Friday, May 24, 2013

Danger due to: ethics

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 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 Costa

Photo by blind dayze. Reproduced under Creative Commons licence

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