Modern Ethics: More Than Personal Integrity

I blogged two weeks ago about Obama & Business Ethics.

Today, Wayne Norman (of Duke University’s Kenan Institute for Ethics), has this very good opinion piece in the Durham, NC News & Observer: “Honor and conflicts in the new age of ethics”.

Here are the first few paragraphs:

On his first full day in office, President Obama chose to shine the spotlight on “Ethics Commitments by Executive Branch Personnel.”
The executive order issued Jan. 21 requires all those appointed during Obama’s presidency to an executive agency to sign a pledge contractually committing them not to accept gifts from registered lobbyists or lobbying organizations, among other similar restrictions.
These reforms are primarily concerned with avoiding conflicts of interest and restoring public trust in Washington. They do not in any way lie along a traditional right-left continuum, but they do represent a paradigm shift in values, one that might best be described as “generational.”
Older generations of politicians cling to the belief that they can ensure government integrity merely by appointing honorable people to sensitive offices, even if these people have outside interests (say, had just worked or lobbied for a firm they are now supposed to regulate).
Obama and much of his team have come of age in an era which recognizes that organizational and professional ethics cannot be expected to piggyback entirely on the virtues and character traits of good individuals. In other words, designing and running an ethical organization now requires concepts and categories of values that nobody learned at their mother’s knee.

Wayne’s overall point is obviously not just about the Obama administration. It’s about the right approach to ethics in any complex institutional setting. Once upon a time, the best advice we could give to leaders and administrators was, “Do your best. Be honest. Don’t give in to temptation.” And that’s still good advice. But increasingly, good ethics has to be not just about the integrity of individuals, but about how to structure institutions so that they work as well as possible, in spite of the foibles and frailties of the best among us, and the machinations of the worst.

(Note: Wayne & I co-authored a chapter on Conflict of Interest for the forthcoming Oxford Handbook of Business Ethics. Wayne is also the author of Negotiating Nationalism: Nation-Building, Federalism, and Secession in the Multinational State.)

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