Archive for the ‘standards’ Category
Today happens to be World Standards Day, a day that honours the work of the thousands of experts involved in setting the huge range of voluntary international standards that regulate production and trade in a globalized economy. Depending on your view of globalization, it’s a day either to be celebrated or mourned.
The standards in question include various standards established by groups like the International Electrotechnical Commission (IEC), the International Organization for Standardization (ISO), and the International Accounting Standards Board (IASB).
I’m currently reading a very good book on just this topic, namely The New Global Rulers: The Privatization of Regulation in the World Economy, by Tim Büthe and Walter Mattli. The book examines the wide and growing range of international, private (i.e., non-governmental) standards being set by groups like the IEC, ISO, and IASB. As Büthe and Mattli point out, such standards are a double-edged sword.
On one hand, they facilitate the international flow of goods and services, making it easier for companies to ship products overseas or set up branch offices in foreign countries without learning entirely new, idiosyncratic local standards. And (being established by international groups of experts) they do this without the direct participation of governments that may not have the financial or technical capacity to set such standards. On the other hand private, international standards don’t bring benefits equally to all: not all companies are equally-well equipped to switch from older national standards to newer international ones, and some countries’ internal regulatory regimes make the switch even harder. And regardless, as Büthe and Mattli point out, adopting new standards always brings costs, including things like the costs of training, the cost of redesigning products, and even paying licensing fees for proprietary technologies.
It seems appropriate, at this juncture — while the Occupy Wall Street movement is a) lamenting the nature of government-industry interaction, and b) deciding whether it is or is not part of the anti-globalization movement — to give some serious and well-informed thought to the desirability of regulatory regimes that are both non-governmental and international.
The agri-food business has rapidly become one of the most ethically-controversial on the planet. Vicious cultural battles are being fought over what constitutes an ethically-decent way to raise various food products. And marketers are fighting tooth-and-claw to develop and market food products that meet the increasingly diverse desires of consumers — including consumers who may want food that is not just low-fat, low-salt, and low-cal, but organic, free-range, local, low-carbon, cruelty-free, fair-trade and/or free of genetically-modified ingredients. Winning the hearts and minds of a public with such varied preferences and interests is no easy task.
For a peek at the cultural and ethical complexity of the agri-food industry, check out this story, by Louise Gray, writing for The Telegraph: Soil Association ditches rockstars to go back to its roots. The story is really a profile of Helen Browning, the new director of the UK’s Soil Association, which is the nation’s most significant pro-organic charity, as well as the organization responsible for the world’s very first certification system for organic food back in the 60′s.
Two key points are worth making, here:
1) Browning displays an unusual degree of common sense in avoiding an “us vs. them” attitude towards non-organic farmers:
Much to the dismay of the more ‘fundamentalist’ wing of the organic movement she is also relaxed about letting non-organic farmers join the organisation and sharing information with intensive agriculture….
This is essential, if advocates of organic farming really are concerned with the health of consumers and the planet, rather than merely being concerned with promoting the organic ‘brand.’ Turning organic agriculture into an all-or-nothing category makes it too much like a cult, alienating non-organic farmers and giving them little reason to try to learn about alternatives or to reduce the amount of pesticides they use.
2) On the other hand, Browning’s hit-and-miss attention to science is are sure to do damage to her cause.
The former chair of the food ethics council argues that large scale units are overusing antibiotics and creating MRSA strains that are a danger to humans as well as animals.
She uses homeopathy to keep her herd healthy, but mostly it is being outdoors on a mixture of grass and clover that makes happy cows and tasty beef….
This is rather alarming. While Browning is right to worry about overuse of antibiotics in agriculture — that’s a serious public-health risk — opting for homeopathy as an alternative is utter lunacy, roughly equivalent to relying on witchcraft. (The Soil Association’s standards for organic livestock do permit standard vaccination, but also promotes the use of homeopathy.) Where the health of food animals is concerned, we need proven methods, not dis-proven ones. Consider: any food-processing plant that relied exclusively on, say, prayer or the blessings of a priest to eliminate germs, instead of thoroughly cleaning their machines, would face the wrath of regulators, not to mention public outrage. If organic agri-business is to win not just hearts, but also minds, it needs to do a better job of relying on science, and not just wishful thinking.
No one wants low ethical standards, but it’s also a mistake to aim at the highest possible standards — at least it can be, depending on what you mean by “highest.”
See, for example, this useful piece on defence contractors, by Noah Shachtman for Wired: Pentagon Probe Will Review Every Darpa Contract
Since Regina Dugan became the director of Darpa [Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency], the Pentagon’s top research division has signed millions of dollars’ worth of contracts with her family firm, which in turn owes her at least a quarter-million dollars. It’s an arrangement that has raised eyebrows in the research community, and has now drawn the attention of the Defense Department’s internal auditors and investigators…
The story usefully points out that aiming for the highest possible standards of integrity can also cause trouble:
[A former director's] bright ethical guidelines had unintended consequences. If a company allowed an employee to take a sabbatical to join Darpa, the firm was essentially blocking itself from millions of dollars in agency research projects.
The result, of course, is that under the old rules the agency risked cutting off useful sources of expertise. That’s not to say that the old rules were worse. It’s just to point out that there’s a legitimate trade-off here.
There’s a very general lesson to be drawn from this. When thinking about ethics, the goal isn’t always to be squeaky-clean. The goal is to find standards that are high enough to merit the trust of relevant stakeholders, and to do so without sacrificing other, possibly-equally important, values.
Consider this graphic, which illustrates the challenge of choosing experts to make decisions. On one hand, we want people with real expertise. On the other hand, we want to avoid conflict of interest. That is, we want maximum expertise and minimal risk of bias. So the upper-left quadrant of this graphic is the sweet spot:
Note that what we’re looking for here is not the “highest possible” standard of integrity (i.e., the standard that implies the lowest possible risk of bias among decision-makers), but a system that makes the optimal tradeoff between risk of bias, on one hand, and relevant expertise, on the other. The point here is not that we’re trading off ethics and expediency. The point is that we’re trading off competing, ethically-significant values.
The point in thinking about ethics is not to aim at the highest standards, but at the best standards. We do enormous damage both to the functioning of organizations and to people’s willingness to talk openly about ethics when we talk about “high standards” in a way that comes off as unthinkingly pious.
Last weekend, a despicable “hashtag” trended* on Twitter, one promoting the idea that violence against women is OK. By Sunday morning, tweets using that hashtag were mostly critical ones, expressing outrage at any non-critical use of the hashtag. One prominent twitterer, Peter Daou, (@peterdaou) asked why Twitter wasn’t preventing that hashtag from trending. He tweeted:
“Unbelievable: Is Twitter REALLY allowing #reasonstobeatyourgirlfriend to be a trending topic??!”
The outrage expressed by Daou and others is entirely appropriate. The hashtag in question is utterly contemptible. But the question of whether Twitter should censor it and prevent it from trending is another question altogether.
The central argument in favour of censorship is that the idea being broadcast is an evil one, and decision-makers at Twitter are in a clear position to stifle the spread of that evil idea, or instead to allow its proliferation. With great power comes great responsibility.
The most obvious reason against censorship is freedom of speech, combined with the slippery slope argument: if Twitter is going to start censoring ideas, where will it end? Freedom of speech is an important right, and that right includes the right to speak immoral ideas. Limits should only be imposed with great caution.
Now, it’s worth noting that the hashtag trending isn’t actually anyone’s speech: it’s the aggregate result of thousands of individual decisions to tweet using that hashtag. So if Twitter were, hypothetically, to censor the results of their trending-detection algorithm, they wouldn’t actually be censoring anyone, just preventing the automated publicizing of a statistic. But perhaps that’s a philosophical nicety, one obscuring the basic point that there is danger anytime the powerful act to prevent a message from being heard.
More importantly, perhaps, Twitter isn’t a government, it’s a company, and it doesn’t owe anyone the use of its technology to broadcast stupid ideas (or any other ideas, for that matter). We insist that governments carefully avoid censorship because governments are powerful and because for all intents and purposes we cannot opt out of their services as a whole. If a company doesn’t want to broadcast your idea, it’s not morally required to. Your local paper, for instance, isn’t obligated to publish your Letter to the Editor. The right to free speech isn’t the right to be handed a megaphone.
But then the challenging question arises: is Twitter a tool or a social institution? Just how much like a government is Twitter, in the relevant sense? It is, after all, in control of what many of us regard as a kind of critical infrastructure. This is a challenge faced by many ubiquitous info-tech companies, including Twitter, Facebook and Google. While their services are, in principle, strictly optional — no one is forced to use them — for many of us going without them is very nearly unthinkable. We are not just users of Twitter, but citizens. That perspective doesn’t tell us whether it’s OK for Twitter to engage in censorship, but it does put a different spin on the question.
*The fact that it was “trending” on Twitter means that Twitter’s algorithm had identified it as, roughly, a “novel and popular” topic in recent tweets. Trending topics are featured prominently on Twitter’s main page.
Two weeks ago I was at Duke University’s Kenan Institute for Ethics, in part to participate in a panel discussion called “Certifying Virtue.” The panel was basically about the challenges faced by various attempts to certify particular consumer goods as having been ethically produced.
My excellent co-panelists were Greg Dees (director of Duke’s Center for the Advancement of Social Entrepreneurship) and Tim Büthe (Assistant Professor in Duke’s Political Science department). The panel was organized and moderated by Kenan’s Lou Brown.
My own comments focused on:
- The large number of value-dimensions along which different consumers might want assurances about the things they buy.
- The epistemic problems involved in figuring out how to measure the things you might want to certify (e.g., measuring “environmental impact”).
- The moral problem that arises when 2 or more desirable characteristics conflict (e.g., “wild” vs “organic” salmon — you might want both, but no one fish can be both wild and organic.)
- The role of brands and certification schemes as “value-alignment” mechanisms, helping consumers find producers with whom they want to do business.
The panel was videorecorded, and the resulting 90-minute video is here, on YouTube: Certifying Virtue
When we see what seems to be an increase in misbehaviour, we need to ask: is that because behaviour has gotten worse, or because expectations have gotten higher?
See this piece, by Theresa Tedesco, for Financial Post Magazine: Farther. Faster. Higher.
…Business leaders are on trial like never before. Public outrage over recent ethical crises and the dramatic failures of corporate governance, most notably the stunning collapse of Enron Corp. and the financial crisis of 2008, have fuelled assumptions that government and regulators are stepping in and that ethical standards of business must be on the rise as a result. Certainly, public awareness is heightened in the aftermath of spectacular corporate collapses. But are ethical standards actually getting higher as a result? Or are shareholders, employees and other stakeholders simply more aware of the moral considerations in the wake of these scandals and crises, considerations that are soon to be forgotten? Either way, the role of the modern CEO and other senior executives has become much more complex, driven almost reflexively by the velocity of change in social values, technology, regulation and, increasingly, public opinion….
(I’m also quoted, making a point I’ve made before, namely that business is more ethical today than it has ever been in the past.)
But there’s also an interesting philosophical question, here, about what counts as a “higher” standard.
In some cases, “higher standards” might actually mean that we attribute to business obligations in domains in which they previously were seen as having basically no obligations at all. Environmental concern might be one such domain. Once upon a time, pollution just wasn’t an issue. At even once pollution was “on the radar,” so to speak, specific types of pollution (e.g., CFC’s) still weren’t seen as important. In that sense, it’s clearly true that we see “higher standards” imposed, and observed, by business today.
A second kind of “higher standards” might involve stricter requirements for things like honesty and product safety and truth in advertising. Once upon a time, the rule really was “buyer beware.” That’s no longer the case. Social expectations, often backed by law, mean that businesses face (and generally adhere to) standards far higher than we’ve ever seen before in history.
A third kind of “higher standard” might have to do with social expectations with regard to the impact business has beyond its interactions with its own customers and employees. Now, it has long been the case that many businesses make social contributions through things like charitable donations. But today, it is utterly run-of-the-mill for companies to have CSR departments that consider not just things like charitable donations, but how to track and report on the business’s net social impact. This is yet another way in which businesses face, and face up to, higher expectations.
But there is also a fourth kind of higher standard, one which is less-obviously being met. And that is in the area of individual decision-making. When the average person (or the ethicist, for that matter) surveys the world of business, he or she still sees examples of bad behaviour — people lying, cheating, embezzling, and defrauding. Most of us get our data in that regard from the media, which is far from a fair accounting of the issue. But still, the cases are out there. And it’s in that sense that people are very fair to observe that, at very least, things don’t seem to be getting better, dammit. Then again, I know of no credible evidence that things are getting any worse in this regard.
I suspect different people mean different things when they talk about whether “ethical standards” are higher or lower in business today. I suspect that the first 3 kinds of “higher standards” above are the crucial ones, since I suspect that the 4th, which depends on the character of individual human beings, is less susceptible to long-term change on a population basis.