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.

5 Surprising Truths about Ethics in One Place

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.

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.

Retaliation

Retaliation is the enemy of ethics (and innovation) in organizations. There is a good discussion of retaliation and why it so very hard to reduce/eliminate in the Globe and Mail at http://tinyurl.com/o4ex72r.