Ethics as Strategy and Marketing

Ethical decision-making can helpfully be thought of as a matter of strategy and of marketing. This way of framing ethics is, I think, likely to be particularly useful in talking about ethics with either MBA students or business executives.

First it is worth noting that there is of course a cynical sense in which ethics can be a matter of strategy and marketing, and that’s when companies adopt an ethical posture because they see it as a good strategic move or as a smart marketing maneuver. That’s a good topic, but it’s not what I’m talking about here.

What I’m talking about is the sense in which very often, in the world of business, acting on one’s ethical convictions requires that one think in terms of strategy and marketing. An example may help.

Picture yourself working in a team-based work environment. Now imagine that the team decides to adopt a particular course of action, but it is one that you, after careful consideration, sincerely believe to be ethically problematic. OK, so you’re pretty sure you’re right.

Now what?

Well, knowing that you’re right doesn’t do much to change things, at least not automatically.

First comes a strategic decision. You need to choose a strategy, a course of action tailored to the situation. At the most basic level, your first strategic decision is whether to act or not. Maybe you’ll decide that discretion is the better part of valour, and end up holding your tongue. Maybe the issue is too small to be worth rocking the boat. But if the issue is worth pursuing, you’ll need to decide on a strategy for doing so. The thing that makes strategic decision-making difficult is the thing that differentiates strategic decisions from other sorts of decisions, which is that strategic decisions are decisions that need to take into consideration the decision-making of other people or institutions. (The contrast, technically, is with what are called “parametric” decisions, decisions that need only take into account facts about the non-decision-making bits of the world, such as “what is the weather like today?” or “how much money is in my pocket?”) So, in making a strategic decision about whether and how to voice concerns, you will need to think carefully about how other people are behaving, and how they will react to you — in other words, you need to think about what their strategies are likely to be, which is no trivial problem. That is the essence of strategic decision-making.

Next comes a marketing decision. (For practical purposes, the marketing decision might not be separable from the strategic one, but I’ll separate them for discussion purposes here.) Once you’ve decided that your strategy will indeed be to voice your concerns, how will you actually broach the topic? At a team meeting, or by means of quiet discussion with one or more key team members? If you need to seek like-minded allies, who will they be? And what will your sales pitch be? Will you cautiously express moral doubt, or will you pound your fist on a desk and declare the current course of action “unacceptable”? And just what will you be trying to sell the team — a small-but-meaningful shift in course, or a total about-face? The point is that you have not just to arrive at an opinion, but to sell it, too.

What we see here is that ethics is more complicated than simply knowing (or figuring out) the right thing to do.

But what I think we also see here is one more way to connect ethics with issues that managers and MBA students already take seriously. It’s a way of pointing out that ethics is far from the “soft” topic it is often accused of being. As someone with a Ph.D. in philosophy, I know that ethics is far from “soft” because I know a fair bit about the incredibly technical theoretical literature on the topic. But to many in the world of business, ethics is considered soft (while accounting, for example, is hard — firmly rooted in concrete realities). Pointing out that solving practical problems in ethics requires, among other things, solving challenging problems in strategy and marketing is yet another way to attempt rescue ethics from unfortunate perceptions of the topic.

1 comment so far

  1. […] Myth #2. Ethics is just a matter of opinion. Again, false. While ethics does of course have something to do with having an opinion, it’s also about having opinions that you can defend to other people. While there certainly are a few really tough moral questions about which we might agree to disagree, we should also recognize that on many ethical issues there are better and worse answers. Poor answers to ethical dilemmas are typically rooted in factual mistakes and logical inconsistencies. We shouldn’t settle for those. We should talk them through. (And, as a I blogged recently, having an opinion doesn’t come to much if you can’t sell that opinion to others.) […]

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