- no court would require him to.

While Chris Adams was his own master, public servants serve two masters where ethics is concerned. They serve their city or state or county, which has its own code of ethics. The code is enforceable: Obey it or risk being fired, suspended or even prosecuted. But, at the same time they serve another, often more demanding, master: their inner selves with their own sets of unenforceables.

The Golden Rule, unenforceable as it is, is much more demanding than any code of ethics, public or private, that I've ever seen. In fact, most of us expect more of ourselves and of the people we lead than mere compliance with regulations.

So, what do we expect? If you're like me, you were never explicit -- you just knew it when you saw it. But, in the course of writing a book on ethics, I had to write down my own personal set of unenforceables, and the act of making the list itself helped me to better identify my beliefs and sharpened my sense of what ethical behavior means. This is a basic truth about learning: When either we try to actively express something, orally or in writing, our brains are stressed to figure out logic and connections that we hadn't discovered yet. As William Faulkner said, "I never know what I think about something until I read what I've written on it."

Here's my list of unenforceables:

· Treat people the way I'd like to be treated (the Golden Rule).

· Play by the rules: Winners never cheat and cheaters never win.

· What's not mine is not mine.

· Keep my commitments.

· Do what's expected of me, even if I haven't said I would.

· Don't hurt people's feelings even if they deserve it.

· Expect more from myself than from others.

· Speak truth to power.

· Give fair value.

· The most important thing in life is a clear conscience.

You'll have a different set from mine -- but only if you write it down. If you don't, you'll continue to manage your behavior instinctively, and I'll bet you'll miss some things -- I sure did. But if you write down your list of unenforceables, you'll be able to share them with the people you lead and you'll be on the way to spreading them through your organization.

And watch the "The Magnificent Seven."

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