The Case for Radical Decency


Have you ever felt that the social justice work you’re involved in is merely addressing symptoms rather than the underlying cause of what ails us?
That’s what I started to worry after forty years of engagement in many creative and inspiring initiatives as a community-minded attorney, psychotherapist, and social activist. Increasingly I found myself yearning for a way to meaningfully challenge the deeper cultural forces that are creating an ever coarsening, unjust, and inequitable world.
At its core, the problem we face is values-based. There is a specific set of values that drives decision-making in virtually every area of our lives and, so long as they predominate, we will never meaningfully diverge from our current course. The sensible response? To embrace a very different set of values that I call “decency”: Respect; understanding and empathy; acceptance and appreciation; fairness and justice. And to practice them “radically”: At all times and in every area of living.
I’d like to make the case for Radical Decency as an approach to living that speaks with special force to the central challenge we face – in this time and place – as we seek to create better lives and a better world.

The Need

Unfortunately, we live in a world in which the values of competition, domination, and control have become pre-eminent and wildly overemphasized, causing incalculably damage to ourselves and others.
Operating as we do, we live in a failed culture. Why do I say this? Because, starting a culture from scratch, you would want it to support us in pursuing at least one of the following goals:

  • Being decent to our selves
  • Being decent to others
  • Being decent to the world

Sadly, our world fails to support us in any of these purposes.
Consider, for example, these questions:
With regard to how we treat our selves: Does the culture support us in doing the things that truly nourish and satisfy us? Or do we feel compelled to devote the most productive hours of the great majority of our days to making money, and to jobs that drain our energy and distract us from our deepest longings?
With regard to how we treat others: Does the culture make concern for others a priority? Or is the operating rule of thumb to focus on how other people’s actions affect us; or, even more narrowly, on what they can do for us? Does the culture model and reinforce curiosity about other people’s ideas and opinions? Or does it teach us to judge and dismiss people who are different? Does the culture encourage us to treat people in need with respect and generosity? Or does it condone and implicitly encourage half measures and outright indifference?
With regard to how we treat the world: Does the culture encourage us to marshal the environment’s resources with caution and care? Or does it place primary emphasis on their unrestrained exploitation for our material advantage? Does the mainstream culture provide any significant support for life choices that actively consider the fate of other living things?
Operating in an environment that is saturated with cues, incentives, and sanctions that push us toward indecent behaviors, the compelling question before us is this: What can we do to reverse this dismal equation? How can we craft ways of living that are more decent to our self, to others, and to the world?
This is the question Radical Decency seeks to address.

The Response

Seeking to come to grips with this daunting, values-based challenge, we first need to deal with the realities of our biology. We humans are profoundly creatures of habit; wired to do in the future what we did in the past. And far more than we care to acknowledge, the culture’s predominant values are woven into the very fabric of our taken-for-granted, habitual ways of living. In large ways and small, they pull us toward the “safe,” “smart,” and “obvious” choices that, in the end, root us in indecent ways of operating that, being borne into this culture, are our unfortunate birthright.
Given this reality, the process of diverging from our mainstream ways cannot operate solely or predominantly at a cognitive/logical level: Identify the problem, craft a solution, implement. Instead, what is called for is a re-habituation process. We need to systematically cultivate new habits of living that can, with practice and persistence, replace our status quo ways of operating.
Working from these premises, Radical Decency invites us to be decent to our self, to others, and to the world and – crucially – to do it on an across-the-board basis: At all times, in every context, and without exception.
At its core, Radical Decency grows out of this simple premise: If we whole-heartedly commit to this different way of living, allowing it to guide our day-by-day, moment-by-moment choices, we have a fighter’s chance of leading a better life and more effectively contributing to a better world.
The reverse is also true. If we adopt a pick-and-choose approach to decency – with family and friends but not at work; in our self-care but only in half-hearted ways in our politics – we will fail. Given the pervasiveness of the mainstream culture’s predominant values, if we continue to practice them – out there, in the real world – they will inevitably invade and compromise the small, private islands of decency we seek to create.

Its Effect on Our Social Activism

By focusing on our day-by-day choices, Radical Decency expands our vision, pointing to ways in which we can more effectively deploy our reform energies. So, for example, it highlights the extent to which work and business dominate our lives, and is an uncomfortable reminder of our complicity with the culture’s indecent values when we succumb to the workplace’s bottom-line oriented, “do what you have to do” ways of operating.
On the positive side of the equation, however, Radical Decency highlights the importance of change in this crucial area of living. Imagine how different the world would be if business were routinely committed to quality products at a fair price, worker welfare, truth in marketing, socially conscious purchasing and investing, environmental prudence, and so on – and, if business’s profits and accumulated capital funded a decency agenda rather than the self-aggrandizing policies that currently dominate its public initiatives?
Radical Decency’s operative principles also lead to an analogous shift in focus in the political arena. Living in a compete and win, dominate and control culture – in which money and power are the coin of the realm – the political system is fixed. While elections and legislative battles are unquestionably important, the likelihood of ever electing a critical mass of good-hearted politicians, interested in putting a priority on decency, is surpassingly small.
Radical Decency, however, with its focus on the underlying values that drive our public policy choices, seeks to change the rules of the game – a daunting but, ultimately, more promising avenue of attack. Thus, by way of example, the logic of the approach invites:

  • Major initiatives to redirect our public discourse away from its current adversarial, win/lose mindset toward one marked by respect, understanding, and reasoned compromise; and
  • A far deeper commitment to collaborative efforts that bring people together, from across the political spectrum, who share an underlying commitment to decency.

Its Effect in Our Personal Lives

A very good piece of additional news about Radical Decency is that a committed practice can have a dramatic, positive impact in our personal lives as well.
Here’s how it works.
Seeking to harmonize and balance decency to self, others, and the world, we are confronted with a seemingly endless series of difficult choices. When, for example, does self-care take precedence over the needs of others – and vice versa? And when we truly face up to our responsibility to people who are socially or economically disenfranchised, what is an appropriate allocation of time and money to their needs?
With these challenges, however, come a whole series of life-changing benefits. When grappling with these wisdom-stretching dilemmas becomes our habitual way of operating, there is a perceptible shift in outlook and approach. We instinctually reach for a richer understanding of the diverse needs, motives, and feelings that we, and others, experience – and that need to be dealt with when we grapple with these questions in all their complexity. And with that, we become more open, curious, thoughtful, and reflective.
As we settle into these new habitual mindsets, increased emotional awareness and analytic acuity are also inevitable byproducts. We also develop an increased ability to act, even in uncomfortable situations; the patience and self-control to forbear when that is the better choice; and the wisdom to know the difference.
The endpoint? When all that we do is approached with these new habits of openness, curiosity, and growing sense of discernment, we wind up with an increased sense of:
Living in the present, which leads to less shame, guilt, and remorse about the past, and fear and anxiety about the future;
Appreciation, empathy, acceptance, and love for our self and others, which leads to less judgment, jealousy, possessiveness, greed, and need to control;
Clarity and coherence about our priorities and choices, which leads to less anxiety and an increased sense of ease in life; and
An ennobling sense of purpose, which leads to less hopelessness and mistrust and an increased sense of vibrancy, aliveness, and pleasure in living.
These are, it seems to me, the attributes of a vibrant and nourishing life. And a committed Radical Decency practice is a vital pathway toward their realization.
In my view, Radical Decency works. If the goal is to create a better world, it is the strong medicine we need to deal with the virulent, values-based cultural disease that ails us. But, happily, the argument for adopting a committed Radical Decency practice does not rest solely on my analysis being correct. In the end, a radically decent life is its own reward.
Jeff Garson is a Philadelphia-based attorney, psychotherapist, and activist. A principal at the Decency Group, offering collaborative, values-based consulting to individuals and businesses, he writes extensively about Radical Decency, an inclusive approach to change.You can contact him at or

0 thoughts on “The Case for Radical Decency

  1. Thank you, Jeff, for embracing this notion of underlying fundamental values. Your having done so motivates me to refer readers to additional like-minded resources.
    Emanuel Swedenborg’s presentation of the “ruling love” within each human, through which all our actions and choices are filtered before expression, and which can be reformed from states of selfishness to selflessness.
    Parker Palmer has identified “Five Habits of the Heart” which “make democracy possible”, acknowledging the vital role of relationships in the organization of civil society.
    Through these perspectives, transformation of society, as evolution of humanity, truly emerges from within (the hearts of individuals) while being responsive to without (the faces of the collective).

  2. This is a wonderful article. It sounds a lot like Mussar, an ancient Jewish practice. The Mussar Institute offers classes to help people cultivate respect, patience, generosity, etc., very much along the same lines.

    • Hi,
      Thanks for mentioning Mussar! While I’m not an official student, I have found the teachings vital to my survival in this culture. Hopefully Mussar will become Mainstream.

  3. The process of learning these fundamental values/behaviors leading to a life based on “radical decency” can begin in childhood. These behaviors can be taught through the built-in values of fairness and justice in the U.S. Constitution. When applied throughout the grade levels, the desired outcome can lead to active, empathic citizens (citizenship) involved in thinking creatively and feeling creatively interwoven throughout the writing process, journal writing and empathic poetry applied to music compositions, dramatizations, dance, creative movement and visual arts creations of self, family, community, state, country and world, and their relationship to each one. This empathy and decency training can lead to environmental projects and awareness of environmental degradation; to young people taking moral and social responsibility for themselves, families, community and nation, and to honor and respect diversity, different cultures, different points of view, and people of courage, integrity, empathy and decency. It starts with children. “…and a little child will lead them.” (Isaiah 11:6)

  4. It may not be a values issue. People who share the same values act differently depending on how the situation is structured. There’s a ton of literature to that effect, from classic social psychology to more recent and popular books like Dan Ariely’s. Radical decency may make you a better person, but it takes structural change to make a better society.

  5. ‘ Sadly, our world fails to support us in any of these purposes” I might add friends,family, community and etc. my 82 years journey gives very few reasons to feel otherwise. PEACE the ancient one

  6. Yes indeed thought creates. And although attorneys are given a bad rap— those if us who embraced the study of law with the values expressed above get it. The concept of. Tikkun olam. Repair the world. Anew concept. “A radical sense of decency”. Terrific . When we are mindful. When we focus in intention –we bring more peace. Live by the mottos it is better to be kind than right. It is only with the heart that one can see rightly, What is essential is invisible to the eye.

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