The Case for Applied Ethics


I want to make the case for applied ethics as the basis for ethics training within any organization. Ethics creates the relational dynamic within the organization, the bond each of us has with any other person. It is so much a part of who we are and what we do that we often tend to over look it or, worse, minimize it. This fact, that ethics is an integrated part of who we are as people, has the effect that it can quickly recede into the background for many of us and only surfaces when something goes wrong or does not feel right. In other words, often we don’t notice “ethics” until something forces us to notice it but by then the damage has been done. Time and again, this has proven to be a cataclysmic approach to ethical awareness – look no further than the reputation nightmare of Goldman Sachs, Conrad Black’s difficulties or the fall from public grace of the RCMP. In these cases really bright people have launched themselves into either very dodgy or illegal situations by a critical lack of ethical awareness. It is almost a motherhood statement today in the business world to say that ethics is an integral part of any organization’s operations. But why, after all the ethical catastrophes of the last twenty years down to and including the recent economic meltdown and the present day after effects of that meltdown, is ethical awareness in many organizations still at a very basic level rather than honed to a sharp alertness?

Ethical Awareness Is a Complex Process

Ethical awareness is a complicated process for most people and for most firms. This complexity is often overlooked or ignored. In the ‘lets just do it’ ethos of much of today’s business climate, the intricacies of ethical awareness can often be buried in the rush to get ethics training (often mandated either by law or professional development requirements) done and out of the way so the real activities of business can be engaged. Such statements as ‘Ethics is doing the right thing’ or ‘We have a values statement in our firm so we have ethics covered’ tend to overlook the complexity of both ethical awareness and ethical actions.

What Makes a Good Ethical Awareness Program

Ethics is completely bound up in the nitty-gritty of daily life yet too often it can be presented in training sessions as somehow abstracted, as something that is value added to the real process of business or an add-on to our experience of life. So what makes a good ethical awareness program that actually relates people to their everyday experiences?

  1. First, what not to include. Ditch the moral philosophy. Do not mention Aristotle, Kant, Mills, Rousseau, Sartre, Rawls or any other philosopher who wrote on ethics. Avoid terms like deontological, utilitarianism, existential, virtue, pragmatism or categorical imperative. Such people and such terms immediately imply philosophy to most people and in today’s professional world few people in the business world have taken courses in philosophy or read philosophically flavoured books. There is a reason for this. Many people find philosophy either irrelevant to their lives or as boring as watching grass grow. In my experience, the fastest way to lose a group of professionals, to see a roomful of really bright peoples’ eyes glaze over, is for the instructor or facilitator to wax on about what Kant or Aristotle or Spinoza thought about ethics. Even tossing in a few case studies still makes a philosophy based ethics session too boring and abstract for too many people.

  2. The starting point of any ethics training is to define the word ‘ethics’ so everyone is on the same page. Ethics means different things to different people so clarify this loaded word at the very beginning of the training session. Be very clear in your definition. This will prevent misunderstandings and arguments which the word ethics can bring about if left hanging.

  3. Concentrate on value awareness. Ethics flows from values so emphasize values. Not values in an abstract sense but practical values that influence personal and corporate behaviour. Values influence all behaviour. Any worthwhile ethical awareness program needs to emphasize the personal and corporate awareness of values. Name these critical values! This is the heart of any ethics training. Most people are not consciously aware of their personal values. It’s the same with corporate values. Even though those corporate values may be hung on every wall that doesn’t mean people know them, agree with them or, importantly, follow them. This, the lack of conscious awareness of both personal and corporate values, has been the one major constant in my fifteen years of working in the area of personal and organizational ethics. Any ethical awareness training needs to help these values come to the participants’ conscious awareness and then be critically incorporated into their ethical decision making processes.

  4. A solid ability to effectively use ethical reasoning skills is the best tool there is to navigate in grey areas where different possibilities of action exist. So concentrate on empowering people with good ethical reasoning skills. Ethical reasoning can be complex. Introduce an ethical decision making model as a guide into the ethics training. In the business world models are used extensively for predictions and decision making. Ethics should be no different. Be careful with the model you chose. Many of them are incredibly confusing or simply a waste of time. I recommend a model like Rushworth Kidder’s model as outlined in his book How Good People Make Tough Decisions. Ethical reasoning is critical thinking based upon explicit value stances. It can be tricky so care needs to be taken on how the model is introduced and how participants are trained in its use. Don’t rush through this. Like any new skill, the ethical decision making model requires practice, practice and more practice to become effective.

  5. Minimize the rules approach. Leave the rules approach primarily for your compliance training. As anyone with any experience in the business world knows, most situations encountered in business are more of the grey variety where different possibilities of action present themselves rather than simple black and white situations where there is only one way to do it. Concentrate on the grey areas. Any ethics training must help the participants acquire the needed ethical reasoning skills to navigate through these murky grey areas where rules don’t give clear answers.

  6. Ethics is the name we give to that human interpersonal dynamic through which we create trust. Trust is a word that will occur many times in any ethics training session. It is also a word everyone knows until asked to define it. Then some very different, often contradictory, understandings of this dynamic called trust will surface. Make sure this word is concretely defined at the appropriate time in the session. Defining it makes it an even more powerful word because the facilitator can continually refer to the definition to make critical points clear. Which brings us to the next point...

  7. Any ethics training program will fail to achieve its goal if the facilitator/trainer is not up to the rigours of presenting ethical awareness training. Many people approach ethics training in the same manner they approach seeing the dentist. It’s something they have to do so let’s get it over with as painlessly and as quickly as possible. A facilitator with the requisite knowledge and passion for the topic can make the subject of ethics a fascinating, insightful voyage of learning and discovery rather than an ordeal. Good ethics training always engenders insightful, sometimes critical, questions from the participants. If the facilitator’s knowledge of ethics is only from a book or confined to the trainers’ notes that accompany the training package and isn’t up to answering difficult ethics related questions that are outside of the box or are simply tough questions, it is highly likely the facilitator will loose credibility with the participants and the training will be a waste of time. Choose the facilitator/trainer carefully.

  8. Ethics training must be intentionally integrated into the working life of an organization from top to bottom or neither the ethics training nor the organization will achieve their full potential. If the firm’s leaders don’t fully support the training through their active participation, the training’s positive contributions will wither away quite quickly.
What You Achieve

This is applied ethics – value awareness and ethical reasoning skills that guide us through the often confusing mazes of daily business interactions. Applied ethics give us practical skills and knowledge that relate us to the real lived world of business and the business world’s actual relationship to the rest of society. It can provide us with insights into individual and corporate behaviour that allows us or our firm to see ourselves as others see us in order to gage how well our actions create or hinder trust. Such an approach to ethical awareness will promote a viewpoint that considers the long term consequences with as much emphasis as the short term consequences. It will support an ethical environment that encourages honesty, transparency and fiduciary responsibility throughout the firm. An honest, firm-wide integrative approach to ethics has enormous potential to lead to loyal, hard working employees, clients who know their interests are dealt with in a fiduciary manner, shareholders who don’t have to worry about reputational implosions a la Goldman Sachs or the RCMP, leaders who actually lead and, yes, a healthy profit with considerably lessened worry of bad publicity, poor internal and external communications, expensive lawsuits, and loss of reputations. In short, effective ethical awareness through an applied ethics approach will create the trust dynamic that is central to success.