07 February 2007

What is "Ethics Training?"

Mr. Norm Alster takes a look at some of corporate America's recent efforts at protecting themselves against Enron's fate. Central to most efforts, according to Alster, is ethics training; the piece essentially revolves around the question of whether or not ethics training works, and if so, to what extent. In a brief two sentences, Alster defines in what ethics training consists:

Typically, the programs involve training in ethical reasoning, along with mechanisms to encourage the reporting of misconduct. In some cases, employees act out scenarios that could land them in trouble in the workplace.
So, ethics training more or less boils down to "training in ethical reasoning" coupled with information on and incentives for snitching. Oh yes, and a bit of playacting. Ultimately, Alster concludes that
...ethical training may not be enough to discourage cheating in a competitive business world. Training must be coupled with new techniques — things like preemployment screening and revamped performance reviews — if future Enrons and WorldComs are to be averted.
Given his watered-down and indistinct definition of ethics training, it's hardly surprising that reinforcements should be necessary.

After reading the article, I have one burning question: What is "ethical reasoning" (and how does it differ from normal reasoning)? Reasoning in general means the inference of valid conclusions based on given premises. There is only one, universally valid, way to reason, though there are infinite chains of reasoning one might follow. Ethical reasoning must therefore simply mean reasoning about ethical issues. OK, so no special skills necessary. Any training given in ethical reasoning must be quite simply training in how to reason.
Before-After Ethics Training
Different? Yes. Better? Well, um... at least we've got the technology in hand.

Besides, ethics means one's relationship to one's habits. Habits as in "automatic thought, feeling, or action undertaken without reflection." Reasoning about ethics consists almost entirely in first (1) becoming aware of one's habits of thought, feeling, and action; second, (2) in discerning the broader implications of the patterns one finds; and third, (3) in identifying appropriate steps to improve one's habits. Ethical problems, in other words, are not of the same order as the question, "Is this action, which I am considering doing, right or wrong?" Ethical problems are long-term considerations of personal character and its relationship to personal contentment.

The goodness or badness of a particular action, in ethical terms, depends upon its position within a larger pattern of behavior. Whether an action does or does not comply with some code of belief is not an ethical, but rather a moral consideration. (The curious should consult Alasdair MacIntyre's After Virtue: A Study in Moral Theory for more on this crucial distinction.) The moralistic and legalistic slant of the ethics training considered by Alster reveals itself through its reliance on the language of compliance, which has nothing really to do with ethics per se. Before corporate America can address its issues, it first needs to get clear on whether or not those problems are indeed ethical. If they are, then ethically effective--rather than morally hopeful--measures will be needed.