Angry Emails & Ethics Expertise

As part of my Blogaversary celebration, I’ve been thinking about the responses people have had to my blog. Over the last year, I’ve received lots of nice emails from readers. Some emails were encouraging, even flattering. Others were from people who said they liked my blog, even though they didn’t always agree with my take on things (I still appreciate email like that).

So far, despite writing on a range of relatively controversial topics, I’ve received very, very little angry email. For example, I’ve written on why Wal-Mart isn’t evil. I’ve written critically about organic food. I’ve written about pharmaceutical companies testing drugs on poor people in developing nations, and why that might not be such a bad thing. Despite this – amazingly, really – I’ve only received one angry email. One peeved reader wrote (in response to this relatively mild posting) to accuse me of being “a Canadian ‘ethics expert’ who fails to do any detailed research before posting high minded ethical ‘decrees’ on the internet”. Ouch.

Now, just to set the record straight:
1) Yes. I. AM. CANADIAN. (So, his first accusation is true.)
2) I never said I was an ethics expert. Though, um, that’s what my Ph.D. is in, and that’s what my university pays me to teach. Whatever.
3) I do my best to avoid decrees. I sometimes ponder, or query. I even whine, cajole, and express shock and exasperation. But I seldom decree.

Anyway, that’s the sum total of the hate mail I’ve received over the last year.

The serious topic that my thoughtful correspondent’s email raises is that of ethics expertise. The nature of ethics expertise is somewhat controversial, and is indeed the topic of some scholarly and quasi-scholarly literature. Why? Well, expertise is a tricky thing — it’s not always obvious who gets to count as an expert in any field, and its doubly tricky in ethics where people sometimes give too much weight to what is said by those who seem to be experts.

I teach students in my Critical Thinking class (following Lewis Vaughn) that there are 4 main indicators of expertise:
1) Education & training;
2) Experience;
3) Reputation among peers;
4) Professional accomplishments.
Not all experts will have all of these, but they’re pretty typical characteristics.

So what is an ‘ethics expert?‘ To start, it’s certainly not someone who’s an expert at being ethical. Talk to any philosopher & they’ll easily be able to name some unethical ethics professor they know. There are also no doubt unethical ethics consultants, ethics authors and ethics gurus.
No, what ethics experts have — if they have anything — is knowledge about ethical issues, ethical arguments and ethical decision-making. So, the reason I feel justified in writing the Business Ethics Blog is not because I’m an expert at always doing the right thing, or because I can always tell — and decree! — whether a particular business decision is categorically unethical or not. Hopefully, rather, my expertise — my contribution — lies in the fact that a life in academia has allowed me to read an awful lot about ethics, to learn a lot about it from some very smart people, and to have developed a sense of fairness and balance about issues that touch many people very deeply.
Or, as I explained to a student recently, my job is to take complicated things and make them simpler, and to take apparently simple things and point out the complexities.
So far, the feedback has been good.

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