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What is ethical?

My last blog asked the question ‘How easy is it to do the right thing?’, and I sought to highlight some of the possible pitfalls when making ethical choices. One of the challenges is to undertake an honest analysis of the ethical dilemma you are facing and, in this respect, the ethical course of action may be obscured by the course we would want to take. Our selfish desires are powerful drives, and sometimes we don’t recognise when they are at play.

If our own wants and needs win through, then we have made ourselves vulnerable to accusations that we have acted unethically. Can you think of a time when you may have inadvertently allowed your own interests to cloud your decision-making (in some small way)? We are all subject to human weakness, and so we all make mistakes. But it is a further weakness to succumb to the defence of rationalisation, whereby our instinct is to explain away why we made the choices we did – why we didn’t really act unethically or, if we did, it wasn’t really our fault.

In response to my last blog, someone referred to a ‘broad brush’ approach that some experts believe can be applied to any organisation, and raised the question of the geographical and cultural variations of what might be considered ethical. I was intrigued by the case study raised – that of museums displaying human remains. It was claimed that a global ethical code simply could not be applied to such concerns due to the cultural, religious and historic variations around the globe. That got me thinking, and I have risen to the challenge.

First let me remind you of the message in my original blog – that ethical decision-making is not easy. Ethics is a branch of philosophy concerned with what is morally good and bad, right and wrong. Moral philosophers will argue that, in most situations, there is a right answer (and many wrong answers) to the question of what is the ethical course of action. Nevertheless, the problem is to determine what the right answer is, and people will, of course, disagree according to the ethical principles they hold dear (and perhaps their unconscious bias).

The ethical theories of Aristotle, Kant, Bentham, etc may be unfamiliar to most people, and my reflections on why we might lean towards a particular philosophy is perhaps something for a future blog. This blog is not so concerned with competing schools of thought as with the universal application of a code of ethics. So let’s consider this question in the context of our case study:

In a particular country, factors such as commonly held religious and spiritual beliefs and traditional practices will be sure to impact the reaction (including hurt and distress) of those in that country who witness human remains being disturbed and put on show in a museum. It could (and should) be argued that there are also positive outcomes to displaying human remains in museums, such as the opportunities for research, generation of income for the museum, etc. In the interests of simplicity, this rather naïve assessment of what is right or wrong only considers one ethical viewpoint – that of utilitarianism. Nevertheless, it strongly suggests that what is right (or at least acceptable) in one part of the world may be unthinkable elsewhere.

But that is not to say that the way we seek to resolve ethical dilemmas should be different in different parts of the world. Instead, we need to recognise that each ethical decision is made within a particular and unique set of circumstances, and a decision that respects local culture will involve a different set of circumstances in different parts of the world. (As an aside, we could contrast this claim with a claim that circumstances change over time. I do not subscribe to that view, as it could be used to try to excuse all sorts of historical atrocities which we now know to be wrong and, in fact, they always were.)

So we could apply a utilitarian approach to resolving ethical dilemmas to similar situations in different parts of the world and arrive at different answers according to the circumstances in each case, including location and local history, culture, beliefs, etc. Put a slightly different way: we can apply the same set of ethical principles to different situations and the ethical course of action will vary according to the situation, including a wide range of factors that we must recognise as we seek to understand different cultures.

Now, relating this to businesses with a global presence, there is no requirement to vary the ethical standards required in different locations. The same ethical principles may be applied globally. However, those applying the principles must be equipped to do so within a cultural context and with regard to the specific local circumstances. The problem – often giving rise to unethical decisions - is where detailed ethical codes (with the best of intentions) prescribe lists of dos and don’ts that simply cannot be applied universally.

For completeness, I would like to contrast our case study with two other areas where ethics plays a fundamental role:

First, consider the area of equality, diversity and inclusion and, in particular, the treatment of women and girls in different parts of the world. Would you be prepared to argue that denying a young woman a university education is ethical in some ‘cultures’ or in a particular set of circumstances? I, for one, would not. The impact on any individual of having their rights restricted is the same, regardless of how commonplace such restrictions are in some parts of the world. Furthermore, it seems to me that the restriction of women’s rights is allowed to continue not only because it can be difficult to bring about change, but also because men fail to recognise the blinding power of self-interest referred to in the first paragraph and in my previous blog.

The second example – more directly related to business – is that of bribery and corruption, which remains commonplace in certain regimes. We might even tell ourselves that bribery is just part of the system (and that means we don’t have to think very deeply about it). But the negative impacts of bribery and corruption are easy to see – especially if we look to the longer term. It is wrong wherever it is happening. Individually, we can do little to change things. However, in 2011, the Bribery Act 2010 finally came into force to support that change. The Bribery Act has almost universal jurisdiction, allowing for the prosecution (with stringent penalties) of individuals and companies with links to the UK, regardless of where the breach occurred.

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