The Ultimate Ethics Reading List

Dec 16

My ethics course was taught by an adjunct professor who is also a local attorney in Boise. On the first night he mentioned that there were some things about the course text that he didn’t like. In order to compensate for this, he provided dozens of additional resources which covered the topics and perspectives that he considered most important for a study of business ethics. Through initial writing assignments he observed that the predominant ethical inclination of the class was Aristotelian. He adjusted the later sessions in the course to focus on strengths and pitfalls of Aristotle’s philosophy with respect to business. Much of the reading was extremely valuable and enlightening, so I wanted to record some of the ancillary reading list here. Not all of these are freely available, but for those that are I have included a link. You may need to visit a university library to track down the others. This list is not a comprehensive review of the material covered. It also includes multiple perspectives, which means it shouldn’t be expected to convey a single coherent view on business ethics. In fact, the value of these resources is that they provide arguments and counter arguments for a well-rounded perspective. “Is Business Bluffing Ethical”, by Albert Carr “The Business of Ethics”, by Norman Chase Gillespie “Moral Mazes:  Bureaucracy and Managerial Work”, by Robert Jackall “Corporate culture: poison for whistleblowers”, by Brian Martin (review of Jackall’s article) “The Social Responsibility of Business is to Increase its Profits”, by Milton Friedman “Profit and the public good”, in The Economist (related to Adam Smith, Wealth of Nations) “Corporate Social Responsibility Can Be Profitable”, by Rubén Hernández-Murillo and Christopher J. Martinek “Moral Theories”, Seven Pillars Institute for Global Finance and Ethics (this includes a review of Consequentialism, Deontology, Justice, Utilitarianism and Virtue Ethics). There are other links from that page to a more detailed review of each moral theory. “The Ethics of Whistleblowing”, by Ben O’Neill “The Normative Theories Of Business Ethics: A Guide For The Perplexed”, by John Hasnas “Business Ethics and Stakeholder Analysis” by Kenneth E. Goodpaster “Inside Job (2010)” “The Role of Character in Business Ethics” by Edwin M. Hartman “Moral Compromise and Personal Integrity: Exploring the Ethical Issues of Deciding Together in Organizations” by Jerry...

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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. Context 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...

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Why the Future Needs Us

Nov 25

Many science fiction writers have painted a picture of a future where humanity and technology merge and the lines between man and machine blur. Some scientists have gone so far as to argue that the future doesn’t need us, apparently lending credence to science fiction stories. While this is fertile ground for ethical analysis of choice, it depends on some false assumptions, which are discussed below. One characteristic human tendency is to defer blame or avoid direct responsibility. For example, the phrase “The devil made me do it”, which some say traces it’s origins back to the bible, suggests that we are not the masters of our own destiny. We mistakenly attribute to technology the responsibility for the bad things that happen in our day, while simultaneously celebrating it for the good it accomplishes. Such a bipolar perception of man vs. technology has the potential to confuse the ethical analysis of human choice whenever there is a technological component involved. At the root of the false assumptions mentioned above is the mistaken association between compute capacity and sentience. Compute capacity refers to the ability of a machine to mimic human thought, such as a processor in a modern computer. When a processor performs math or renders three dimensional pictures or simulates complex systems, it is doing what it has been taught to do by a human. As a result, some humans refer to the processor as the ‘brain’ of a computer and attribute human characteristics to it, such as labeling a computer as ‘smart’. Observation of nature is often the impetus that inspires technological invention, which may make this type of association feel natural. However, regardless of how much compute capacity grows with future technological advances, by it’s nature it lacks subjectivity. The human who writes the program remains the subjective party. Real risk is unbounded trust Trust is a result of repeated experiences where expectations agree with outcomes. In Bill Joy’s article, linked above, he did accurately identify that human trust in technology can lead to dependence. “… the human race might easily permit itself to drift into a position of such dependence on the machines that it would have no practical choice but to accept all of the machines’...

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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...

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Contextual Ethics, or Ethical Relativism

Oct 21

Ethics in business is a game, not unlike poker, argues Albert Carr in a 1968 paper entitled “Is Business Bluffing Ethical?”. Throughout his paper he argues that there is an ethical divide between personal ethics and business ethics, and that what may be unacceptable in personal matters, is not only acceptable in business matters, but expected. About 15 years later, Norman Chase Gillespie published a counterpoint to Carr’s paper entitled “The Business of Ethics”. Gillespie’s position is that there should not be as much license for business matters as Carr proposes, however, he stops far short of arguing for an absolute. Context drives the turning points in each argument from Carr and Gillespie. One main difference between their arguments is found in the assertion by Gillespie that morals represent an absolute that applies in all contexts, while implying that Carr throws morals out when promoting business ethics as a game. Carr does discuss morals, but not in their impact on business, instead taking the position that in the business context, the dominant guiding principle is law, not morals. What is right in business is determined not by morals or conscience, but by what is lawful. Carr does cede that  in circumstances where non-legislative stakeholders, such as clients, take a deep interest in a matter, that can also sway the business outcome. In this case, the choice is not made based on any right or wrong, but instead based on what is prudent and economically sound. Relativism enters into Gillespie’s arguments as he introduces the concept of a “moral rule”. When he originally published his paper in 1983, society may have had a narrower view of what moral rules applied to groups of people, so that some of the relativism observed in Gellespie’s arguments may be a reflection of contemporary society and culture. For example, he argues that lying to save a life is acceptable. He also argues that putting the driver of another car at risk is better than threatening oncoming traffic or sacrificing one’s self to preserve the safety of others. These examples are far from absolute and he provides no justification as to why his moral conclusions ought to be shared by others, which weakens his arguments. Dilemma...

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