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Why we do the things we do

A blog to celebrate Global Ethics Day – 18 October 2023




As my audience is usually accountants, I often relate my blogs to the requirements of ethical codes. Of course, when considering an ethical code, we focus on the things we should (or must) do, and so a code of ethics is often framed in terms of broad principles on which most people can agree. But here I am seeking to take a slightly different view of ethics. Instead of focusing on normative ethics, I want to turn to descriptive ethics – the study of how people in fact behave and the moral standards they follow (and claim to follow).


Why is that important? Because we need to reduce the gap between what people should do and what they actually do. If we can understand more about why we do the things we do, we can perhaps play a part in influencing behaviours within our organisations. Therefore, I ask you to set aside the question of whether morals are formed through nature or nurture and accept that – to a great extent – our moral standards are subject to various external influences, whether or not we are aware of them, and much of which is beyond our control.


Later, I shall bring the discussion back to the work setting, but first let’s take a look at some of the major influences on our moral standards:


Family

We can make no assumptions about someone else’s upbringing and the moral guidance derived from a primary care giver. It is quite common for a young person to lack a positive male or female role model; but someone who is not raised by two parents will inevitably adopt their own role models. Our families (or childhood caregivers) have a strong influence on our ethical decision-making throughout our lives. Perhaps, as children, we were sometime asked the rhetorical question: ‘What would your mother say if she knew?’ For some of us, even now, we may find that question ringing in our ears occasionally.


As adults, it may be challenging to consider how positive or negative our role models have been. (Perhaps we never stop acquiring – and occasionally discarding – role models.) Naturally, we mimic the behaviours of those we admire (including those whose approval we seek).


Religion

If you belong to a faith-based community, you may have learned ethical behaviour from those with whom you worship in your church, temple, mosque, synagogue, or other place of worship. That community is often a form of support network, and one’s religion may be an important aspect of one’s identity. Even if you do not belong to a faith-based community, you are likely to have views about religion and atheism. You should also remain aware that some people do have strong religious beliefs, which will (consciously or unconsciously) inform opinions in many ethical discussions.


It is important to note that business ethics need not conflict with religious beliefs. Most, if not all, religions contain some direction about treating other people ‘fairly’, which is also the premise of most ethical models. It is worth reminding ourselves (as an aside) that diversity and inclusivity in ethical discussions ensure that a representative range of perspectives is heard, leading to better decision-making.


Gender

Some researchers have questioned whether men and women approach ethics in a different way. In the past, I have invited CPD delegates to take a quiz that helps them to identify whether they lean towards a justice and rules-based approach to ethical dilemmas or whether they lean towards a care-based approach. The justice and rules-based approach says that the rules should be applied equally to everyone and that justice and objectivity are most important. The care-based approach says that care, rather than justice, is most important and that we should act responsibly to people in need.


It is claimed that, in North American and European groups, men will generally have higher ‘justice’ scores and women will have higher ‘care’ scores when taking the quiz. Looking at this another way: those leaning towards a rules-based approach to ethics are measuring their actions against an abstract principle like justice or ‘fairness’ (what we might regard as a form of Virtue theory); those leaning towards a care-based approach would tend to think about how much good or harm would result from their actions – a utilitarian approach.


Ethics and maturity

Before concluding on why we do what we do, it is worth mentioning a theory of moral development, popularised by Lawrence Kohlberg, which says that ethical thinking evolves over time, and that most people move through six stages of ethical maturity. They start from a place of egoism – focused only on obedience, punishment and reward – before then considering social relationships (seeking approval) and then the needs of a functioning society – everyone obeying laws and social conventions. A relevant question to consider is how the earlier stages of ethical development may impact the later stages, ie what social relationships and a functioning society should look like.


Conclusions for the work setting

Of course, we cannot make assumptions about the ethical approaches of others based on upbringing, religion or gender (or anything else). But it is important to try to understand how you approach an ethical question, and to recognise that other people may approach them in different ways. Within an organisation – including a work setting – it is crucial to recognise that the behaviours and apparent values of prominent individuals will certainly impact the organisation’s ethical culture.


My studies and life experiences have taught me that a reason lies behind everything we do. Even if we are harmed by the actions of another, an understanding (if possible) of why they acted in a particular way can be helpful. Inevitably, we too will act in ways that others resent or simply disapprove of. While we cannot please everyone all the time, we should be mindful of the impact our actions might have on those around us.


That impact may be positive or negative. How you behave at work, in particular, will impact the behaviours of those around you – especially if you hold a relatively senior or prominent role. We often refer to the importance of setting the right ‘tone at the top’, but anyone who has any management or leadership responsibility can reasonably be expected to lead by example. What you do will be perceived by others as acceptable behaviour. It will also be regarded as indicative of the values you hold.


We all exist and interact in a number of different networks, or ‘systems’, outside of work, including friendship groups, family, clubs, committees, etc. It follows that we must be aware of the impact we might have on the ethical culture of any of those settings.


I hope you're doing something special on Global Ethics Day. Please feel free to share this blog if it resonates with you.

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