Book Review: The Elements of Ethics for Professionals, by Johnson & Ridley

I don’t generally review books on my blog. Today’s is an experiment. The publishers of The Elements of Ethics for Professionals (written by W. Brad Johnson and Charles R. Ridley) sent me a copy, and, in keeping with its style as a reference book, I’ve read just a handful of its 75 very short chapters, rather than the whole book. My impression is based on that very cursory glance.

The Elements of Ethics is patterned on Strunk and White’s classic style & grammar guide, The Elements of Style. It gives concise advice on a wide range of ethical challenges faced within professional life. Each entry begins with an anecdote (presumably fictional or fictionalized) illustrating one of those challenges, proceeds with a brief discussion that explains the issue and teases out relevant distinctions, and ends with 4 or 5 bullet points of advice. As the authors put it,

Our purpose is to distill the voluminous research, theory, and philosophical underpinnings of ethics into a pithy, pragmatic resource.

On the whole (and again, based on reading just a few entries) I’d say the book is a qualified success. I found some genuinely good advice. The tone is pragmatic: high-minded, but not preachy.

The entries I read were:

39. Avoid Conflicts of Interest: This entry is really quite good. The authors rightly point out that conflict of interest (COI) is all too easy to fall into, and that finding oneself in a COI is not in itself blameworthy. It’s not always a sign of actual bias or corruption. The advice given for avoiding and managing COI is quite sound.

48. Attend to More Than the Bottom Line: This section was somewhat disappointing. It starts, oddly, with an anecdote about the chair of a professional association’s ethics committee. The situation illustrated has to do with the challenge of administering professional standards without letting discussion spiral down into gossip, ridicule, and contempt. But there’s nothing in it about attending to more than the (financial) bottom line, which is what readers will surely be expecting. Reading the rest of the entry, it becomes clear (I think) that the authors intend “bottom line” to mean something like “abstract principles.” The lesson, then, is that we ought not devalue persons in pursuit of principles. Part of the entry does talk about profits, and the importance of not putting profits ahead of people, but mixing the two issues together in one entry is likely to confuse readers, more than enlighten. (I can’t avoid noting that this entry gives an approving nod to the misguided and misleading triple bottom line idea.)

24. Honor Human Differences — all of them: Here again, the anecdote isn’t well matched to the entry. The anecdote that begins the entry is about instituting policy changes to fight sexism at a military college. The rest of the entry is about accepting differences, and avoiding stereotypes and bias in one’s personal judgments. In fact, the anecdote doesn’t fit the title, either. Just to be clear: it’s an interesting anecdote, and a pretty good entry on avoiding bias, but the two don’t go together well at all.

52. Discriminate Fairly: This entry does a pretty good job of making clear the distinction between wrongful discrimination — discrimination “based on irrelevant or arbitrary factors” — and the fair discrimination (i.e., judgment) that must be exercised in hiring qualified workers or assigning grades based on merit.

In conclusion: I suspect it’s a useful book, even with its uneven entries. It’s reasonably priced, and I suspect many people would find it handy. It’s not a scholarly work, but then it doesn’t intend to be. I think the litmus test for a book of this kind is this: is a professional, faced with an ethical dilemma, likely to find some wisdom on the relevant page of this book? I’m guessing that for The Elements of Ethics, the answer is “yes.”

One final note: There’s also room for improvement in the Index. For a reference guide, a thorough index is a must. For example, the index has an entry for “Discrimination” but not one for “Sexism” or “Racism.” Similarly, it has an entry for “Conflict of Interest,” but not one for “Self-Dealing” or “Moonlighting” (both of which are common problems that not all readers will recognize as falling under the “Conflict of Interest” heading.) These gaps would be easy to fix.
Disclosure: As is implied above, I was offered and accepted a free copy of this book. I told the publisher I might not have time to read the book, and if I did, I might or might not review it, and that they might or might not like my review. They were OK with that.
p.s. here’s the publisher’s page about the book.

1 comment so far

  1. […] my own review of The Elements of Ethics for Professionals (written by W. Brad Johnson and Charles R. Ridley) on the Business Ethics […]

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