John Dalla Costa, the renowned business ethics writer and consultant teaches with us at the Schulich School of Business. He's also an occasional blogger at his site www.ceo-ethics.com. We love the piece he's just posted on the dangers of thinking that because you're doing ethics, you're going to be more ethical. With his permission, we're reposting it here since its a conversation we agree that needs to happen.
Are ethicists more ethical than their peers in other disciplines? It’s an interesting question. A recent study published in the journal Metaphilosophy provides a limited data point, but the news, at least if you’re an ethicist like me, is not good. Comparing how university professors engage students, the researchers found no difference between ethics professors and other faculty. Even though the ethics experts set an ideal, and acknowledged that not following through on that standard was morally wrong, in action, the experts in ethics were indistinguishable from fellow academics.
Are you surprised? I’m not. But I am distressed.
I’m not surprised, because if ethics were truly relevant, or if we really understood them to be effective, we’d be invoking them with much more frequency and rigor. Canada is knee-deep is scandals, with Senators whitewashing expense reports, the Prime Minister’s Chief of Staff paying for the white paint, and the Mayor of Toronto careening from one violation of the public trust to another. Ethics are AWOL, and no one seems to be missing them.
The same is true in business. Ethics have become IKEA-like contraptions for compliance. All the imagination and enquiry have been purposefully engineered away, so that all ethics and compliance officers need to do is follow the illustrated instructions, and assemble the pre-cut pieces.
Before Lehman Brothers and Bear Stearns imploded in 2008, I managed to download the codes for ethics and conduct from their respective websites. It turns out that they were derived from a boilerplate, following numerically identical categories, and using mostly similar jargon, with only one or two cosmetic flourishes reflecting idiosyncrasies of corporate history. It would inconceivable for these global finance behemoths (or their peers) to use Quicken to do their taxes. But that’s basically what they did for their ethics – adopting a four-page template, in the name of the Board of Directors, to set the terms and scope for their ethicality. Not surprisingly, both companies got full return on their investment.
There is a good reason why we’ve talked so little about corporate ethics since the financial crisis: most corporations had already subscribed to compliance projects pre-2007, and nothing has changed since.
I’m distressed because ethics-without-ethicality repeats the diminishment of restraint and responsibility, which led to previous market failures and economic crises.
As bad as were the deceptions perpetrated by Enron, it was much worse that these accounting lies were intentionally papered-over by its auditor, Arthur Anderson. Similarly, as irresponsible as were mortgage tactics and securitizations floated by the banks in the run up to the financial crisis, it was much worse that the ratings agencies, like Standard and Poor’s, assigned Triple AAA credit value to derivates that their own in-house experts considered junk-grade. When sentinels sell-out, when they simultaneously over-estimate their virtue and under-deliver on the promise they are entrusted to uphold, bad things happen to everyone.
In his book, Confronting Vulnerability, Jonathan Schofer reminds us that moral laws and ethical rules need continuous replenishment. His point is that, while established as bulwarks against human vulnerability and exploitation, ethics are themselves vulnerable and exploitable. We fall-back on ethics as if on auto-pilot, with such doctrinaire rigidity that we cease using any critical thinking as we apply them in life’s complex ambiguities. Or, perhaps worse, we take them for granted until they become easy take-over targets for other ambitions or motivations. Principles share with practitioners the fragility of our human finitude. The most unethical thing is often denying our personal limitations for seeing what is right, and deciding what is true.
We don’t know if this research confirms that ethicists too have ceased being reliable sentinels. But it is the question that should distress and challenge us – ethicists and non-ethicists alike.
John Dalla Costawww.ceo-ethics.com
Photo by blind dayze. Reproduced under Creative Commons licence
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You might as well stop feeling queazy about efforts at crowdfunding the purchase of the video that allegedly shows Toronto mayor Rob Ford smoking crack cocaine. After all, you’re going to watch the video, aren’t you?
The crowdfunding efforts (and there are at least 2 of them) have been the cause of no end of amusement, and almost as much controversy as the reported existence of the crack-smoking video itself. After all, while the video purports to show an important public official engaging in criminal activity, buying the video from the drug dealers who currently possess it would mean, well, doing business with drug dealers.
We can start to get a grip on this as an ethical issue by looking at it from the perspectives of both ends and means. The end or goal being sought by those trying to buy the tape is, arguably, an important one. If Ford has a crack habit, this is important, since it speaks to whether he is fit to be mayor. Suspicions have already arisen, shall we say, about Ford’s suitability for office: among other worries, the mayor’s ethical failings, not to mention his erratic behaviour, are well documented.
So the ends here might be worthy. What about the means? Well, the proposed means by which to reveal the truth about Rob Ford involves associating with (or at least doing business with) drug dealers. This, in itself, is probably regrettable. Of course, buying a video from drug dealers is not quite like buying crack from them, but still. When you do business with certain types, the taint can’t help but rub off. But then, it’s a one-off deal, not the forming of a long-term business relationship.
So perhaps we can say that the deal, if it happens, would be merely unseemly, rather than fully unethical. And that’s an important distinction. Too often the question gets posed as “Is this ethical?” when what would be more useful is to ask “Just how bad is this?” We shouldn’t think of these things in binary terms. It’s OK to be vaguely uncomfortable with a course of action, as long as we ask ourselves why. That’s not being wishy-washy. That’s being reasonable.
In the end, avoiding the all-or-nothing judgment is pretty important in a case like this, because it’s very unlikely that many of us (in Toronto, at least) will keep our hands clean. The option most of us will choose is to let Gawker or someone else get their hands dirty — let them do the crowd-sourcing, buy the tape, and so on — and then cackle with glee at the results in the privacy of our own homes.
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