The Business Ethics Divide

Oct 26

“There’s no such thing as business ethics”, argued John C. Maxwell in response to a suggestion that he write a book specifically about business ethics. His response highlighted his belief that there are not independent ethics for business matters and personal matters. In other words, it is unrealistic to expect a plurality of ethics to produce a consistent and beneficial outcome. From the Christian perspective this plurality of ethics is similarly discounted in the book of James 3:8-12. Speaking of the difficulty of managing the tongue, or what we say, James asks:

11 Doth a fountain send forth at the same place sweet water and bitter?

12 Can the fig tree, my brethren, bear olive berries? either a vine, figs? so can no fountain both yield salt water and fresh.

In this passage an individual is the fountain or the fig tree. James asks whether it is reasonable to expect that a behavior in one context won’t impact behaviors in another. If a man lies at work, can he claim to be perfectly honest at home. If he takes advantage of a colleague at work, can he then be respectful and sincere with his family in the home. If a man cheats in sports, when the stakes are high, can he subdue that competitive shortcoming in professional settings when pressure mounts?

Non-biblical issues also complicate ethical plurality. In the absence of a constant value system, the lines between ethical contexts, such as work, home and sports, may not be clearly delineated. For example, work situations that involve family relationships or sports leagues with work peers. In these situations where ethical contexts are mixed, which ethic takes priority? Even without mixing contexts, situations like workplace sales competitions and decisions that affect families can blur the lines between ethical contexts.

Complexity in ethics leads to confusion and can result in a misstep, where behaviours spill over from one context to another. This complexity can be especially tricky in ethical philosophies like John Rawls justice ethics. The assumptions and presumptions necessary to pursue justice ethics as proposed will tend to discourage consensus.

The more simple and practical an ethical theory, the more likely it will be applied accurately and consistently.

Moral Philosophy

Prevailing moral traditions are often analyzed in isolation from one another. Kant’s deontology is viewed as distinct from Aristotle’s virtue ethics which are both separate from Mills’ utilitarianism. In practice these ethical foundations are far from mutually exclusive. Even discussions within a single theory trend toward mutual exclusivity, such as the discussion of competing virtues within virtue ethics. Mutually exclusive views of distinct ethical theories ignore much of the depth of human interactions that drive most ethical consideration. The study of ethics isn’t unique in this tendency for tunnel vision, as can be seen with related concepts, such as trust.

Typical conceptions of trust focus on honesty and integrity. It’s true that without honesty and integrity there can be no trust, but those virtues alone are not enough. In the Speed of Trust, author Steven M. R. Covey discusses four aspects of trust: Integrity, Intent, Capabilities and Results. Integrity is important, but without intent, capability and a history of delivering results, especially in a professional setting, trust isn’t achieved.

Ethics is too often a single faceted discussion, which, similar to trust, focuses primarily on honesty and integrity. In order to produce a meaningful outcome, any ethical foundation must go deeper than mere honesty and integrity. Ethics requires conviction, consistency and commitment.

My personal philosophy coincides most with Aristotle’s value ethic. Character is the substance of who we are, where we have been and what we have done. Character is visible through actions. There are no ethical boundaries or borders that create distinct ethical contexts. However, there are significant differences emotionally between situations in which ethical commitments may be tested. It is under the pressure of those emotions that I discover how deeply committed I am to my ethical standards.

Both Maxwell and Covey highlight the human tendency to judge ones self by his intentions and others by their actions. Accurate assessment of character must focus on actions.

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