Another Lie: There Is No Progress In Ethics

It does often seem that progress in ethics is hard to come by. But can anyone doubt that it is more ethical to live in a society in which slavery is not tolerated than to live in one in which slavery is tolerated? Is it not clearly more ethical to live in a society that allows participation by women than in one that prohibits it? What is true is that ethical progress is not easy or equal. But did anyone expect ethical progress to be easy, automatic or universally acknowledged? Ethical progress may come slowly and at great cost – but it does come.

How Could Volkswagen Do Anything So Stupid?

Volkswagen is a company known for technological prowess and market innovation. This raises the question of how the company could engage in a plot as plain stupid as trying to trick emissions tests. I share my thoughts on this apparent puzzle in a recent piece that appeared in the business section of the Huffington Post. You can read it at http://www.huffingtonpost.com/mark-pastin/volkswagens-dumb-culture_b_8270264.html.

Lies about Ethics

The Profit Motive Undermines Ethics.

Many people believe that capitalism itself is unethical because the profit motive causes people to act unethically. But the truth is that any motive carried to an extreme can undermine ethics as much or more than the profit motive. Can anyone doubt that the power motive distorts the judgment of politicians and public officials? Or that the ego motive corrupts the judgment of celebrities, who are often quick to blame the profit motive. The problem is not with the profit motive per se but with any motive carried to an extreme.

Lies about Ethics

No topic is more subject to lies than ethics. In fact, our thinking about ethics typically begins with a lie. Each of us tells our self that we are ethical while we are uncertain about the ethics of most everyone else. We are always the exception. Ethics is the subject of a lot of lies because it is very personal to us and is part of our self-esteem. If you do a lot of thinking about ethics, you may end up challenging the very foundation of who you are. But lies about ethics are not harmless. They keep us mired in endless ethical disagreement about some of the most important issues of the day such as immigration, executive compensation, and climate change. Over the next several posts, starting here, I will talk about some of the big lies about ethics.

You Can’t Teach People Ethics.

This is patently false since most parents teach their children ethical basics, albeit with varying degrees of success. Parents teach children ethics by using rewards, punishments, persuasion and example. And this mostly works. The goal of parental teaching is to equip us to make ethical judgments once we no longer have our parents to guide us. Since we know ethics can be taught, we have to ask whether we should be using the same tools to continue ethics education into adulthood. However, these tools are less effective with adults just because adults believe that they already know the truth about ethics.

Ethics and Compliance Training

The bad news is that ethics and compliance training programs usually don’t work. The good new is that it really isn’t as hard as you may think to make it work. There is a recent article in a publication called Training on this topic. Follow the link below to read it.

http://www.trainingmag.com/ethics-training-doesn%E2%80%99t-often-work%E2%80%94-it-can

Ethics, Compliance and HR

As many of you know first hand, there has been a running battle over the years between ethics/compliance and human resources. This battle often focuses on the hotline and the idea that most hotline calls are about HR issues. But there are also battles over training, investigations, background checks – you  name it. If anyone is willing to share stories about this battle, it would be most welcome. You can comment here or contact me directly at councile@aol.com. Don’t worry I am not looking for anything to be attributed by name or organization – just some of the experiences of ethics and compliance professionals. What I write about this will eventually end up on this web site.

5th and Final Surprising Truth about Ethics

You can teach a person ethics.

This should be obvious since most parents teach most children ethics to some extent – although not as much as we might like. The reason we can teach children ethics is that children respond to incentives, whether it is a new toy for telling the truth or a pronounced glare for lying. Companies spend tens of millions of dollars trying to talk their employees into acting ethically. But they keep the same reward system that they have always used in which ethics plays no part. And so nothing changes.

Surprising Truths about Ethics #4

Here is another surprising truth about ethics:

People are not getting less ethical. Every generation regards later generations as less ethical than their own. But the evidence is to the contrary. The Council of Ethical Organizations has conducted a highly tested survey in hundreds of organization since 1986. While particular organizations or industry segments get more or less ethical, overall scores on the survey have been stable for almost 20 years. There is no central tendency of decline. What sometimes makes us think ethics is on the way out is the fact that we learn more about ethical misdeeds than earlier generations did partly due to power of social media and the growth of news outlets.

Surprising Truths About Ethics #3

The profit motive is not to blame. There are as many unethical actions in government and the non-profit sector as there are in business. Even though the profit motive can drive people to get ahead no matter what, so can political and bureaucratic motives. Does anyone doubt that the drive for position, power and fame is as ethically deforming as the drive for profit? It is only when seeking profit means seeking profit at any cost that you are likely to find ethics issues. But seeking power or fame at any cost has the same consequence. This is discussed in more depth in my book, Make an Ethical Difference.

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.