Why is Business Ethics So Boring?

Why is business ethics so dull? Why is it such a dismal, dreary endeavour?

I ask this in all sincerity, about a field that I take very seriously and that I think is enormously important and interesting.

Admittedly, the subject matter is often pretty serious: wrongdoing at Enron resulting in thousands of people losing their lives’ savings. Mismanagement at AIG putting the entire financial system at risk. Through to more mundane issues such as Soliciting Money from the Bereaved. Funny? More like depressing.

Now, admittedly, I’ve tried my best to bring some humour to the topic: monkey waiters, breast milk ice-cream, sex offender t-shirts, and so on. But one man can only do so much.

But really, does the issue of corporate behaviour have to be so dull and serious? Quick, name one fun-and-interesting book in the field. Or one lively, witty commentator. Just what I thought. Zip. Zilch. Nada. Thanks for proving my point.

OK, here’s my plea: lighten up a bit. Life is fun. Figuring out how companies should act should be interesting. And try to act as if the answers are not obvious. How much fun would it be if the answers were obvious? Foot-stomping just isn’t all that fun. Well, unless you do it to music. Don’t get me wrong. I like my righteous indignation as much as the next guy. But if this field gets too damn serious, it’ll drive away any but the most committed and strident and dull activists. And if the field of business ethics becomes dominated by people who think that fixing things is more important than figuring out the best answers to hard problems, we’re all in a lot of trouble.

And here endeth the rant.

12 comments so far

  1. Pascal on

    Hi Chris,

    Business Ethics is perhaps mostly seen from the perspective of “do / don’t di”, “good / no good”, “true / false”. In other words, a moral perspective; which is not fun by construction (see S.Freud and the eros / thanatos principles…).

    In our Leaderhsip Development Workshops, we invite participants to reflect on some personal experience at work with ethics (more generally, about values). “Fun” is not exactly the right word for what happens then, perhaps “lively” at the very least.

    Thanks for your blog, which I discovered recently

  2. Suresh Kumar G on

    Hi,
    I agree with you regarding the dangers of getting very serious. Let’s have more and more people coming in with their comments and opinions rather than a few very seriously fixing (or trying to fix) things. I also happened to follow the link to your blog on Legacy.com. Depressing, disgusting,…
    Suresh.

  3. westwasp on

    The exciting part of business portrayed as exciting is the innovative part, “thinking outside the box” to be trite.
    Business ethics is mostly about not crossing lines. Two things that could help the excitement factor:
    1. Contrast examples of ethical failings with examples of business innovation that is ethical.
    2. There is a lot of interest in building things – which can include innovative ways of being ethical by doing extra things (overlaps significantly but not entirely with “going green”).

  4. Heberto X. Peterson R. on

    (I have the language barrier to express my idea, but here goes..)

    I agree that we have to make fun of our lives.
    Life, daily life is many times “crude”, we have many things to worry and decide that we have to learn to be capable of making fun of ourselves without rejecting our responsibilities.

    Past Saturday I give a small speech with students that will end their academic programs at Universidad Iberoamericana Tjuana (Jesuit University in Mexico, in the State of Baja California)and one of the ideas that I really want to give to them, was exactly the idea of find the funny or comic views of life. Life is serious, we have to walk with objectives, goals, means, etc… but we need to be free to make fun of the things that will happen to us. Be able to cry and laugh while still performing at our best!!!.

  5. Lucia on

    Hi Chris,

    I’m a little confused by your post. What exactly in business ethics do you find boring? Everything I read on this topic is pretty interesting. I just wish I had more hours in a day to follow everything that goes on in this area…I find it fascinating.

  6. Chris MacDonald on

    Lucia:

    Please note that I did say I was talking about “a field that I take very seriously and that I think is enormously important and interesting.”

    My point is that, on the whole, the field is humourless and dry. Too many people find the field interesting, and too many of them have no sense of humour.

    There are, of course, notable exceptions. But too few.

    Chris.

  7. William Bruno on

    Hi Chris — Your wish has been granted!! My recently released book, The King Rat and His Court:Lessons in Corporate Greed, takes the serious subject of corporate ethics and treats it with humor and indignation. The book compares the behavior of wayward executives with the behavior of rats. It is even illustrated to display the greed and emotional vacuity of the characters. For more information visit http://www.thekingrat.com.
    Best regards, William Arthur Bruno

  8. Stephen on

    Chris,

    The problem with ethics is that in most cases people see it as something they don’t need — a class for “other” people.

    Monroe McKay’s work picked up steam when he started his classes by making people see their own ethical lapses and issues and need for the topic.

    Anyway, that is what makes it boring, the fact that most people don’t see the need for it in their own lives — they think of ethics as a sermon that needs to be delivered to someone else.

  9. Chris MacDonald on

    Stephen:

    Thanks for your comment.

    That reason may explain why some people find it boring, but it doesn’t explain why *I* find discussions of the topic so dreary, and so humourless, so often.

    Chris.

  10. Lucia on

    Chris,

    Thanks for the explanation. If we are talking about a sense of humor, I think it’s a pretty rare thing in many other aspects of everyday life. Here is a link to a blog about CSR reporting that is written on a quite humorous note http://csr-reporting.blogspot.com/

  11. Bernard Francis on

    Business ethics is so boring because it amounts to little more than moral preaching, and business ethicists have failed (completely) to restructure it as a top-line engine meaningful to executives and directors; which means it has to be about making money and not telling others how to behave. Behavior is learned between the ages of 1 and 15.

  12. Chris MacDonald on

    Ivymike:

    Thanks for the comment. It’s an overgeneralization, perhaps, but not unfounded.
    If you need recommendations for non-preachy readings, let me know.

    Regards,
    Chris.


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