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?)