29 March 2006

Senate "leader" on ethics less than ethical on further review

U.S. Senator Rick Santorum (R-PA) editorializes in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette:

I will continue to do everything in my power to ensure that the Senate does the right thing from an ethics point of view.
If we were to take Santorum's statement at face value, we would assume that he means to encourage Senate members to adopt habits of professional practice which result in good Senators. Generally speaking, good Senators (qua Senators, which may differ to some extent from their goodness qua husbands or businessmen) are accountable to their constituents, politically effective (by which I mean that they prove able to advance their policy agenda), and fundamentally committed to the overarching principles of American government. One perennial bad habit of Senators has been the reliance on a small group of especially wealthy contributors for their financial support (we qualify the interests of such groups as "special" precisely because they are not general).

Santorum goes on, however, to explain exactly what he means by doing everything in his power to keep Senators away from the ethically slippery slope of improper lobbying:
When Sen. Bill Frist asked me to lead the Republican lobbying reform effort, the goal was to bring Democrats and Republicans together on a bill that we could all agree on.
Curious. I would have thought that the goal was formulating a baseline standard for what constitutes poor practice when it comes to mixing lobbying and fundraising. The challenge would have been persuading everyone to accept the highest standard possible, which is what political leadership is. For Santorum, the goal is simply to find something "we could all agree on."
Finding people willing to agree with him proved Mr. Santorum’s greatest challenge.

This is not political leadership, and it is does not really concern ethics. This is demagoguery--a sitting member of Congress spinning about "bipartisan working groups" while he indulges the most egregious of his bad habits. Further, even if Santorum could be taken more or less at his word, his actions don't really address the ethics of the situation, since establishing baseline standards of naughtiness won't encourage good habits, and good ethics means, more or less, good habits (as I've discussed elsewhere).
Committee Meeting
I ask you: Does this look like the best way to make ethical decisions?

An authentically ethical solution to the problem of improper lobbying and fundraising requires an approach which first and foremost assumes that continual improvement is possible. It’s not enough simply to set standards and leave it at that. Ethically, the point would have to be to inculcate in Senators good habits when dealing with lobbyists and handling their fundraising. Not that rules don't have an important role to play, but the question is less about specific rules than about an underlying commitment to being a good Senator. We need first to agree what a good Senator is in general, and then we need to come up with ways to get those elected to adopt habits which fit them to that mold.

(Hat tip to Santorum Exposed.)

28 March 2006

Food ethics in Africa

Chris MacDonald writes a blog on business ethics, which is refreshingly thoughtful. Chris generally has a pretty good nose for finding news items related to hot-button issues in ethics related to corporate business. (I recommend taking a look.)

In yesterday's post (Monday 27 March 2006), Chris blogs about DuPont subsidiary Pioneer Hi-Bred Int'l. Pioneer aims to develop a nutritionally enhanced strain of sorghum (an important food crop in Africa), and then more or less to give it away. They need to give it away because many African nations have proved reluctant (at best) to use genetically modified (GM) crops. Pioneer hopes that Africans can be persuaded to accept this "gift," because Pioneer believes that the performance of the new and improved sorghum will lift African confidence is GM crops generally. Pioneer freely admits that they intend the GM sorghum to serve as a loss leader for the company, assuring nervous Africans that GM crops can be trusted.

Chris interprets the ethical situation thusly:

The claim is often made that biotechnology will bring huge benefits to the world's developing nations. In particular, it's often--too often, I would venture--claimed that genetically modified (GM) foods will do wonderful things for the starving millions in Africa. It seems to me that the question is not whether biotechnology could help the developing world, but rather whether it will.
The distinction between could and will is ultimately a consequential distinction, which means that you paradoxically can't decide until the outcome of the decision is known. Current information is always both incomplete and imperfect, which means that some level of risk will always persist. Granting that there's no sure way to predict the future, I assume that Chris must intend a slightly weaker position: Africans just need to undertake a cost-benefit analysis with some kind of risk constant factored in. But what if our analysis is flawed? It seems that we're back in the realm of could. The could/will distinction isn't much use ethically speaking since almost all present decisions of any importance involve non-trivial levels of uncertainty.
Quizzical Dog
For if it could you will must understand the meaning of ethics.

Despite this, Chris wields his distinction with vigor, valorizing the will over the could. He confidently posits two possible techniques for squeezing uncertainty out of the equation:
For biotech actually to help developing nations, it seems that one of two things has to happen. Either governments and NGO's need to spend a lot of money to donate biotech products or know-how, or companies need to find business models that let them a) do good, while b) making a profit.
I don't see how either of these options (spending money or alternative business models) will mitigate the fallout, from the Africans' point of view, should GM crops turn out to be a hindrance rather than a help.

From the African side, the fundamental ethical question is whether embracing this particular GM crop can serve as good foundation for subsequent good decisions about similar and/or related issues. As I've pointed out in an earlier post, ethics concerns the cumulative power of habits. The questions that Africans should be (and apparently are) asking concern the long view. What happens if these GM crops don't behave as advertised? (The controlled conditions in experiments, after all, are quite unlike the relatively uncontrolled conditions of widespread agriculture.) What happens if GM crops cause problems with other key species in our ecosystems? Why are they just giving us this stuff for free?
Trojan Horse
No, no, no. We couldn’t possibly accept any payment. Let it be our gift to you.

As to this last question, Chris notes that "the company involved in this story (Pioneer Hi-Bred) is frank about its business model." He goes on to suggest that "the company's candour about its business model is pretty disarming." The company explains it's strategy thusly:
Pioneer will have no rights to revenues from the biotech sorghum once it is developed and commercialized, said Anderson. But the company, already locked into tight competition in the commercial seeds market, hopes that success with biotech sorghum might help open doors for other biotech crops in countries currently skeptical of genetically altered crops.
Pioneer admits (1) that the GM sorghum is a loss-leader, (2) that the stimulus for this behavior is "tight competition," and (3) that the overall goal is to "open other doors for other biotech crops." Candid? Yes. Mercenary? Also, yes. I would certainly question whether or not one ought to get into the habit of thinking that mercenaries make good company, no matter how candid they are. Far from finding this disarming, I find it disappointing that Pioneer does not (because it believes that it cannot?) speak sincerely about reasons other than competitive advantage for their actions.
Sleazy Salesman
Trust me! I sell GMOs for a living. I wouldn’t lie to you about food, would I?

On Pioneer's side, the principal ethical issue is whether or not this whole project is conducive to a fruitful, long-term business relationship. I would question whether or not Pioneer is really looking at this whole issue from its customers' point of view. Wanting to make a profit is only sensible. Wanting nothing else from an action or a relationship except to make a profit is so shallow, stupid, and autistic as to be criminal. Deliberately inculcating and reinforcing such a desire is the very definition of poor ethics.

23 March 2006

Enforcement (or: How to get uncooperative people to comply)

Following up on my previous post about the pretensions of “compliance professionals,” I’m going to recommend that you take a look at this great post (the first in a series of three) on the dos and don’ts of enforcement from the perspective of government regulators. (Full disclosure: I used to work for David Smith, who authors AHI’s USA weblog.)

For those unwilling to read the entire series, I give you the payload (offered in the third installment):

Rule enforcement: dos and don'ts



Within the rules as written

Based on a loose interpretation or memory

In writing

Solely verbally


Slowly and irregularly

After each occurrence



Unconnected to offense severity

In a measured escalation


To the letter of the documents


With forewarning

Out of the blue

Allowing chances to reform

Once and for all

Although “compliance professionals” ought to feel rather sheepish at picking such an embarrassing name for themselves, real law enforcement officers play a critical role, ethically speaking. Having good character means having good habits, and any set of habits must include both habits of commission (activities undertaken regularly) and habits of omission (activities avoided). Good rules (or laws) can provide an excellent starting point for the development of good character. But as David notes,

Written rules can never be better than their enforcement.

Ultimately, how you take your first steps on the path to virtue is less important ethically than the fact that they’re in the right direction. Getting “enforced” into the start of a good habit is largely equivalent, in the long run, to willing yourself into compliance. No matter who makes you do it, it’s never too late to start making those child support payments—you might end being a responsible parent. And it’s never to early to stop fudging your taxes. You might just catch yourself being honest when no one’s looking. And that’s good character.

20 March 2006

Ethics goes sci-fi

Australia's St. James Ethics Centre (SJEC) proposes a bold vision:

we seek to bring about a world in which people feel free to include the ethical dimension in their daily lives
How many ways is this statement silly? Let me count the ways:

1) When they say that they're "seeking," don't they mean "acting?" Or maybe "struggling?" Doesn't sound like they know what they're doing, does it?

2) Someday someone's going to take me to visit the "ethical dimension," and I'm sure it'll be better than Doctor Who on party pills. Until then, I’m going to insist that SJEC's use of dimensionality as a metaphor for ethics is both misleading and revealing. Misleading because it implies that ethics, as its own dimension, is skew to the rest of life, intersecting it only at one point. But ethics saturates life; every action is ethically freighted. Further, the metaphor suggests that ethics reduces to a geometricized calculus—a vector equation. The metaphor is revealing because it shows that SJEC is insensitive to the absurd connotations insinuated by their language.

Extrapolating from the latest ethical probe data, top government artists offer tantalizing glimpses of what the ethical dimension might actually be like.

3) "To bring about a world" has such a lovely, dystopian ring to it. Seriously, I thought God already took care of the whole world-bringing-about business--first two chapters of Genesis and all that. Promethean pretensions like these are vapid to the point of being dangerous—and that’s on top of being irritating.

4) When they say they want "people [to] feel free to include the ethical dimension," it sounds like they're insisting that we make the most of the all-you-can-eat salad bar. "No, really. Go ahead and take all the ethical dimension you can stomach. There's plenty more in the kitchen." The sentiment is very sweet, but can we please find a less Donna Reed way to say this?

Our new ethics bar features virtues, moral principles, and fresh tomatoes. Satiate the saint in you for only $9.95!

5) I'm sure that the SJEC boasts a membership as erudite as it is pompous, but where do they get off suggesting to the rest of us that we “feel free” to get down with our ethical selves? First off, what’s with the nudge-nudge, wink-wink? If the rest of us are bad people, just come right out and say it. We’ll have a good clean argument and see who’s right, who’s bad, and who’s eye-rollingly self-righteous. Second, ethics is one of the foundations of human life whether we like it or not. (Tom DeLay, good postmodern that he is, probably convinced himself that that irksome ethical dimension was just a figment of the ol' imagination; but surprise, surprise--it turned out to be plenty real.) "Feeling free" has nothing to do with it. And third, ethics isn't patty-cake and crumpets. It’s not about comfort, but about excellence. We're already and always eyebrow deep in the sludge of questions concerning the best way to navigate life. Ethics concerns hard-won wisdom about the human good, hard-bitten advice given in the teeth of a dilemma, and hard-core you-break-it-you-bought-it consequentialism. (Anyone who thinks forgiveness is soft needs to think harder about what his parents did to him as a child.)

6) Somebody please tap me on the shoulder and let me know when our "daily lives" start happening. You know, as opposed to our other lives--the non-daily ones. This definitely isn't the first time I've heard of this "daily" life I'm supposed to be leading; I’m always the last one to the party. To the SJEC vision committee: adjectives—such as “daily”—are supposed to descriptive, not rhetorical. And as I said before, every action already and always carries ethical significance and imposes ethical consequences. Ethic significance is omnichronic; no deed to dilute it to "daily."

7) Last, but not least: the statement cited above isn't a vision statement; it's a mission statement. A vision statement describes what you'd like to see happen in future. (Hence the use of the word, "vision.") A mission statement describes what you plan to accomplish. (Hence the use of the word, "mission.")

16 March 2006

Professionalizing ethics

As if we weren't confused enough about ethics these days. Today the Society of Corporate Compliance and Ethics (SCCE) will recognize 6 "Compliance Champions" for... well, for complying. And for making sure other people comply, too. "Comply with what?" you ask. Well, they explain:

Compliance professionals develop and oversee corporate compliance programs to ensure that their organizations comply with state and federal regulations.
Wait a minute. "Compliance professionals?" Professionals who ensures that organizations “comply with state and federal regulations?” Don’t you mean law enforcement officers? One might think that we already have enough people on top of the whole compliance issue (as in, nearly 800,000 as of 2000–-not counting federal regulators and officers). But cops, as we know, don’t—indeed can’t—force people to act ethically. No one can.

Hate to be the buzz-killer, SCCE, but at bottom, your “compliance professionals” are just security guards: privately employed rule-enforcers. So what’s with this language about ethics?

Highly competent compliance professionals are already active in your neighborhood.

On the surface, the SCCE looks like a bunch of quasi-academics trying to capitalize on corporate America’s rash of scandals. Dig a little bit deeper, though, and something stranger and more insidious pops up. The SCCE isn’t a group of concerned citizens banding together to fight corporate excesses; it’s a new professional advocacy group, with its sights set on introducing the process of certification into the arena of ethics.

Certified Smart Guys earn more than their uncertified (but equally Smart) counterparts.

Probably they’re just too foolish or greedy to stop and really think about this. The thing is, certification concerns technical know-how. Professions such as law, medicine, and engineering use certification precisely to enforce their monopolies, which we countenance only because we presume that no one else is competent to oversee them.

Only lawyers, for example, possess the technical knowledge necessary to spot the incompetence and/or clever malfeasance of other lawyers. But what sane, sound, adult (apart from these guys) isn’t competent to render ethical judgement? Ethical authority doesn’t derive from technical knowledge; it derives from wisdom. So either the SCCE thinks that there’s no difference between knowledge and wisdom (which is foolish), or they think that other people won’t care and will pay for their “certified” wisdom anyhow (which is greedy).

In any case, as any half-conscious American knows, compliance with the law and ethical action are two completely different things. It’s both confusing and dangerous to conflate the two. Being ethical does NOT mean complying with state and federal regulations. (“Civil Disobedience” anyone?) Like any sensible person, I think it’s obvious that corporations need competent oversight. I also think that corporations ought to act ethically no matter what the law is. Just because something is legal don’t make it right or good, and just because it’s illegal don’t make it wrong or bad. (“Letter from the Birmingham Jail” anyone?)

14 March 2006

How to confuse ethical issues

Thomas Shanks, S.J., Executive Director of The Markkula Center for Applied Ethics at Santa Clara University runs through a sample case concerning due diligence on MCAE’s website. The webmaster introduces the case as follows:

Ethical principles and values are, of course, key to ethical decision making, but how should they be applied to actual business situations?

The clear implication is that ethics and business are two separate silos of human experience, one of which is highly abstract, and the other a collection of “actual situations.” Further, the webmaster’s statement suggests that achieving a clear understansing of ethics represents a intellectual challenge of the highest order. Oh my God! How should ethics be applied in bussines situations? Please, great and mighty consultant--enlighten us benighted souls! This clearly serves only to bolster the Center’s assumed position that you need a consultant to understand ethics. While leading an ethical life is surely a great challenge, understanding what ethics means and how ethics works could hardly be simpler.

The English word “ethics” derives from the Classical Greek word ethos, which means “habit.” (Ethos derives the Ancient Greek ethea, which means “where wild animals live,” closing the link between “habit” and “habitat.”) Ethics therefore means the habits of character we have acquired, and which shape our typical behavior. Good ethics means good habits of character; bad ethics means bad habits of character. Ethics do not specifically concern how we relate with other people, but rather how our characters--that is, our general disposition toward our experience--improve or worsen over time.

Habits are patterns of behavior—predispositions to act in a certain way—which we acquire through repetition. We become brave precisely by practising bravery; we become greedy by practising greed. These days, when we say that an action is “unethical,” we seem to mean that it’s a “cruel” or “insensitive” action. In point of fact, an unethical action is one which leads down the slippery slope to bad character. Several intemperate actions tend to incline one to still greater shows of intemperance. The guys at Enron didn’t start robbing old ladies in California as their first malfeasance; they had to build up to it.

Mr. Fastow: "I wasn't born a cheat and a crook; I had to practice diligently for many years.”

All of which makes speaking of ethics as if they were something to be applied seem pretty weird. You don’t apply your habits or your character; you just live them. (With determination and grace, you improve them.) Business situations, like all human situations, are saturated with ethical significance. The question isn’t whether or not to apply ethical values and principles. The question is whether your next move is going to make you worse or better off in terms of your habits of character. Does the choice you're making now make the next good move easier or harder? As to the question of why one ought to prefer a better character, another post to follow.

13 March 2006

Who creates knowledge?

From a cover letter I found on the internet:

A teacher’s role is not to impart knowledge, but rather to help students create knowledge.

The so-called revolution in education has been going on, in the U.S. at least, for a long time now—at least since Emerson wrote his seminal essay, “Education,” and I suspect some time before that as well. It has never made much progress because it has tended to focus on methods of instruction, student-teacher ratios, curricular composition, etc. But it is neither the tools nor the circumstances of schools which restrain us from making real improvements in education. It is our concept of knowledge.

Can you spot the knowledge in this picture?

Contained in the rather unassuming remark quoted above, tossed off in a cover letter, is a radical critique of our concept of knowledge as a kind of “bundle of facts,” or a “collection of information.” Knowledge does not exist in the abstract; it exists only within the horizon of some person’s real engagement with herself and her world. No one else can give me her knowledge in the way she might give me a book. Mediocre teachers simply fail to understand this, and so they fail to understand the difference between the student parroting the teacher and real knowledge. Good teachers understand where knowledge originates, so they encourage their students to engage the world on their own (i.e., the students’) terms. Great teachers provoke students to create knowledge by engaging students strategically. With a great teacher, neither the teacher nor the student sets the terms; instead, the teacher tailors every aspect of his practice to his most honest perception of his students’ best selves. In a sense, the teacher acts like a shaman, assisting the students to become whole through their active engagement with the practice of learning.

Revisioning knowledge as something created anew in each generation entails profound consequences for nearly every aspect of our culture: science, technology, politics, industry, etc. etc. Indeed, the entire idea of culture in general takes an interesting turn. One this new view, culture is not a shared body of knowledge; it is a collection of insights about how to help the next generation find the knowledge necessary to keep things running smoothly. The distinction between facts and values here collapses into their common origin in education.

The issues of pedagogical methods, student-teacher ratios, curricular composition must take second fiddle to the essential issue of knowledge generation. We keep making silly decisions because we don’t understand what’s really happening when teaching occurs. Once we understand where knowledge comes from (we don’t even have to understand what it is!), we can begin to make more intelligent choices about other educational issues.

12 March 2006


While the topics which most interest me (listed below) have reasonably clear dictionary definitions--and it's not as if I'll try to gainsay the OED--the way that I think about most of them is pretty unconventional. Let me lay out some of the principal points of digression:

Philosophy - I went to graduate school for philosophy (focused on ethics if I focused on anything), which is where I learned that philosophy is not an academic discipline. The "love of wisdom" is a feeling, an intuition that wisdom--which itself needs to be distinguished from both intelligence and knowledge--is something to be cherished. Wisdom, which is an insight to the way the world really works, represents one of the most rarefied and astonishing achievements of human civilization.

Architecture - I'm in graduate school right now for architecture (history and theory), and I learned quickly that architecture is not a profession, and it is definitely not just "buildings." Architecture is the way that humans, using rituals, language, and techniques for the manipulation of materials (this includes both the arts and construction), appropriate space and transform it into place. Architecture is the residue of human inhabitation on the earth.

Education - George Savile said that "education is what remains when we have forgotten all that we have been taught." Precisely. Information and knowledge are merely the means by which we shape our characters. At bottom, education is about habits of character--what remains when we have forgotten all that we have been taught.

Finance - People love to conflate economics and finance. Economics concerns the allocation and relative value of resources. Finance concerns the definition and management of risk.

Politics - I've heard more than one professional politician echo Otto von Biskmark's definition, that "politics is the art of the possible." But that definition derives from the experience of the statesman as a forger of compromises. Politics more largely means those projects which we humans can envision and accomplish only if we act collectively in concert with one another.

Writing - Because we live though language, we give little thought to its power. Even the incidental language we use in daily life--ordering coffee in the morning or gossipping at the office--shapes our actions and, ultimately, who we are. Writing therefore represents one of the great powers ever developed or deployed by human civilization. Few things are harder than writing well, and few activities more redolent of the potential to change lives.