By Jim Roe
First, a definition of Ethics: principles of human duty, rules of conduct and the duty of being honorable . Simply put: Being ethical is doing the right thing.
Much is said about Ethics and we all agree we have them. But just what is "them?" Lets tackle the business ethics first for it is simple and straight forward. The problem comes when you are asked by your supervisor to do something that you are not sure if it is the right thing to do.
There are two parts to the business ethical question:
What to do when you are asked to do something, would your action be ethical?
When you personally have to make decisions: How do you make them ethically?
This part is simple. You must understand your loyalties:
Be loyal to yourself.
Next, be loyal to the company
And finally, be loyal to your supervisor.
Remember the sequence: Yourself, the company and then your supervisor.
Texas Instruments has a simple three-step rule to follow if you question the ethical merits of a directive:
If you know it is wrong, simply don't do it.
If you are not sure, ask.
Keep asking until you get an answer.
What if you are asked to do the unethical and there is no way out? You should always have "Go to hell money" available to say just that. Go to hell and let the chips fall where they may. Resigning is far superior to lowering your standards.
Making Ethical Decisions
This is a short article I wrote when I was studying ethics. First a brief history, followed by a brief outline of the ethical school I live by (Utilitarian Ethics) and then the "how-to" of making ethical decisions. It is an easy read as Word rates the article as suitable for grade eight readers.
Those who specialize in the study of and write about ethics are called Ethicans. By any definition they are a strange lot. Their main occupation is criticizing other ethicans and every ethical school of thought except the ones they favor.
Ethicans attempt to create an ethical school that applies to every occasion. The search is for a unifying ethical system is much like the search for the unifying theory of physics. It may happen in physics but not in ethics. Ethics is an emotional identity attempting to present itself as a logical and rational discipline. It fails miserably.
In addition, the ethical thinkers are not logical thinkers. They squabble amongst themselves and pass themselves off as great thinkers. If you want to read classical examples of poor writing, corrupt logic and pettiness, read the classical ethical writers. Yet they were brilliant.
For example, John Stuart Mills (1806-1873), regarded as the great proponent of Utilitarian Ethics was brilliant. By the age of seventeen he had completed advanced studies in Greek literature and philosophy, chemistry, botany, psychology and law. As a member of the British parliament he was considered a radical, as he supported such outrageous measures as public ownership of natural resources, equality for women, compulsory education, and birth control. He was one of the founders of the women's suffrage movement.
His 1863 essay on Utilitarian ethics is regarded as the cornerstone of the Utilitarian principles. It is a disgraceful example of writing. For example the opening sentence is sixty-two words long. And things only get worse. Word processing grammar checkers get serious indigestion trying to analyze it.
Since 1863 I doubt if a dozen people have read the 24,000 word document from start to finish. I am not one of them. It is a masterpiece of confusion, bad grammar, and poor punctuation while making little sense. The concept is correct, but Mill's explanation is so inept, it borders on the criminal.
In truth, the concept can be well expressed in less than five hundred words. Throw in a few examples and two thousand words would be about right. Strange, that is about the length of this essay.
I said they were crazy lot. Consider the founder of Utilitarian Ethics, Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832). He was quite a fellow: he was a child prodigy, reading serious works at age three, playing the violin at age five, and studying French and Latin at age six. He entered Oxford University at age 12, studied law, and was admitted to the bar. Quite a fellow.
In 1771, thirty years before the industrial revolution, Jeremy Betham invented the Panopticon. A Panopticon was to remove all privacy from prisoners by placing them behind a transparent wall encircling a guard tower.
Jeremy was so impressed with his invention he was determined to have a Panopticon as his casket and be place on public display. Certainly and odd request. But there is a difference between being odd and being disgusting.
Ladies, if you are a bit squeamish you may not want to hear this so please close your eyes. In accordance with his wishes, his body was dissected before his friends. His skeleton, fully clothed and provided with a wax head (the original being mummified), is kept in a glass case at University College, which he helped to found. He may be viewed on the Web with the picture updated every fifteen minutes.
His head was embalmed and is kept by the University.
There are about fifteen schools of ethics. Including minor variations there are untold numbers. After reviewing many of the mainstream schools, I can honestly say I have little idea of what they are talking about except for Utilitarian Ethics.
Fool that I am, I delved into Utilitarian Ethics as it made sense to apply it to my life style.
My ethical system is based on Utilitarian Ethics: the doctrine that what is useful is good, and consequently, that the ethical value of conduct is determined by the utility of the result. Loosely put, its proposition is that the supreme objective of moral action is the achievement of the greatest good for the greatest number. This objective is also considered the aim of all legislation and is the ultimate criterion of all social institutions including businesses.
Like all other ethical systems, it fails if you expect it to solve all ethical problems. No one ethical system can solve a wide range of problems ranging from government to business to individual ethical questions.
Fortunately, I have serious limitations for which I am thankful. I seek answers to my problems and opportunities. I do not have the ability nor the need to solve such issues such as abortion, euthanasia, and suicide. Nor can I solve the problems of the world. As I said, they are beyond my capabilities and for that I am thankful for my limitations.
One beauty of Utilitarian Ethics is that it has only two definitions: Good and Evil. Good is defined as any individual's good feeling ranging from pleasures of the flesh to extreme self-sacrifice. Between these extremes there are included such things as material rewards. Evil is defined as harm to any individual ranging from such minor irritants such as a sliver in the finger to the evils of Hitler. Again, somewhere in there is material loss.
One last consideration: morals. You come to the table with your morals and religious beliefs. Ethics does not teach or propose a moral credo. You are who you are. If you are morally corrupt, a thief or completely uncaring, ethics is of little use to you. The only way one can improve their moral values is probably through some form of revelation.
Living by an ethical system is not in conflict with your religion or lack of it. All the mainstream religions, whether based on love or law, urge you to be good to others while minimizing evil in all its forms. Ethics simply provides a method to assist you in achieving your religious obligations of doing the right thing while minimizing evil. A religious belief is not a requirement of being ethical.
Resolving ethical problems using Utilitarian Ethics has a logical almost mathematical, step-by-step approach to it.
Let's assume you want to make a business decision. If it does not affect people, there is no ethical consideration. Ethics only concerns itself with people. That does not mean your can abuse animals. Nor does it permit you to burn down you house even if you own it. Wanton destruction is unacceptable.
Is slaughtering animals for human consumption ethical? How about using animals for testing which causes them pain? I have no idea how you feel about the subject. But I do know I could not be employed in such industries, yet I benefit from their practices. As I said, I have serious limitations of my thought processes when it comes to resolving such fundamental issues.
Fortunately all those tough problems do not face me. In truth, I am not sure I could face up to them let alone resolve them.
So on to the reality of everyday life:
Let's assume we are contemplating installing some form of safety or pollution device.
We think of three possible methods, A, B, and C. And we throw in a fourth possibility D, simply doing nothing. We make a list showing all the benefits (Good) to both ourselves and others. Now consider disadvantages (Evil) to yourself and others. Evaluate both the good and evil, not just to us, but to everyone involved. Consider employees, the shareholders, suppliers, the community, and the government.
The first test is do you benefit from any evil side effect? The test is resolved by considering what, if somehow, the evil side effects did not happen, would you still benefit? If you would benefit only if the evil event occurred, then the act is unethical. It is unethical to benefit from some form of evil inflicted on others. This test quickly determines that theft, murder, cheating, and most forms of lying are unethical acts.
With the list made, consider what method has the least evils. Assuming all three methods meet your goals, only the method having the least evil is ethical. To select a method that does not minimize the evil consequences is unethical.
Let's consider the ethical merits of laying-off people for lack of work. It happens all the time. Now lack of work can range from receiving fewer orders than expected to simply running out of money, i.e. a builder lays-off his construction workers because he has run out of money. The house is still there to be completed, but there is no money. Employees are certainly harmed by the layoff. We pass the first test, as we do not benefit from their hardship.
Now consider what happens if the layoff is not made. Eventually the company will lose money, become less competitive and the problems multiply for the lack of layoffs. The result can only be that many others such as the employees, suppliers, shareholders or the community will be seriously harmed when the business fails. However unpleasant, the layoff for lack of work is ethical, not nice, but ethical.
So the method is simple. Consider all the alternatives and select the one with the least harm to all. Easier said than done.
Time passes, the act is carried out, and you or someone else thinks of a better, less evil solution to the problem or opportunity. Was the original act ethical? Yes. You tried your best to be ethical. Not being clever enough is no sin. You must learn to live with and rejoice in God's gift of your limitations.
More time passes. Given the identical problem there is no guarantee that the ethical decision you made in the past would be ethical now. Times change the priorities. What was important then may not be important now. What was a minor consideration then may be a major concern now.
In business we are trying to find the best balance for all: the employees, shareholders, customers, suppliers, government and the community. Demands of each change with time. For example, in recent years the governments drive for improve workplace health and safety, minimizing and controlling pollution have come to the fore. Twenty years ago they were just being thought about. Forty years ago, they were non-issues. Times change. The new balance must be found with the changing times.
If we pay too much for supplies and wages, our costs become excessive and we loose our competitiveness. Layoffs and perhaps business failure occurs harming all employees, the shareholders, our suppliers, customers etc.
If our wages are to low we loose good employees and their skills, endangering the business.
Our family life goes through similar changes. The balance of your influencing your children changes, demanding a rebalance of your private life. Consider the balance when the children were small to when you will have an empty nest. Both logic and Ethics demands you treat your children well. Be good to your children. Always remember: they pick your old age home.
I can understand if you object to my ethical system. But to object to mine while having none of your own is foolish.
This was written to clarify my thoughts and develop an ethical way of reasoning suitable to my life style. Over the years I have found it to be a great problem solver when dealing with personnel problems both at home and at work.