Friday, November 26, 2004

Business Ethics - soft targets

If it wasn't for the backbone of prescriptive law, our society would probably have gone ethically floppy a long time ago.

In addition to the threat of punishment and censure, game theory and higher cognitive emotions (such as guilt) also ensure that civic behaviours tend in the aggregate towards the collaborative and trustworthy. (except in vibrant places like Guatemala of course!)

Beyond these skeletal structures most of what passes for ethics in our society is actually more akin to manners - attitudes that are aware that others are watching. As individuals we are conscious that one way or another we have a reputation that derives from other people's previous encounters with our conduct, and we deploy our manners to make favourable first impressions.

At a theoretical level ethics has been mottled by determinism and relativism. Thanks largely to Nietzsche, it's now comparatively difficult to make a case for ethics as a branch of epistemology or indeed of metaphysics. In practice we're back with Aristotle, who regarded ethics as a branch of politics. And of course the whole point of politics is contention. (Or problem solving, according to pragmatists.)

Meanwhile, out there in civic society the moral community rendered by mass participation in the media is one of village idiots. We judge our compatriots as if they were our neighbours in a small town. And so the hype is put into hypocrisy.

So, in this context it's a bit of a mystery to me why anyone would assume that corporations should lead the way in terms of moral agency. After all, although companies are aggregations of individuals and so to some extent can be expected to behave like them, the law has things to say about the ultimate goals of companies that act to increase the gap between the good manners on the surface and the selfish beast within. Individuals are theoretically far freer to choose their own ends.

Modern westerners live in a society where people are encouraged to make up their own minds about morality within the framework of existing law along with some basic private rules bastardised from the old foundations of ethical behaviour (say the Ten Commandments or the teachings of Buddha). Most are thrown together into commercial organisations that exist in a far more explicitly competitive environment than most individuals are adapted to, and which have to tailor their manners primarily towards the simulated morality of the global media village.

Ethics are something that civic society needs to get a firmer grip of - at present we collectively suffer from the nagging suspicion that morality is either a superstition or a contrivance and the widespread notion that ethics commence where self-interest ends is actually neither correct nor particularly helpful.

We can't really expect commercial enterprises and organisations to continue to shoulder most of the blame for the wider moral confusion and apathy within society as a whole. It's just too easy (and trendy) to feel morally superior by making scapegoats out of big companies.

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