Business Ethics are Personal Ethics

It’s no longer controversial to say that we live in ethically troubled times. Turn on the news and you’re likely to find a scandal of some sort. And it seems that scandals that would have rocked the nation only a few decades ago are considered par for the course today. Just this year we’ve had…

And those are just the bigger headlines. How can these things happen? We have codes of professional ethics for businesses, bankers, elected officials, journalists, mechanics, computer programmers, grocery stores and mail carriers. But somehow, we still have scandals that showcase how unethical behavior has been able to thrive, sometimes for decades, at an institutional level.

The question ultimately becomes where does ethical thought and behavior come from. There has been plenty of debate on whether ethical behavior can be taught. The answer seems to be, “it depends”. Test takers can certainly be primed to give ethical answers after they’re exposed to ethical reasoning exercises, but the effects don’t seem to last outside the classroom or laboratory.

I think the reason is because all ethics are ultimately personal. When we abstractly talk about professional ethics, we’re really talking about situations that may be unique to a banker or a mechanic in which an ethical choice will be made, but we’re not really talking about different ethics. Ultimately, the goal is still honesty or fairness.

Most people will say that they’re more ethical than their peers, but conversely, the percentage of people that say they would steal from their employer (if they wouldn’t get caught) has been inching up over the years. I believe this is why public trust in institutions is falling. We know our own hearts and expect that most people are more or less like us. If I know that I’ll try get away with whatever I can, I have to expect that you’ll do that same to me when I turn my back.

So the responsibility for ethical behavior falls on each of us. We can’t put the onus for decision making on our boss, our upbringing or our circumstance. Some of you may be seeing shades of Kant’s categorical imperative creeping in here, and you’re not wrong. There’s a reason that his thinking has invaded Western ethics so deeply.

I’m increasingly concerned that our technological development has outpaced our moral and cultural development. The “user manual” for an ethical life has gotten lost in our educational and cultural systems, mainly because we’re often facing ethical situations that no one has faced before. It’s hard for a child to learn an ethic that will later apply to investment banking because his parents likely never worked in the world of high-speed online trading.

The only solution is for each of us to make our own ethical development a priority. Read a book on ethics and think about how it might apply to decisions that you make in your profession. Play around with ethical brain teasers like these and take advantage of free ethical reasoning courses offered by the University of Texas Austin or Harvard. Like so many things, ethical thought is a muscle that must be exercised. We each have the opportunity to act un/ethically every day. If we wait until decision time, we’ll be left wanting and only contribute to the problem.

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