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Moral Moments

On the Other Hand...

Sometimes the greatest enemy of ethics is ‘ethics’, says Joel Marks.

Consider the growing movement among various types of professionals, such as accountants and investment consultants, to promote honesty as the best business policy. This would seem to be a no-brainer since trust is the name of the game for such professions; their raison d’etre is to convince various constituencies that everything is on the up-and-up with regard to their clients, for example, businesses seeking new investors. So if you catch any one of them cheating in some way, a pall is cast over the whole enterprise; it’s bad not only for these professionals’ clients, but for the professionals themselves. The American accounting firm of Arthur Andersen is a prime example, which simply folded after the Enron scandal. Therefore professionals should be the first to get behind professional ethics.

The moral of the story? That is the question! On the face of it the moral is – be moral. But many of my students (think they) know better. My students are usually career majors, who are taking an introductory philosophy course as part of a general education requirement. They see the lesson to be learned as: don’t get caught. Why would they think that? Because they are of the firm belief that the only way to get rich, or even to keep your job, is to play the game the way it actually is played, not how some ethicist thinks (or some self-serving prosecuting attorney says) it ought to be played.

‘Game’ here is often taken literally as what their coaches tell them on the field of play, and no doubt also their officers on the field of battle. My students positively guffaw when I, who am neither a sports player nor fan, not to mention a soldier, tout good sportsmanship as what it’s all about, or at least as an essential element. What is the point of a victory if one hasn’t played by the rules? No, no, my students assure me, winning is what it’s all about. They have that on the best authority. That is why, then, it is of special significance that business and professional leaders themselves are coming out all in favor of ethics in the workplace. Here are role models.

Unless, of course, it’s just PR (or BS, which appropriately enough, then, is the name of the degree these students will receive) ... which is what the students often think. And let’s face it, they may be right. Very few observers believe that the result of the Enron scandal will be truly significant reform even legally, not to mention morally. Plug a few holes and others will form in their place. You simply cannot change the way things work. Every once in a while you have to pay attention to the window dressing to assuage the outraged public. Perhaps my students will admit that the appearance of integrity is important for the business enterprise; how else, for example, would marketing convince customers to buy a product or service? But the public then go right back to their jobs doing the same old stuff they complained about others doing. There’s just no alternative in the cut-throat world of competition.

My own take on all of this is: “Yes and no”, at least with regard to the empirical issue of whether honesty is the best policy for business success. There are clear examples of where it is, and probably clear examples of where it isn’t. Whether the one sort of example outnumbers the other, I cannot say. I certainly won’t rely on the news media to inform me on that question, as they are themselves partially corrupted by competitive pressures (not to mention the usual innocent biases that all acculturated flesh is heir to). To what degree I cannot say, either. Nor will I rely on wishful and question-begging thinking and presume that there is some pre-established harmony between goodness and happiness in this best of all possible worlds.

Adam Smith was notoriously skeptical of the claims for altruism; “I have never known much good done by those who affected to trade for the public good,” he famously wrote in An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations (bk. 4, ch. 2, para. 9). Yet he equally famously propounded that “[no individual] intends to promote the public interest ... [H]e intends only his own gain, and he is in this ... led by an invisible hand to promote an end which was no part of his intentions” (ibid.). That is, Smith held that things work out best for the society as a whole when each person seeks his own profit.

In effect, the professional ethics movement among businesspersons is what I call the Other Hand Theory, namely, that by conducting business ethically, profit will result (as if by an invisible hand). As noted, there is even a plausible mechanism to account for this, so that this ‘hand’ need not seem mysterious at all, since some level of trust seems obviously necessary to conduct most human affairs, business included.

I will be happy to link arms with professionals who believe that, but I won’t relinquish my ethics credentials to them. For, even apart from the objection of naiveté, I see a deeper flaw in their reasoning. What I have to say parallels comments I made in an earlier column about academic cheating (in Issue 37). Ethics is not about rewards. If one does ‘the right thing’ in order to achieve personal gain, then one is not really acting on the basis of integrity.

For example, if you tell the truth only because you think it will benefit you, is that honesty? Obviously not, I would say. My argument: An honest person is precisely one who is committed to truth-telling such that, even if she sees benefit to herself from telling a lie, then, barring extraordinary circumstances, she can be relied on not to tell the lie or deceive either.

Therefore, the kind of ethics that the happy entrepreneur promotes is in a way the enemy of ethics, for the implication is that should there ever arise circumstances when profit would not be maximized by acting morally ... too bad for morality!

© Joel Marks 2005

Joel Marks is Professor of Philosophy at the University of New Haven in West Haven, Connecticut. www.moralmoments.com

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