Surprising Truths about Ethics #2

Here is a second and important surprising truth about ethics:

Technology can undermine ethics. Our ethical instincts arose to help us cooperate in hunter-gatherer groups. When you did something that hurt another member of the group, you were to feel some of that hurt yourself – conscience. But these ethical instincts work best when you are forced to directly experience the consequences of your actions. Today technology enables us to do harm at a great distance and essentially anonymously. Consider the taunts and lies promulgated via social media just because they can be delivered anonymously. One reason that drone warfare worries us is that it detaches the act of killing from any experience of it. Our technological reach has outdistanced our ethical reach.

Surprising Ethical Facts

I have spent thirty years discussing ethical issues with business people, doctors, and lawyers. While you might imagine high-minded discussions of complex issues, it is more often a matter of someone trying to escape responsibility for what they already know to be wrong. In ethics, it is usually not a matter of not knowing what is right. It is a matter of doing what you know to be right. Over the next series of posts, I will share some surprising ethical facts starting with this one:

  1. Ethics is often simple. Most people who do wrong things are perfectly well aware they are doing wrong things. Yes, there are challenging ethical puzzles but they have little to do with the choices we make in our daily lives. Does anyone imagine that the individuals who knew about the life-threatening ignition switches in GM cars did not know that selling these cars was wrong? They knew perfectly well but chose not to do anything about it to protect their positions in the organization. The question is not one of knowing right from wrong; it is a question of what made the organization so sick that knowing right from wrong didn’t matter.

By the way, this is one of the surprising ethical facts that I explain in Make an Ethical Difference.

Ethics for Start Ups

When you are starting a company, ethics may not be the first thing on your mind. The article referenced below talks about how to build ethics into a start up company.