Ethics and morality are important. They are important whoever we are and whatever we do. This is a truism few would dispute. Who wouldn’t want to live in a more ethical world? How many of us would wish to see less rather than more morality in our personal or professional lives?
In fact, I’ll go further and make a more exaggerated and perhaps even provocative point:
Ethics and Morality are more important today than at any point in the recent past. We are at a crossroads – one which is critical to the well-being of our society and which cannot be ignored.
Our ethics as individuals, as businesses or as nations reveal a great deal about who we are. Are we compassionate and caring or do we prize success above all other things? Are we tolerant and inclusive or is our mantra one of ruthless competition? Are we greedy or are we selfless?
Whichever of these descriptions apply, they tell us something about both our identity and our ethics. In fact, identity and ethics appear to be indivisible. Our ethics determine how we behave… and how we behave is central to who we are.
In this article, the first in a nine-part series on Ethics in the Workplace, I open my discussion with a brief look at the nature of ethics and why ethics are important for businesses and organisations of all kinds
But before I begin, it’s crucial to be clear on what ethics means.
In his masterpiece Nichomachean Ethics (340 BCE) Aristotle used the word ‘ethics’ (from the Greek ‘ethos’ or habit) to denote a form of rational and active engagement with life, leading to habits of good action. Our definition today is not so different. The Oxford English Dictionary defines ethics as the ‘moral principles that govern a person’s behaviour’. These principles describe what is good or what is bad and therefore what a person ought or ought not do.
My own definition is a little more general:
‘Ethics is a set of rules or a code of conduct which tells us how we should or should not behave’
– where, by ‘us’, I mean not only individuals but also collectives and organisations of all kinds: businesses, NGOs, governments or even nations.
Examples of important ethical codes can be found in the great world religions: in the Five Pillars of Islam, in the Ten Commandments of Christianity, in the Eightfold Path of Buddhism, in the Dao of Confucius.
A set of rules which tell us how we ought or ought not to behave
At the beginning of this article I made a claim which some might find startling: that ethics are more important today than at any point in the recent past. To justify this claim I first need to touch on another question:
What is ethics for? What is its purpose or point?
Many contemporary writers have commented on the importance of a shared narrative for the success and cohesion of any society or civilisation (Harari, 2014; Bregman, 2017; Monbiot, 2018). If we don’t have a shared understanding of what the world is, and, as a result, of how we ought to behave within it, how can we possibly work together in groups of any significant size, acting to a common purpose… let alone in the groups of tens of millions who make up our nations today?
Shared ethical codes have been central to the rise of modern civilisation. There have of course been disputes, often with dire consequences, but fundamentally there has been enough commonality to support the creation of the complex social, technological and scientific world of today. Our ‘shared ethics’ is the glue which binds our society together and the oil which allows the wheels of society to turn. Without a shared ethics we would be unable to cooperate with others. Their behaviour would be alien and unpredictable. We could not trust them, work with them or plan ahead.
A shared code of behaviour sustains – and is essential to – all forms of cooperation. And this is just as true in business and the workplace as it is of society as a whole.
The glue that binds us
The oil which allows the wheels of society to turn
But is there truly a pressing contemporary significance for the role of ethics in the modern world? I would suggest that there is – and the evidence for this is all around us.
Consider, for a moment, the state of our politics, both nationally and internationally.
Consider the rise of populist nationalism, of demagoguery and ‘alternative facts’.
Consider radicalisation of the right and the left and the social media-fuelled polarisation of opinion and belief. Consider the divisions of Brexit in our country and of the Democrats vs. Republicans in the US.
Consider, too, the relentless rollout of scandals which undermine our trust in businesses (exhaust diagnostics), in media (hacking and spin), in government (expenses, the selling of favours, the management of Brexit) and in fairness more generally (tax evasion, #metoo, growing inequality). And consider also the overwhelming threats of climate change and – some suggest – AI.
When has a shared understanding of how we ought to behave ever been more important or more necessary?
Ethics sustains civilisations – and, at a more prosaic level, businesses and organisations also. Our shared ethics sustains reliability, consistency, predictability and cooperation. We could not get by without it. But, in a discussion of this kind, how can we know if we are talking about the same ethics? There are, after all, quite a variety of proposed ethical codes on offer. And, controversially, how can we know which ethics is best?
I will suggest a very pragmatic and inclusive answer to this question – while perhaps also indulging in a degree of evasion.
Let us first agree, as I hope I have successfully argued, that a shared ethics or code of behaviour is both necessary and beneficial to the functioning and success of businesses and organisations, just as it is for the functioning and success of civilisations.
Let us also agree that the sort of ethics we require is one capable of sustaining our lives, our work, our businesses and our society as a whole – whilst also addressing the modern-day challenges outlined above.
If we agree upon just these two things, we immediately see that some forms of ethics simply won’t do.
Let us take for example the “winner takes all” ethics of the unregulated marketplace. The capitalism which has delivered the greatest levels of prosperity humanity has ever known would never have been so successful if, right from the start, you couldn’t take a person for their word. Capitalism could never have delivered such enormous benefits if ruthlessness and vicious self-interest were the only factors at play. Other essential inputs were needed: inputs like integrity, like honesty, like a determination to repay your debts – like a recognition of fairness in the making of a deal – codes of behaviour rooted in the traditional ethics of the day. And, for businesses to thrive throughout a whole nation or across the whole world, these other factors require universality. I don’t just need to know that I can trust you when you’re right here in my face; I need to know that I can trust you when you are four thousand miles away – and yet somehow connected to me by our cleverly constructed web of commerce and social interaction.
So for businesses to thrive and for individuals, businesses and society more generally to flourish, we need an ethics which is significantly more subtle than selfish competitiveness or ruthless individualism.
So what morality cuts the mustard?
I would like to suggest three core moral aims which I believe few will contest. These are:
The first two of these aims – the nurturing of humans as individuals and the nurturing of humanity as a whole – are not unusual. They are found in many ethical systems of the past. They are what allow us to trust one another.
The moral person does not just look out for themselves, they look out for the people around them, also. The moral person doesn’t just care about their own isolated community of neighbours and friends, they recognise that we are all in the same boat, all part of the same species, and that for a child to suffer on the other side of the world is as bad as for a child to suffer in our neighbour’s home. And, if this defines an ethical person, an ethical person becomes, almost by definition, a person you can trust.
The third moral aim points us towards restoring our biosphere to good health and thus preventing life-threatening climate change. In asserting this aim, we assert that we value not just the thriving of each other, our communities, our organisations and businesses, but also the thriving of all the life around us, of the biological world upon which our civilisation and potentially the very survival of our species depends.
These core moral aims are very basic and in no way original. Nevertheless, they offer a powerful basis for ethical behaviour and the making of moral decisions.
So – I confess – I have ducked the question of which ethics is best. This is, in any case, a dangerous and divisive question, and it may not even be a meaningful one. It invites a circular logic: ‘A’ is the best hierarchy of values because hierarchy of values ‘A’ says ‘A’ is the best hierarchy of values…
Instead of going down this route, I suggest that whichever broader ethical code you subscribe to, here are three core moral aims which are uncontroversial, which we can all share and which provide a basis for addressing the challenges of the modern world. They are also principles which we can apply in discussing the morality of our businesses or workplaces and how this can be enhanced.
Which ethics is best?
No ethics is best – but some basic moral principles are essential to the survival and success of the modern world.
In conclusion, then:
And I hope you will agree with me: any enhancement of ethics in our troubled and challenging times, in our personal, political and professional lives, is something greatly to be desired!
In my next article I consider the key characteristics of ethical organisations. I ask, “Is ethics a success factor in modern business?” – and I suggest ways in which we can help the organisations we work for or lead become more ethical.
Go back to my Ethics in the Workplace – Series Introduction
Read more articles on our Phase 3 Insights page
Image Credit: 123rf.com
About the Author:
Luke Andreski is a writer with over thirty years’ experience in the IT industry, specialising in People Technology implementation projects and change management. More recently he has focused on moral philosophy and psychology, with a particular interest in business leadership and management ethics.
Luke has published two books on ethics: Ethical Intelligence, a guide to effective ethical thinking in a world of polarised belief and political spin; and Intelligent Ethics, exploring the need for ethical change if we are to address the challenges of the 21st Century.
He is currently working in conjunction with Phase 3 on a series of articles investigating Ethics in the Workplace.