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.