My Position on Business Ethics

Dec 09

One uniquely human characteristic lies in our desire to hear and tell stories, fiction and non-fiction alike. By way of story we vicariously experience emotion and conflict through another person or object. The human quality of empathy binds us to the characters in story in such a way that we ask ourselves what we would do in similar circumstances. This introspection is what makes literature so powerful, and so meaningful. After all, it is in the moment of anguish or bliss, when nothing will be the same, when an irreversible choice is in front of us, that we discover who we really are.


When the moment of decision comes, what will I do? Will I become sharp, focused and relentless, as Jonathan Harker did when striving to save his dear Mina? Will I surrender to my lusts as Claude Frollo did when entranced by the beauty of La Esmeralda? Will my resolve crumble in the face of fear and torment, as Winston Smith did when tortured or could I so completely change my constitution, as did Sydney Carton, and surrender my life to save the life of the man who would be my rival in love?

Great literature provides an expansive collection of contexts in which to explore the depth of human choice. Some characters grow into strength while others shrink into oblivion. There is enormous value in these vicarious choices, made through the movements of well scripted characters, particularly when those choices result in resolutions. When the moment comes to make the same types of choices in our own lives, a comfortable library with ample time to review these literary works is unlikely. The choices were made long before that crucial moment, just as with the characters mentioned above.

Gap in Reality (Pressure)

In his book Story, Robert Mckee explains that story, like those mentioned above, happens whenever there is a gap between subjective and objective reality. The subjective reality is what the character anticipates will happen. Objective reality is what actually happens. For example, when I pursue a business arrangement, I anticipate that all parties will be honest and forthright. That is my subjective reality. When objective reality fails to align with my subjective reality there is a gap. For example, my partner in a business arrangement may conceal relevant facts or steal money. It is in that moment, in that gap, when my personal character comes in to play. The choices I make to reconcile my anticipated reality to the actual reality provide a window into who I really am. My object in that moment is to restore the balance that was lost when my anticipated reality didn’t agree with what actually happened. The choices I make to restore balance are a reflection of who I am.

Contemporary views on literature are changing with some frightening implications for contemporary ethics. As Robert McKee explains:

“The final cause for the decline of story runs very deep. Values, the positive/negative charges of life, are at the sould of our art. The writer shapes story around a perception of what’s worth living for, what’s worth dying for, what’s foolish to pursue, the meaning of justice, truth – the essential values. In decades past, writer and society more of less agreed on these questions, but more and more ours has become an age of moral and ethical cynicism, relativism, and subjectivism – a great confusion of values. As the family disintegrates and sexual antagonisms rise, who, for example, feels he understands the nature of love? And how, if you do have a conviction, do you express it to an ever-more skeptical audience?”

Where once there was moral consensus, there is now disagreement. Where once there was ethical cohesion, there is now suspicion. In a business context this cultural shift has many manifestations, including the growing number of clauses in standard contracts, the successful and growing liability insurance and liability litigation industries and even a greater caution in interpersonal dealings, such as a need to follow up routine communications with written verification. There are fewer trusted colleagues, fewer men and women whose ‘word is their bond’.

Subjective Reality

Another repercussion of declining values is that my subjective reality will increasingly conflict with objective reality. A near constant gap between my subjective posture and the ever changing norms in the business world bring additional pressure. One may begin to ask whether subjective reality should be adjusted to reduce or eliminate this gap. Is there a point at which the best course of action is to change one’s subjective reality to better coincide with the reality of the world around them?

My personal answer is simply no. Subjective convictions must be constant. Along with this position comes the near certainty that I will find myself disadvantaged in business dealings as a result of my convictions. My recognition of that disadvantage and the possibility of personal loss that may result from it is one of the surest defenses against the pressure to change my ethical position due to outside pressures.

Optimism for Common Values

In the face of a broadening spectrum of social values and perceptions of right and wrong, there are still many, I dare say a majority, of individuals in business whose subjective position resembles a common social position. C.S. Lewis postulates a reason for this in his book Mere Christianity when discussing the Law of Human Nature:

“Every one has heard people quarrelling. Sometimes it sounds funny and sometimes it sounds merely unpleasant; but however it sounds, I believe we can learn something very important from listening to the kind of things they say. They say things like this: ‘How’d you like it if anyone did the same to you?’ — ‘That’s my seat, I was there first’ — ‘Leave him alone, he isn’t doing you any harm’ — ‘Why should you shove in first?’ — ‘Give me a bit of your orange, I gave you a bit of mine’ — ‘Come on, you promised.’ People say things like that every day, educated people as well as uneducated, and children as well as grown-ups.

Now what interests me about all these remarks is that the man who makes them is not merely saying that the other man’s behaviour does not happen to please him. He is appealing to some kind of standard of behaviour which he expects the other man to know about. And the other man very seldom replies: ‘To hell with your standard.’ Nearly always he tries to make out that what he has been doing does not really go against the standard, or that if it does there is some special excuse. He pretends there is some special reason in this particular case why the person who took the seat first should not keep it, or that things were quite different when he was given the bit of orange, or that something has turned up which lets him off keeping his promise. It looks, in fact, very much as if both parties had in mind some kind of Law or Rule of fair play or decent behaviour or morality or whatever you like to call it, about which they really agreed. And they have. If they had not,they might, of course, fight like animals, but they could not quarrel in the human sense of the word. Quarrelling means trying to show that the other man is in the wrong. And there would be no sense in trying to do that unless you and he had some sort of agreement as to what Right and Wrong are; just as there would be no sense in saying that a footballer had committed a foul unless there was some agreement about the rules of football.”

There are many papers and books which put forth theories and philosophies intended to establish an ethical foundation independent of a common human origin. I very much identify with the words of George Washington, who, in his farewell address conspicuously associated religious and moral sentiment with the future prospects of political success.

“Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, religion and morality are indispensable supports. In vain would that man claim the tribute of patriotism, who should labor to subvert these great pillars of human happiness, these firmest props of the duties of men and citizens. The mere politician, equally with the pious man, ought to respect and to cherish them. A volume could not trace all their connections with private and public felicity. Let it simply be asked: Where is the security for property, for reputation, for life, if the sense of religious obligation desert the oaths which are the instruments of investigation in courts of justice? And let us with caution indulge the supposition that morality can be maintained without religion. Whatever may be conceded to the influence of refined education on minds of peculiar structure, reason and experience both forbid us to expect that national morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principle.”

I would extend George Washington’s discussion of the political arena to encompass business. His concerns regarding the security for property, reputation and life in the absence of a sense of religious obligation can mapped on to many contemporary business issues. His dubious position regarding the ability of refined education to replace the moral influence of religion is equally pertinent to our time.

The Dangers of Satellites

If books, philosophies and theories are abundant and yet so often inconsistent and contradictory, do they provide any value in pursuit of ethical business practice? The answer is yes, but with a caveat that they serve to inspire, not to dictate. In a talk delivered to the Phi Beta Kappa Society at Cambridge, Massachusetts, Ralph Waldo Emerson cautions against over-reliance on books

“They [books] are for nothing but to inspire. I had better never see a book than to be warped by its attraction clean out of my own orbit, and made a satellite instead of a system.”

In a day when so many business books, systems and processes promise immediate and dramatic results, there is great danger of becoming a satellite, rather than a system. Certifications, special training, popular books and even charismatic leaders can all provide a compelling pretext for poor choices. It’s important not to sacrifice individual accountability related to choice for a reason so trivial as having read it somewhere or having observed someone else make the same choice.

Religious Influence

My moral disposition is inexorably tied to religious conviction. Many of these ties come from personal experience. Others relate to scriptures. None are exclusively personal or business, but relate to all my dealings with others. With respect to the role of education and philosophy on my personal ethics, I read from the Book of Mormon:

“O the vainness, and the frailties, and the foolishness of men! When they are learned they think they are wise, and they hearken not unto the counsel of God, for they set it aside, supposing they know of themselves, wherefore, their wisdom is foolishness and it profiteth them not. And they shall perish. But to be learned is good if they hearken unto the counsels of God.”

Education is extremely valuable. Exploration of Deontology, Utilitarianism and Aristotle has provided me valuable insights. The Stockholder, Stakeholder and Social Responsibility perspectives have been enlightening. Despite the polarized and compartmentalized analysis which characterizes many of the publications reviewed during this course, I do not perceive these concepts as mutually exclusive. The appropriate balance of consideration will always depend heavily on the context for a given choice.

And so it comes full circle back to context, or story. In that moment when a gap splits open, when the pressure mounts and I discover who I really am.


  1. tom watrous /

    Great job. I am pleased that you have time between a job and MBA to still write. These kinds of endeavors force one to understand with a little more clarity, who he/she is.

    Integrity is taking a stand under pressure. Can you make the right choice when millions are on the table? I have no doubt about you. I hope I can do it.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.