The Complexity of Business Ethics

The Complexity of Business Ethics

Over the past fifty years, Business Ethics has firmly established itself as an important academic discipline in the United States. And more recently, the position “business ethics officer” has gained momentum within organizations. Indeed, in a world where communication and image play a decisive role for individuals and businesses, ensuring ethical performance is critical.

Organizations that take ethics seriously build codes, charters, rules, and processes that are designed to support ethical practices. This is true not only in the private sector but also in the public sector. In other words, standards of behavior are becoming the rule as the public increasingly wants to "hold" organizations within limits of acceptable behavior.

In this way, confronting the question of business ethics has become both spontaneous and indispensable. Spontaneous because we first must set out to ensure things be “one way and not another.” In other words, the definition of what should be is usually based on feelings of indignation towards what is, is the natural starting point of ethics. Essential because without order, without pressure to fall within a given order, “ethics” cannot exist.

Nevertheless, continuing in our analysis of the term “ethics”, the etymology of the word also offers us some interesting clues.

"Ethics" dates back to Greek ethos, which refers strictly to "conduct" or a "way" of doing things. It is also interesting to note that the origin of the word "moral" was originally explained in exactly the same way, and was derived from the latin “mores”. In other words, ethos and mores refer strictly to the "how”. In other words, if I "do" something a certain way, regardless of the way I do it, I am being “ethical” in a certain way. Weather judged by friends or enemies, if you “do” something, then it can in some sense be perceived as "good."

Let us imagine that an individual within an organization works in a certain way. Imagine that, deliberately or not, no one expressed any reservations about the way the person does what they do. This implies that the organization agrees at least implicitly with the action. In other words, surrounded by some form of silence, actors within organizations are often greeted with a tacit acquiescence. We can therefore deduce that sooner or later these actions are interpreted as “good”. The etymological origin of ethos and mores has given rise to spontaneous feelings about ethics and standards.

This etymology also reveals the hidden face of organizational functioning. We are talking about organizational “behavior" while it becomes almost impossible  to separate behavior from ethics. This is both naive and dangerous. Naive, because if we look closely, the standards-based, or "normative" approach to ethics lets at least 66% of the problem fall to wayside, as these approaches fail to correctly confront the question of the responsibility of actors at work. Dangerous, because the normative approach leads actors to believe they are immune to ethical failure and too easily gives actors good conscience. Meanwhile, organizational experiences show us that the closer we think we are to doing “good”, the more vulnerable we are to ethical failure.

Redefining the responsibility of actors

If you do approach ethics on the basis of indignation and moral injunctions, you neglect the fact that "actions" regardless of their content, give rise to an ethical sentiment based on experience.That said, by approaching from a standards standpoint, we forget behaviour, and therefore the link between standards and behavior. This link is crucial because it is what creates the tension between what we do, and what we should do. However, “what we should do” is infinite, while “what we do” is finite which makes our ethical dreams impossible to achieve. This may seem distressing, but it’s common sense. As Pascal said , "Man is neither angel nor beast, and the misfortune is that he who wants to make the angel acts the beast " .

Our dreams may be excessive, but they are essential. Man may want to be an angel, but he always runs the risk of acting the beast. As we currently base business ethics on standards and norms, we can see that this is insufficient. Ethics is more demanding than this because it is about taking responsibility at every moment of our lives and decisions. We are responsible for every moment of the tension between explicit, conscious standardized behaviour on the one hand, and the reality of our behaviour on the other. The two sides of this coin are often unaware of each other. One could even say that man has the same responsibility to articulate between what should be and what is.

With these ethical questions, there are very practical things at stake. Indeed, organizations are currently dominated by the standardized and normative approach. But in reality, this approach is fundamentally  flawed. As “Ethics Officers” become more common, it is widely believed that Ms. or Mr. ethics can solve ethical issues through the establishing of rules to which everyone is expected to adhere. This "legalistic" and specialized approach is detrimental because it doesn’t take the extreme  complexity of the world in which we live into account. When it comes to trying to promote the legitimacy of an action and its real ethical content, everyone is concerned on real time, and not only the formally responsible people. The purpose of the Edgar Morin Complexity Chair is to promote a collective responsibility within organizations. A responsibility shared by all, regardless of hierarchical level.

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