Archive for the ‘values’ Category

Ethics Lessons from Toronto Mayor’s Ouster from Office

Toronto Mayor Rob Ford has been found guilty of violating the Municipal Conflict of Interest Act, and will be removed from office. The much-anticipated court decision was handed down this morning.

Regrettably, this is unlikely the end of the story. Ford had announced, prior to the decision, his intention to run again should the judge remove him from office. The judge had the option to include, as part of Ford’s sentence, a prohibition on running again, but opted not to do so.

Ford has plenty of detractors. Some don’t like his politics. Some question his aptitude for the job of mayor of Canada’s largest city. Others worry about his being implicated not just in one but in a string of conflict of interest violations. But he also has plenty of defenders — after all, there are an awful lot of people out there who voted for him, and many of them are sticking to their guns on that choice. So the debate will rage. Plenty of ink is sure to be spilled in by both camps in the wake of this decision. I’ll limit myself here to just two quick points. One is about leadership, and the other is about governance.

First, leadership. Whatever your views of Ford, and whatever your views about the severity of his breach of the Conflict of Interest Act, you pretty much have to agree that Ford demonstrated a disappointing lack of leadership ethics, here. Yes (as his lawyer pointed out) people do make mistakes, and even a mayor can be forgiven for an incidental breach of a rule now and then. But what’s particularly worrisome here is that Ford, who by all rights ought to be the guy who leads Council in understanding its ethical obligations, seems to be utterly clueless about them. And he doesn’t seem terribly worried about that, either. According to a report of the court proceedings, Ford “testified he never read the Conflict of Interest Act or the councillor orientation handbook. Nor did he attend councillor training sessions that covered conflicts of interest.”

My second point has to do with governance. As Marcus Gee pointed out in the Globe and Mail recently, bumping Ford from office might be a case of ‘out of the frying pan, into the fire.’ Turmoil is likely to ensue. Council is now faced with the choice of having someone else — someone not elected to be mayor — serve out the rest of Ford’s term, or spending several million dollars of taxpayer money to hold another election. The result of turfing Ford seems especially troubling when we compare Ford’s ethical cluelessness with the out-and-out corruption that has brought down mayors in other major cities.

But what was the alternative? A judge has no choice but to call ‘em like he sees ‘em. Ford violated important rules, and those rules say he should be removed from office. Note that the judge in this case would have had the same range of sentencing options if the dollar amount at the heart of this case had been $3.15 rather than $3,150. A more sane system would perhaps allow for a broader range of penalties. Examples could be found in other systems and at other levels of government. A fine? Censure? Limitation of future mayoral discretion? Mandatory ethics training? I don’t know the answer. But a governance system that allows a political leader to blunder this way and then throws a city into turmoil is not a good system. Principles matter, but so does the way we implement them.

Opus Dei Sues Game Publisher

As you may have heard, Opus Dei, a branch of the Catholic church, is suing a Danish game publisher, Dema Games, for alleged infringement of its trademark. The game is called “Opus Dei: Existence After Religion.”

The case is pretty much entirely without moral merit. Never mind the David-vs-Goliath image raised by the thought of the powerful Catholic prelature focusing its lawyers’ energies on a tiny Danish publisher. Beyond that, there’s no indication that Opus Dei, the organization itself, is portrayed in any way in the game. So this is unlike the dispute that went on back in 2006, when Opus Dei tried to get Sony to remove references to the organization from the movie version of The DaVinci Code. The issue in the present case is simply whether the organization has the right to control how its name is used.

Trademark protection is effectively a limit on free speech. You can say whatever you want, generally, but you can’t help yourself to words or phrases that are specifically used by other people for commercial purposes. Opus Dei isn’t what we would normally think of as a “commercial” organization, but close enough: its name is the “mark” under which it carries out its “trade.” So it has some claim to a trademark. On the other hand, the words “opus Dei” are just a phrase with multiple uses. As those of you who remember your high school Latin will recall, “opus dei” is translated “work of God.”

This case might best be thought of a question of free speech versus respect for religion. The organization can’t rightly expect to exert worldwide control the use of the two words “opus” and “dei,” words that have many uses in conjunction beyond describing the Catholic group. But on the other hand, should the game publishers relent and remove those words from the title of their game? Opus Dei does have an interest at stake, here, even if it’s not clearly an overriding one embodied in a right. A sufficient degree of respect for the organization and its interests might lead a company to adopt a hands-off policy, regardless of whether the trademark claim is legally enforceable.

All indications are that Dema has no intention of manifesting that level of respect, and I suspect many people — including those who are dismissive or even critical of the Catholic church — will applaud the company in this regard. But what is the unbiased observer to think, from an ethical point of view, about cases of this sort? Here, it is important to recognize the crucial ethical difference between a value, on one hand, and a principle, on the other.

Respect — including respect for other people’s religions — is a value. As such, it is something we generally want to promote. It is good, other things being equal, to demonstrate a degree of respect for other people, and arguably for their religions and the organizations that promote them. Even when we do not support or encourage other people’s beliefs, it is generally a good thing, socially, if we respect them.

Free speech, on the other hand, is a right, and respect for it is a moral duty. And rights and duties tend to be moral absolutes, rather than merely things we want to promote. As a right, free speech is something that is to be breached only under very limited and carefully prescribed circumstances. A right is a line drawn in the sand, and across which we step only when absolutely necessary. When a right (like free speech) and a value (like respect) come into conflict, generally the right has got to win.

Hopefully the Danish court will agree.

Will the UK Outlaw Ethical Investing?

OK, so the answer to the question in the title is almost certainly “no,” but outlawing ethical investing is precisely what is being implied, no doubt inadvertently, by a new plan being attributed to the UK’s Labour Party.

Over the weekend, several UK news sources reported on a press release indicating that the Labour Party’s leader, Ed Miliband, was about to announce his intention (if elected) to impose tough new rules on the financial industry. The idea was to be put forward during a speech at the party’s annual conference this past weekend. According to the Daily Mail,

Mr Miliband is proposing a sweeping new legal duty on any financial service which manages savings, including pension funds and banks, to maximise the saver’s returns. Failure to do so would mean them breaking the law.

(While I haven’t seen the actual press release upon which this analysis is based, a very similar report appeared in The Guardian.)

On the face of it, this is just another promise by a politician to fight for the little guy by imposing constraints on big business.

But hold on a minute. As Tim Worstall at Forbes.com astutely points out, requiring a bank to maximise a saver’s financial returns implies a legal duty not to pay attention to any factor other than money. No more attention to sustainability. No more doing good deeds. No more avoiding investing in tobacco or arms dealers. It’s gotta be all about the money.

But focusing on something other than money is precisely what financial institutions promise to do when then offer various ‘ethical’ or values-based investment instruments. The promise made by such funds is that they’ll aim at a “solid” return on investment, while at the same time paying due attention to social and/or environmental concerns. Miliband’s proposal would make such funds illegal. Indeed, if taken seriously, Miliband’s proposal goes much farther than that: it would criminalize all attempts at corporate social responsibility by financial services companies.

Indeed, legally requiring banks to maximize return to savers is exactly parallel to the (fictional) requirement for corporations to maximize return to shareholders. (Why “fictional?” Because the directors of a corporation are only legally obligated to serve loyally, not to maximize profits per se.)

Now as Worstall points out, such announcements regarding what a politician is going to say sometimes don’t come true. And heaven knows that even if Mr. Miliband does or did make the promise out loud, there’s no guarantee that he will make good on it, even if he has the opportunity. Hopefully he or his advisors have seen the folly in such a law, and will find some subtler way to achieve their policy objectives.

Obamacare and Business Values

Yesterday, the US Supreme court mostly upheld Obamacare, also known as the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act. (See the full decision here [PDF].)

The Big Decision may have been made, but clearly lots remains to be sorted out. One of the questions that arises, from an ethical point of view, is the way that businesses, including especially insurance companies, should conduct themselves under the new plan.

Under Obamacare, Americans will be required to carry health insurance (or face a penalty) and, importantly, insurance companies will be required to sell policies to all comers, regardless of pre-existing health conditions. While the debate has focused primarily on the proper role of government, the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act clearly has significant implications for private companies.

Note how different this is from, for example, Canada’s system. In Canada, insurance is provided by provincial health plans, and care is provided by physicians (as private contractors) and private, not-for-profit hospitals. Private insurers still play a role in pharmaceutical coverage, but almost no role at all in basic healthcare. Under Obamacare, in comparison, insurance companies effectively become an instrument of public policy: important elements of the way they conduct their business (and in particular the actuarial rules they apply) will no longer be up to them. This is far from the only example of private companies playing a role in public insurance: in the UK, private companies play a significant role in administering employment insurance services, and in some Canadian provinces private insurance brokers sell auto insurance plans underwritten by a public insurer. With regard to insurance, the distinction between private and public is far from water-tight.

How should companies conduct themselves when they play a role in delivering publicly-mandated insurance? Should they continue to think of themselves entirely as private, profit-seeking entities? Or should they — like industrial firms during times of war — take up public values?

Just what values are instantiated in a public insurance scheme is a matter of some debate. Public insurance schemes are often seen as promoting egalitarian values — ‘we’re all equal and hence all deserve equal access to basic healthcare.’ Others argue that what’s really at stake in such schemes is not equality, but efficiency (and argue that the current patchwork American system, for example, is quite inefficient in a number of ways). Others argue that, for insurance quite generally, solidarity is the key value — and one with obvious salience when insurance is part of the welfare state. Of course, to the extent that insurance companies are “merely” private corporations, they are guided by basic norms related to loyally seeking profits for shareholders. But even private insurance companies are subject to special limits on their profit-seeking. From a legal point of view, it is recognized that insurance companies are morally special: the legal principle of uberrima fides implies that the level of trust required between insurer and insured makes the relationship special, from an ethical point of view. And then, with regard to mutuals and not-for-profit insurers, stewardship of a shared resource (i.e., the insurance fund upon which members rely) is a key value. It seems right that private and public insurers would be guided by different mixes of these values.

So the question American health insurance companies face, at least in principle, is whether they should conduct themselves like private or public entities. And the question Americans face is which standard to hold them to. The answer, I think, is not clear. But it’s worth pointing out that the goals of an institution — public or private — don’t automatically have to be the goals of the larger system of which it is part. As I’ve pointed out elsewhere, the individual parts of a system don’t need to act according to the values of that system — sometimes they contribute by playing a more narrow role.

The coming years are sure to see significant changes in the US insurance industry. Whether the US government can succeed in getting private insurers to play a public-policy role remains to be seen, and depends in part on the willingness of those insurers to take up a public mission. But it depends just as much on whether the system Obama has designed is capable of harnessing the profit motive of insurance companies using it to get them to perform an important social function.

Flexibility in the Workplace?

What kind of workplace do you want? Should your workplace experience be determined by regulations, or instead be negotiated between you and your employer?

A recent survey sheds interesting light on what people love, and hate, about their workplaces. They survey, carried out by Wakefield Research for Citrix, produced lots of interesting tidbits. For example, among male workers, the part of office life they secretly hate most is office baby showers. 32 percent of workers would give up their lunch breaks in exchange for the chance to work at home just one day per week. Oh, and 7% of workers, when given the chance to work from home, prefer to work in their underwear or in the nude. And so on.

Citrix is an internet and cloud computing company, so naturally the take-away lesson they suggest has to do with the advantages of telecommuting, and in particular with the desirability of employers offering employees the flexibility to work, at least occasionally, from home.

But the question of flexibility arises at more that one level. It arises at the level of what employers offer employees — will they offer employees the flexibility to work from home occasionally if they choose? It also arises at the level of employers: should employers have the option to either offer such flexibility or not, or should all employers be required to offer the same kinds of flexibility? In other words, should there be a firm rule (entrenched in either law or regulation) requiring employers to offer such options?

More generally, what elements of work life ought to be regulated to the point of being standardized? And which elements ought to be up to employers and employees to sort out? The generic argument for uniformity is reasonably clear: people are people, and ought generally to be treated in similar ways regardless of where they work.

But there are also arguments for diversity in employment arrangements. Most obviously, there’s an argument based in the importance of freedom of choice. Why should everyone be forced to work under one set of circumstances? Shouldn’t the terms of the employment contract be a matter of free negotiation — within broad limits, perhaps defined in terms of fundamental human rights — between employer and employee?

But customization of workplace experience also holds the promise of better outcomes, at least in theory, because different workers likely want and value different things in a workplace. And there will always be tradeoffs. Some may prefer a workplace that rewards long hours with high pay. Others may prefer “good” pay in return for “reasonable” hours. Some may want to work in a close-knit team that works and plays together, while another may prefer a strict separation of work and pleasure. In this sense, a workplace is a product like any other, one that we “buy” with our labour. And, as with food or anything else, different people will want different things. If you can find ways to give more people what they want, you’ve done a good thing.

I find this a useful way of framing questions related to employment standards. For any given question, we should ask: is this something that we need to legislate into regularity, or something on which we need to allow diversity? If the former, then we’re faced with the hard challenge of figuring out what the single best standard is for all to follow. If the latter, then the challenge is to figure out how to make sure that the choices employees make are free and informed.

How can we decide which category a particular workplace issue falls into? That’s the hard part. It’s tempting, philosophically, to say that we just need to figure out whether the issue at hand is an issue with regard to which rational argumentation seems to lead to a single solution. But whether a single, clear answer is available is itself something over which people can disagree. Closer to the truth is that what we need to do is figure out whether the gains made by enforcing regularity are sufficient to outweigh the positive outcomes that come from a tailored workplace experience.

Organic Foods and Bad Behaviour

Is labelling foods as “organic” a positive thing or not? The Environmental Working Group certainly thinks so. To support this notion, the EWG has just released its annual “dirty dozen” list, consisting of fruits and veggies that are especially high in pesticide residue.

But check out this recent study, which suggests that seeing and thinking about organic foods can make people less ethical. The researchers report that test subjects asked to look at and rank (basically, to focus on) either a bunch of organic-labelled foods or to look at and rank either comfort foods (e.g., ice cream) or a more neutral food (e.g., mustard). Following this, the test subjects were given tests to evaluate a) their willingness to help a needy stranger, and b) the harshness of their evaluation of various apparent moral transgressions. The result: people exposed to organic foods were both less likely to help others, and more likely to be harshly moralistic.

This is an interesting result in its own right, but it has particular implications for marketing. Very roughly, the study suggests that marketing produce as organic can have negative effects on consumers’ attitudes and behaviour. That is, the study says nothing negative about organic food itself, or about consuming it. The implication is specifically for labelling it and promoting it as organic.

Of course, we can’t immediately condemn such marketing based on this kind of evidence. It may well be that the net effect of selling lots of organic food outweighs the effect such marketing has on people’s attitudes and behaviour. But at very least, this should make us stop and think.

Now, it’s highly unlikely that this effect is specific to organic foods. Presumably, labelling food as organic here is relevant because for many people that label implies something virtuous. So the implication is that promoting foods (or presumably other products) in terms of virtue could be a mistake.

In general, labels that indicate a product’s characteristics help consumers get what they’re looking for. This is especially important with regard to characteristics that can’t be seen with the naked eye, including key characteristics of most so-called ethical products. You can’t tell by looking at an apple, for instance, whether it’s been sprayed with pesticides — unless, of course, you see the “Certified Organic” label on it. Labels of various kinds help people get what they value, and in that way help achieve the promise of a free market.

The alternative to using labels to help people find products that match their own values is to rely on government regulation and industry “best practices.” If there were widespread agreement that organic foods really were better, ethically, they there would be some justification for having government use legislation to drive non-organic foods from the market. We rely on labels and third-party certifications precisely because there isn’t sufficient consensus to warrant a general standard. But the study described above highlights one of the costs of the path we’ve chosen. By moralizing the marketplace we may, ironically enough, be encouraging immoral behaviour.

—–
Thanks to Andrew Potter for pointing me to the study discussed here.

Customizing Ethical Products

So-called “ethical” products are in the news again. This time, the controversy is over whether the fairtrade movement should expand to include certification of large farms.

A controversy like this serves to highlight the complexity of the notion of an “ethical” product. After all, any product has many different characteristics, and hence many different dimensions of ethical concern. Just for starters, two food products of the same kind (say, two different brands of coffee) might vary in terms of whether they are FairTrade certified or not, whether they are organic or not, whether they are from countries with bad human-rights records, and so on. So the choice we face isn’t just between the ethical brand and the “other” brand; it might well be between two brands with different combinations of more, or less, ethical characteristics.

So here’s a thought experiment. Imagine a world in which mass customization technology make it possible for you, by purchasing online, to hyper-customize the products you buy, according to various ethical characteristics. Imagine you could choose, with a click of your mouse, any or all of a range of characteristics. And to make things more interesting (and likely more realistic) let’s say that each additional characteristic you ask for implies some additional cost. After all, some “ethical” production processes are costly, and some certification schemes are costly. So let’s imagine, say, that each additional ethical characteristic you opt for results in a modest 2% increase in the price of the product.

Given the opportunity to buy such customized products, which ethical characteristics would you choose to pay for?

Consider, for example, what you would choose faced with a website that let you order coffee and gave you the following options:


Or imagine being able to buy beef and to select from among the following characteristics:

Or again, imagine being offered the following choice with regard to the cotton from which your newly-tailored shirt is to be made:

This thought experiment raises several questions. For you, the consumer, it raises the question of which combination of ethical values you really want — and would be willing to pay for — in your purchases. For purveyors of “ethical” consumer products, it first raises doubts about the term itself, and about how confident companies can be that they’ve already identified “the” characteristics that make up an ethical product. Consider the light this sheds on the case of so-called “ethical veal,” as discussed in a recent story from the Guardian. Sure, the veal referred to in that story is ethically better in at least one way. But have the people selling it cognizant of the range of characteristics that different people regard as essential to making a food product truly ethical?

Of course, the shopping scenario imagined above is science fiction for now. You can buy customized shoes online, and customized chocolate bars, but as far as I know foods customized ethically are not yet on sale. If they were, would that make the choice faced by ethical consumers easier, or harder?

The Right Amount of Waste

A recent story in the NY Times provides some encouraging anecdotes about companies that are moving to take greater responsibility for recycling. Companies like Starbucks and Coca-Cola, for instance, are finding new — and in some cases profitable — ways to take responsibility for the waste that their product packaging generally becomes. More recycling generally means less waste, less energy used, and less pollution.

Waste and pollution are business-ethics topics about which there is some room for agreement between the moralist and the economist. The moralist points out that it’s unfair to make innocent bystanders suffer the ill effects of your factory’s pollution. The economist points out that market inefficiency can result when costs, financial or otherwise, are not internalized (i.e., when costs are instead imposed on innocent third parties).

But an economically-savvy point of view must also recognize that there is in fact a socially-efficient level of waste and pollution, and that that level is not zero. Waste and pollution could only be driven to zero by shutting down industry (of all kinds) altogether, and that would have disastrous effects. In other words, we would have to sacrifice things we care about, like the ability to raise world-wide standards of living, in order to reduce pollution and waste to zero.

Consider this analogy: economists likewise sometimes argue, rightly I think, that there is an efficient level of crime. The methods by which crime could be driven to zero are both enormously invasive and enormously costly. It is not efficient — not a good use of resources — to drive crime to zero, even if we think it technically possible.

So waste and pollution, we might say, are always bad, but not always wrong. They are features of a system the overall productivity of which is an enormous boon to humankind. It would be crazy to say that gains in productivity must be sought at any cost, but it is likewise crazy to value anything else (e.g., the environment) so highly that it drowns out all considerations of efficiency.

Now none of this tells us about whether particular efforts at waste reduction or pollution abatement are good or bad. But it helps frame the issue. What we’re looking for is the right level of pollution and waste, and that level is not zero. It is also likely to shift over time, as affluence grows and technology evolves, and as companies like Coke and Starbucks and a thousand anonymous start-ups find new ways to make environmental protection efficient, in the broadest, most ethically-significant sense of the word.

Social Class and Unethical Behaviour

Hating the rich comes pretty naturally to a lot of people. And so it’s not surprising that a widely-reported study apparently demonstrating that the rich are less ethical resulted in a combination of glee and eye-rolling proclamations that “we already knew that.”

There’s plenty to say about the study — lots of people (mostly in the comments accompanying various reports on the study) have pointed to what they say are methodological weaknesses related to sample size, how participants were chosen, what kinds of tests are taken as proxies for a lack of ethics, etc.

But if we take as given the conclusion that the rich do behave less ethically (by certain measures) this raises the question of what causes such behaviour on the part of the rich. To their credit, the study’s authors at least gesture at subtlety: “This finding is likely to be a multiply determined effect involving both structural and psychological factors.” But the authors do spend an awful lot of time discussing what they clearly take to be the key causal factor, namely greed. “Greed,” the authors write, “is a robust determinant of unethical behaviour.”

But the role that greed plays is in fact very far from obvious. The citations given by the authors are not entirely compelling, and as I’ve pointed out before, there’s considerable evidence (found primarily in the literature on criminology) that greed is not a key explanatory factor in much wrongdoing. Wrongdoing is more generally explained by the capacity for rationalization, for telling oneself compelling stories about why one’s own behaviour isn’t wrong after all.

It’s also worth pointing out the more general problem with establishing causal relationships. Note that the title of the study says only that “Higher social class predicts increased unethical behaviour” [emphasis added]. But the headline writers for various news outlets are not so careful: Wired, for example, tells us that “Wealth Could Make People Unethical” [emphasis added]. And the distinction is important. Owning an ashtray may predict increased tendency toward lung cancer, but we’re pretty sure that ashtrays don’t cause lung cancer. So is being rich making people unethical, or is being unethical a route to getting rich, or are both the result of some third factor, like ambition?

What’s the practical upshot of all this? That, too, depends on the direction of causation. If being rich makes less ethical, then you have a reason — perhaps not a compelling one — to worry about the effect that your own increasing wealth might have on your morals. And, given what I said above about the role of rationalization, you ought to watch yourself for signs that you’re telling yourself those comforting little stories that make you feel better about behaviour that you know, deep down, is unethical.

If, on the other hand, being less ethical is a route to riches — well, that points in a couple of different directions. For individuals, the dangerous and cynical conclusion is that you need to learn to bend the rules to get ahead. But from a systems point of view, the implication is quite different: how do we design institutions so that ethical, socially-constructive behaviour is rewarded, and that socially-destructive but individually-profitable behaviour is not?

The third possibility — that some third factor, like ambition is the crucial causal factor — has implications also. This possibility raises the question of social tradeoffs. What if a certain amount of anti-social behaviour is the quid pro quo of entrepreneurship and creativity? Is the amount of social good done by ambitious people sufficient to make us tolerate a certain amount of unethical behaviour? History is full of accounts of crummy human beings with the vaulting ambition to produce great works of art, literature, and science. Steve Jobs was, by all accounts, a difficult guy to say the least, and had a habit of treating people very, very badly throughout his career. But then, he also gave the world a lot of ‘insanely great,’ innovative products.

Of course, whether such trade-offs are worthwhile is a world-class philosophical problem, the answer to which is far from clear. But what’s much more clear is that individuals can’t rightly help themselves to the relevant justifications. We can’t excuse our own bad behaviour by pointing to our productivity. We are all far, far too likely to overestimate our own social contributions, and to underestimate our own foibles and peccadilloes. And that, it seems to me, is the root of a much more likely explanation of patterns of unethical behaviour than is the simplistic assumption — an assumption that all too often simply reaffirms a cynical worldview — that it all really boils down to greed.

Individual Discretion and Institutional Design

I’m just back from the University of Redlands, just outside of Los Angeles, where I spoke at the wonderful Banta Center for Business, Ethics and Society. The topic of my talk there was “Responsibilities in the Blogosphere,” but the key themes of that talk apply pretty directly to the world of business more generally.

One of the key themes had to do with the tension between a focus on individual decision-making on one hand and a focus on institutional design on the other, between a focus on individual responsibilities and a focus on how Internet giants like Google and Facebook construct online worlds that shape our behaviour.

There’s an awful lot of focus — too much, in my opinion — on individual decision making in ethics. In fact, a focus on individual decision-making is kind of the default, both in philosophical ethics and in more applied areas. The key questions, for many people, are general questions like “How should I behave?” “How should I resolve an ethical dilemma?” and “What factors should I take into consideration in ethical decision-making?”

And to be sure, that kind of focus makes for some great after-dinner speeches. The focus on the individual is empowering: “it all comes down to you.” “Your choices matter.” “We can do better, if each of us just changes how we think.” “It’s all about integrity.” And so on. More than that, individual ethical dilemmas really do have a huge impact on individuals, and so it behooves those of us in the ethics biz to do something to offer some guidance. (One modest contribution of mine to this area is my Guide to Moral Decision Making.)

But there’s a real sense in which the focus on the individual is a distraction. Individuals will make the decisions they make, and those decisions will in large part be determined by forces that are a) psychological and cultural, and b) institutional.

So the real focus should be on institutional design, on devising institutions to foster the right kinds of behaviours. And I’m talking about institutions in the broadest sense, which includes not just corporate frameworks and governance structures, but also traditions and norms and social conventions.

Greater attention to institutional design is more than just a remedy to the excessive (and perhaps futile) attention paid to individual decision-making. It changes the way we frame discussion of ethics in that it makes it clear that business ethics isn’t just a microcosm of everyday ethics. It is instead a matter of using human ingenuity to build ways of doing things that suit the situation at hand: devising rules and norms that put reasonable constraints on human behaviour, to make sure that business stays mutually advantageous. But we’re not building entirely from scratch: rules and other normative institutions in the world of business still have to be ones that can be understood and applied by the human beings who inhabit that world. The software, in other words, has to match the hardware.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not against thinking about individual decision-making. I teach a course on critical thinking, and I think all of us can learn to think more critically about ethical issues in business, to avoid certain well-known fallacious arguments, and so on. But the emphasis on design helps makes clear that ethics in business is a realm for innovation, and isn’t just a matter of importing into the world of commerce the values you learned at your mother’s knee.

——–
Note: Some of the thinking here was inspired by a conversation with my friend & former student, Garrett Mac Sweeney).

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 1,485 other followers

%d bloggers like this: