The moving target of ethics

Jul 18th, 2017 | By | Category: Commentary

Jeff Hough

By Jeff Hough

Throughout my career, I have sat through countless hours of ethics training. A typical session involves basic platitudes about ethics and moral behavior that appear to be nothing more than common sense. I must confess that I often roll my eyes and think, “Duh!”

In a book on leadership by Saul Alinski, I came across a chapter on ethics which makes sense to me. In it, he discusses 11 rules governing ethics and moral behavior. They describe situations in history where ethics changed with the times. He makes a great case for ethics being a moving target, dependent upon one’s cause and perspective.

In business, the ethics question is often based on the end justifying the means. A more realistic approach to ethics comes from a slight rephrasing of that premise. Alinski suggests a better phrasing of it might be, “does this specific end justify this specific means?”

From that standpoint, it is easy to see how ethical behavior can be a moving target. It moves based on one’s perspective. History is never a reliable gauge for ethics because it is written by the survivors. They attempt to paint themselves in the best possible light and tell the story the “right” way. Their specific ends always justified their specific means.

History has a funny way of judging ethics by the outcome. If history shows an individual’s efforts were successful, the ethics were good; however, if the efforts were unsuccessful the ethics were bad. To quote the author, “there can be no such thing as a successful traitor. If one succeeds they are a hero, if they fail they are a traitor.”

Ethics is always subjective to one’s position. For example, from my perspective I only have option A and B. I then choose based on the resources available to me. Yet, from your perspective, I may have options X and Y available to me, as well. So you might think I act unethically in this instance.

The question of ethical action is dependent upon one’s interest and proximity to the issue. The closer you are to the issue and my behavior, the more you care about the ethics or morality of my choices. The further away, the less you care.

Involving morality in ethics is another slippery slope. Whoever claims to have the higher ground will always win. The issue then becomes, how do you judge? Do you stand by a higher law or man’s law? Or more importantly, do you switch from one side to the other depending on what suits your needs?

Ethics in business will always be debatable because of perspective.

One can look at individuals like Bernie Madoff, Kenneth Lay (Enron) or Bernard Ebbers (WorldCom) and point to their lack of ethics.

Those egregious examples are easy, but what of more subtle ethics violations that may occur within your organization?

An easy way to determine ethical behavior is to ask, “Who benefits?” If actions benefit an individual more than the whole, the behavior is unethical. It is unethical regardless of viewpoint because the behavior is selfish. Unselfish behavior is rarely unethical.

The essential part of ethics is to maintain your integrity and act accordingly as situations change. As a person grows and matures, perspectives can and should change. That is part of the growth process. Yet, in the end, the question of does this specific end justify this specific means holds true. That is what ethics is all about.

Jeff Hough is a business author, blogger and speaker in Pocatello.

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