How design can help companies make better ethical choices

What does it take to design an ethical plan of action? What would you do if you were head of compliance at Volkswagen, or SNC Lavalin?

The question arose recently, as I spent a weekend as a speaker and judge at the terrific Ethics in Action case competition, held at Dalhousie University’s Rowe School of Business.

For those not familiar with the concept, a ‘case competition’ is an event in which teams of business students (typically 4 per team) are presented with business scenarios and tasked with giving a presentation, recommending to a panel of judges (playing the role of the ‘board of directors’) how the company should deal with the crisis. Students are judged on the quality of their analysis, the strength of their recommendation, and the poise with which they present it.

At the Dal competition, one of the cases teams had to address involved a company trying to recover from a string of bribery crises. The dilemma effectively was this: what should the company do, going forward, to recover from its problems and to attempt to prevent future trouble?

As we judges recognized, there’s no right answer here — or at least, no clear one. Lots of moves could be and were suggested: enhanced compliance training, careful screening of business partners, establishing a whistleblower hotline, and so on. But none of those moves, either individually or collectively, could come close to guaranteeing that scandal would not strike again at some point in the future. But each of them made a good deal of sense, and all were ingredients of a plausible path forward. Probably.

This implies a useful perspective on ethical problem-solving generally, namely this: every decision made in response to an ethical crisis is a kind of hypothesis. It is a guess — hopefully an educated guess — about what is going to work

This follows more generally from what we might call a “design” perspective on ethical decision-making. Because design (whether of machines or institutions) just is a process of hypothesis formulation and testing. In terrific 1985 book, To Engineer is Human – The Role of Failure in Successful Design, Henry Petroski argues that every structure that engineers build is an hypothesis — an educated guest to the effect that ‘yes, indeed, this bridge IS strong enough to bear the weight of all that traffic on a daily basis.’

What does this perspective imply about good ethical decision-making?

The most insightful work I know of on this topic is to be found in a brilliant 1996 paper by Caroline Whitbeck, called Ethics as Design: Doing Justice to Moral Problems. In her paper, Whitbeck discusses ethical decision-making as a design problem. The parallel between problem solving in engineering and problem solving in ethics, Whitbeck argues, suggests the following advice:

1) Some design problems have have no real “solutions”, where “solution” means “perfect answer. Sometimes we have to cope with a problem, rather than fixing it. Other problems are amenable to several possible design solutions, any of which might be “pretty good.”

2) Some practical problems are liable to suggest answers — design solutions — that are clearly wrong. Even if there’s no clear right solution, there may be plenty of clearly wrong solutions, and weeding those out is pretty useful.

3) Competing “pretty good” solutions may have different advantages & disadvantages. Just as two engineering solutions might have competing strengths (one offers better safety, where the other offers better durability, perhaps), different ethical solutions can have different virtues (as when one produces better outcomes, but the other does more to protect the rights of the vulnerable). Such competing virtues can be incommensurable, and it’s important to admit as much.

4) Finally, solutions to ethical problems, like solutions to engineering problems, typically need to achieve a particular performance or goal (there’s a job to get done), conform to specifications & constraints (you don’t have all the time and money in the world), and be reasonably secure against accidents and changes.

Overall, this design perspective has two major benefits. First, it reminds us that we are human, that our problem-solving is always a matter of looking for better solutions, not perfect ones. But it also reminds us that progress is possible, and that hard work to arrive at better solutions can pay off. There’s always a way to build a better mousetrap.

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