Off-Target Criticism of “Business Ethicists”

Criticism is easy when you’re vague and unclear about who you’re criticizing. I mean, that makes it impossible to be wrong, right?

Witness this odd little rant in the Boston Globe, (by a philosophy professor named Gordon Marino) apparently aimed at someone vaguely labeled as “business ethicists,” and the role they (failed to) play. The business of business ethics.

Here are a few key paragraphs:

In a recent New York Times column, Nicholas Kristoff observed that of the great multitude of economic talking heads, next to none of them recognized the pavement that we were rushing toward. Finally, there is some public scrutiny of our overreliance on expert opinion.

However, there is one cadre of experts that has not been asked to approach the bench: namely, that brigade of briefcase-toting philosophers known as “business ethicists.”

Back in the ’80s, just after the Michael Milken scandals, the business of business ethics took root on Wall Street and in MBA programs around the nation. Within a few years, philosophers began setting up shop in the financial districts. Every corporation worth its exec bonuses had ethics codes and workshops run by some Socrates in a suit. Many companies put ethicists on retainer and insisted that their employees sit through seminars for continuing-education credit in ethics. By the ’90s, MBA programs began requiring courses in business ethics. Soon the business of business ethics was a booming multi-billion-dollar business. To what avail…?

I’m probably inflating the significance of this editorial, just by commenting on it. But the piece is so misleading that it’s hard not to comment.

The first error worth noting lies in the author’s understanding of the field of business ethics — or rather, the fields of business ethics. Is his target philosophers, or the people performing business-ethics roles in corporations, who in fact are overwhelmingly not philosophers? Though there is some overlap, the academic study of business ethics (within which philosophy professors like me play a significant role) is quite distinct from the business ethics function carried out within corporations (often by “Ethics & Compliance” departments). To the best of my knowledge, those departments are staffed by lawyers and accountants and so on. That’s not an attempt on my part to shift blame from philosophers onto others: it’s just pointing out that the author of the editorial is a bit confused.

Fast forward to the current economic crisis, and the unethical behaviour that facilitated it:

Did we hear a peep from the experts on ethics while these shenanigans were in play? Hardly. The silence is understandable.

Again, to evaluate this we need to know who the author is talking about. But regardless, it’s an odd charge. If he’s talking about corporations’ internal ethics advisors, why on earth expect that “we” would hear a peep from them? If he’s talking about academics, he’s just uninformed. Business ethics scholars spend pretty much all their time promoting ethical behaviour on the part of corporations. As for commenting, after the fact, on the financial crisis and its sources, I’m guessing the author just hasn’t noticed the conferences, the special issues of scholarly journals, and the blog entries.

Finally, the author ends off with a totally wrong-headed prescription:

…if business ethicists cannot do anything to diminish the tendency toward greed, they ought to close up shop.

To say that business ethics, or any other field, ought to “close up shop” if it cannot change fundamental facts about human nature demonstrates a deep and dangerous misunderstanding of what we can, and should, expect of that field. Does advising an organization on what policies to implement in order to deal with conflict-of-interest require changing human nature? No. Does helping managers balance their obligations to shareholders against their obligations to other stakeholders require changing human nature? Thankfully no. Does reminding corporate leaders about the importance of visibly modelling the virtues they wish employees to imitate (advice they certainly don’t always follow) require changing human nature? No.

I think reflection on the role(s) of business ethics is an excellent thing, overall. But it’s rather unseemly to tell business ethicists that their job is to tilt at windmills, and then criticize them for not hitting their targets.

6 comments so far

  1. Anonymous on

    #FAIL. These companies all employed ethicists, and not one of them made any real impact. You have yet to write anything that really explains away their culpability. Moreover, falling back on “human nature,” (whatever that is) is the lowest form of intellectual reductionism. The concept of “human nature,” varies widely from culture to culture, and we can speak of “human natures” with much more certainty, as we seem capable of nearly an infinite spectrum of behaviors. You’re showing your Hobbesian colors here. I’m disappointed in this post; usually your arguments are very well thought out. This is just an emotional reaction to what you feel is a personal attack. Is this guy being fair? No. Is he well-educated on what he’s writing about? No. Is your response well thought out? No.The business ethicists who worked for these firms are just as guilty for their part in the securites/CDS gamble of ’05-’08, as the health care workers at Guantamo were in their particpation in torture. Say/do nothing = Complicit.“…the academic study of business ethics…is quite distinct from the business ethics function carried out within corporations.” Exactly. And this is why the whole business ethics profession is such an abomination; Wall St. and Co. won’t hire ethicists that they feel will blow the whistle on them, or really try to stop them from taking “unethical” actions. These “business ethicists” are really just a privatized form of [self] regulation; the kind of thing that…hm…I don’t know… maybe government should be doing? Business ethicists are like police-controlled officer review boards; more often than not, they side with the police, whereas citizens’ review boards side with the police less often. If business ethicists employed by firms actually did what their jobs suggested, then most of these companies would never even have hired one. They pretty much end up being extensions of the general counsel’s office, except instead of telling the board of directors what is strictly legal, they tell them what is strictly legal and what appears ethical enough to satisfy shareholders, even if it’s a complete pack of lies.

  2. Chris MacDonald on

    “These companies all employed ethicists, and not one of them made any real impact.”I assume you have some evidence of that? I mean to claim “not one” had “any” real impact is to make a very strong claim. I once saw a building burn to the ground. Doesn’t prove none of the firefighters did any good, or that it wasn’t good they were around.p.s. I didn’t “fall back on” human nature. The guy who wrote the editorial did. Check it out. I’m just responding to his suggestion that business ethics needs to change human nature. And I’m skeptical of changing it, much. Hence my interest in fixing institutions.

  3. Doug Cornelius on

    Being from Boston and still holding on to my paper subscription I saw the headline. It caught my attention. I ended up just wasting the few minutes it took to read the piece.

    Many people saw the problems with the mortgage system. There was just no incentive for them to say anything. It was not an ethics failure. It was a structural financial system failure.

  4. Heberto X. Peterson R. on

    The responsibility of human acting in business (in general) is not “THE” responsibility of business ethicist…

    Gordon makes a final statement in his article: “if business ethicists cannot do anything to diminish the tendency toward greed, they ought to close up shop.”

    I think that the idea of people studying ethics is to clear (or confuse) some points or aspects in the “conscience” perspective of acting and the consequences of decisions.

    I agree that Dr. Gordon expects maybe more from ethicist, but it is out of perspective..


    Heberto Peterson

  5. Chris MacDonald on

    I’m posting this on behalf of Colleen Lyons, who was having technical difficulties with the comment system:

    “Dear Anonymous: We have here a case of calling a cat a lion. Compliance is not ethics. Major corporations, banks, rating houses, etc. run compliance efforts through Office of the General Counsel or Risk Management. “ethics” is often tossed in a title or the organization. One may find the odd “Culture Officer”. The job requires one to ensure compliance with SOX, Foreign Corrupt Practices Act, Harassment, etc. The top of the compliance pyramid usually has a law degree and/or experience in auditing and compliance. Compliance has scant little to do with ethics, if not explicitly coupled. Do tell- please provide a list of the Purveyor’s of Ethics. I am a minion business ethicist in need of a paycheck.
    C. Lyons”

  6. Mrs. A on

    Marino is obviously unhappy with relying on “expert opinion” but he is a prime example of why we turn to our experts. Marino, not a business ethicist expert and his argue meant against them has many misconceptions, little to no supporting facts and no real solution. Closing up shop? Abandon all hope of a better system? I’m sure that’s the solution.

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