Business Ethics & Compliance

I’m currently at this U.S. Conference Board conference in New York: Business Ethics and Compliance Conference: Priorities in Today’s Regulatory and Enforcement Environment.

I’m here as a guest of the Conference Board. I was invited so that I could blog about the event. This will be the first of 3 blog entries (1 per half-day).

Reflections on what I saw this morning:

I’m a bit of a fish out of water at this event. I’m the only academic here, as far as I can tell; the attendees are overwhelmingly corporate, and overwhelmingly lawyers. This latter fact, of course, mirrors the complaint that many people (including many philosophers who do business ethics) have about the particular way in which the corporate world has tried to put ethics into practice, namely by creating Departments of Ethics & Compliance, and by creating positions like “Director of Ethics & Compliance” or “VP, Ethics & Compliance.” Now, compliance is about following laws & regulations. The scope of ethics is broader than that. So the worry is that when you pair “ethics” with “compliance” and put lawyers in charge, you’re going to end up focusing on the “compliance” part and forgetting about “ethics”, broadly understood.

But what I’ve seen here so far, today, is heartening. The lawyers I’ve heard speaking thus far today (including speakers and audience members) are very clearly interested in much more than narrow legal compliance. It’s clear that legal compliance is fundamental, here, but it’s also clear — clear to people at this conference — that other stuff matters too. It matters both for its own sake, and because of the role that ethics plays assessing legal culpability. Both the US federal sentencing guidelines, for example, and the US Air Force’s standards for contractors, essentially imply that corporate character matters.

So, this is a field dominated by lawyers. But it’s good to see that they care about more that just the law, narrowly construed. Of course, there’s a self-selection effect at play here: lawyers who go into this field are likely to be precisely the lawyers who don’t think narrowly about the law. There’s also the possibility, I suppose, that what I’m hearing is rhetoric rather than true belief. But given the audience, here, I’m effectively seeing how Ethics-and-Compliance-oriented corporate lawyers talk to each other. And if they talk as if they truly care about ethics, I doubt it’s because there’s a blogger in the room.

(FYI, so far I’ve heard Win Swenson (godfather of the US corporate sentencing guidelines) and Donna Boehme speak about “Priorities in Today’s Regulatory and Enforcement Environment” and Steven Shaw (Deputy Counsel, US Air Force) and Timothy Schultz talk about ethics in government contracting. Swenson and Shaw were particularly great.)

(p.s. I’m also Tweeting about the conference. If you’re on Twitter, you can follow at #tcbethics )

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