The Meaning of Ethics

We’re long overdue here at the Ethicist to get back into the swing of things! Obviously, we’re now looking forward to the annual meeting in Anaheim, which has an especially fortuitous theme for the Ethics Education Committee. As this year’s program chair, Mary Ann Glynn, points out, meaning and ethics are closely related issues for organizations:

Recently, there have been highly publicized corporate scandals, Wall Street corruption, and failures of government to meet the needs of its citizens, with a resulting rise in public distrust and questioning of organizations’ reasons for being.  We often take as given that an organization’s purpose to produce economic value; and, although economic value can often add to social value, sometimes it does not.  This disjuncture raises the question of meaningfulness.

Avoiding scandal and fostering trust is arguably the very meaning of ethics. And if it is true, as I think it is, that communities are essentially constituted by their ethics (show me your ethics and I’ll tell you a great deal about what kind of community you’ve got) then there’s no doubt that frequent scandals and and deepening mistrust would raise fundamental questions about an organization’s “reason for being”. What’s going on? What’s it all about? Why are we here? What does it all mean? Important issues to think about.

Nor is the academy (and even the Academy) able to keep itself entirely aloof from these questions. In the world of research, there have also been scandals and mistrust, and we need to face these issues squarely in our own research practice and communities. That’s where the Ethicist and the Ethics Education Committee would like to be of help.

We’re currently reaching out the AOM divisions to offer our help in developing and implementing ethics modules in their PDW’s and consortia sessions. It is our view that ethics is best approached as a conversation, not a merely a code of conduct. While we have the Code to guide us, the  really interesting work happens in a discussion of the details. And that conversation always has to be anchored in the actual practices that constitute the wide variety of research communities with the Academy of Management. Accordingly, our first responsibility as ethics educators is to listen and learn from members about the situations they face.

This post, then, is an invitation to engage in conversation. Feel free to leave comments below about the sorts of issues you think need to be faced, either by your own discipline or by the management field in general. Also, I am coordinating our consortia contributions this year, so if you are leading a consortium session for your division and would like include the EEC, either in your presentation or in your planning, please contact me by mail so we can work out the details.

 

Decency

A while back, I got into an interesting discussion with Andrew on the subject of courage, which stemmed from my temporary reticence about speaking my mind in public, or my resentment, if you will, of my “obligation to publish”. (I’m happy to say that I’m much better now.) One thought led to another and I soon found myself warning against a situation in which it might take “heroic amounts” of courage to tell the truth in the social sciences, management studies included. Andrew rightly found that prospect depressing.

But along the way I also noticed the particular virtue that might make all the difference here. It’s an insight worth explicating, if for no other reason than to reveal its flaws. (Let me know if you can spot any, please.) It seems to me that we depend on the decency of others not to make too great demands of our courage. What is this strange comportment we call decency that it could have this power?

In the comments, Erik suggested that the anonymity of peer review removes the need for a great deal of courage. And in an important sense, this is exactly the sort of thing I mean. It’s not that I think anonymous reviewers are congenital cowards, though I’m sure many disgruntled authors would like me to validate them in this belief. Rather, since it takes no courage to review a paper (in ordinary cases), we have to rely on the reviewer’s decency. Since they are protected from our personal judgment of them, we can only hope that they will not exploit their freedom to cruelly abuse us, or lead us on a wild goose chase for pointless references, or waste our time with needless revision. We count on them not reject (or accept us) for their own personal gain, and to tell us honestly what they of our work.

But by the same token, where strong institutions ensure decency, e.g., where editorial oversight protects authors from unhelpful reviews, it also takes less courage to submit a paper for review. We know the editor is not going to let our reviewers abuse us and we can rest assured that if they do form a very negative of opinion of our work, they will not be able to form a correspondingly negative opinion of us.

I’ll never forget the lightbulb that went off in my head many years ago when I was reading Edward Johnson’s Handbook of Good English. He said that it’s an editor’s job is to “protect the author from criticism”, meaning unconstructive complaints about language and grammar from the end reader. An associate editor’s job at journal, by extension, is to protect the author from unconstructive criticism of one’s ideas, first from the reviewers, by demanding a certain standard of them, and thereafter from readers, by selecting competent reviewers that are actually able to evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of the paper that has been submitted.

I like to think of decency as the virtue of “immediate rightness”, or appropriateness in the moment. It’s a matter of keeping the surfaces of social interaction tolerably pleasant. Our code requires us to “respect the dignity and worth of all people” in our activities as management scholars and professionals. We might also say we are bound to be decent. It’s akin to “civility”, but that will have to be a topic for another day.

Courage

“Thus conscience does make cowards of us all.”

Hamlet

In the comments to my last post, Andrew quite literally encouraged me to speak my mind. Truth be told, I’ve always been ambivalent about “intellectual courage”. Sometimes the exercise of our ethical obligations seems to require us to be courageous. But is courage itself an ethical obligation?

Courage is, of course, a virtue and it is presumably what is required of us when we “speak truth to power”. In the paradigm case, some form of social power asks us to lie or to remain silent, and when we defy this power we exercise courage. The consequences can be quite serious because, in so far as the power is real, it is also dangerous. If the powerful person or institution we are defying chooses to punish us for speaking the truth, then it has, by definition, the power to do so.

To understand my ambivalence, consider the ethical obligations that follow from being physically strong. “Ought,” they say, “implies can.” If someone is trapped under a car I have an ethical obligation to lift the car off them, but only, of course, if I have the strength to do so. Is courage a kind of “strength” in that sense?

Courage is a virtue and cowardice is a vice. But some part of our everyday moral psychology also sees them as character traits, i.e., as qualities we are either born with or develop through practice but, in any case, simply have a certain amount of at any given time. Suppose I know a “truth” that “power” would have me remain silent about. To speak it is to risk my career. Now, suppose I simply lack the courage to do it. I’m a “coward”, to be sure, but am I violating my ethics? How much courage can be demanded of my ethical behavior?

We are getting to the core of the issue I want to raise. How much courage should it take to speak the truth in an academic environment? Should it take courage to tell someone they are wrong?

On the one hand, we’d think universities would be a premier site of intellectual courage, much like the military should offer regular occasions for valour.* But let’s think this through. Suppose speaking the truth generally takes a great deal of courage. We will then rely on “heroes” to know what is going on. As students, we must assume that learning how the world works will itself require a great deal of courage, not just intelligence and diligence. Worse, the pressures that require truth-tellers to be courageous would also, of course, make cowards of the rest of us, those of us who are disinclined towards heroic acts of speaking truth to power.

In fact, what our academic institutions ought to do is to insulate inquirers from the social pressures that would require them to be courageous. Perhaps we could say an academic should never have to speak truth to power, but always to knowledge, i.e., to something that won’t hurt them, but might correct them. Don’t we want to know truths even if they are discovered by natural born cowards?

From this point of view, it is unfortunate that academics do, throughout the course of their career, amass real, if somewhat parochial, power. They have the power to exploit (and even harass and abuse) their students, for example, or the power to promote ideologies or products, sometimes for something as base as money. Finally, academics have the power to promote or obstruct their colleagues in their careers.

I want here to focus on the cases in which the abuse of power is also the distortion of truth. Sexual harassment, while certainly wrong, and often worse than intellectual dishonesty, does not directly distort our understanding of a given social phenomenon or exaggerate our confidence in a particular theory. (Because of the concomitant lying, to be sure, it does distort the reality experienced by the harassed persons and their colleagues. But this is not a fully or, if you will, a “merely” academic distortion.)

While it seems petty, and certainly unethical, there is really no question about whether academics have an incentive to punish each other for pointing out each other’s mistakes. An academic who is known for making mistakes will be less successful than one who is known for getting things right. So, if I have the power to prevent someone from pointing out my mistakes, I also, whatever else is true, have an incentive to use it. I may simply bribe the would-be truth-teller with promises of advancement, or I may threaten them with unpleasant consequences. This would be unethical.

In an ethical environment, of course, we would trust that I will not be punished for pointing out a mistake. But this will probably require that no one is ever punished for making them (removing the incentive to punish me for pointing it out). That is, I would be able even to be wrong about your mistakes, more or less without consequences. That’s a truly “utopian” situation.

The dystopian situation, however, is one in which it is very dangerous to speak what Al Gore famously called “an inconvenient truth”. Science would only be done by heroes, and, since these are rare, we would have to resign ourselves to the fact that most scientists are intellectual cowards. In my view, ethics is what ensures that only a reasonable, “ordinary” if you will, amount of courage is needed. We would, for the most part, rely on the decency of our colleagues.** And it would also ensure that science, as a social institution, wouldn’t have much need for cowards; wouldn’t encourage them, if you will.

We will, no doubt, always have to speak the truth, if we speak it at all, to some form of power. And so our knowledge will always depend to some extent on our intellectual courage. We can hope, however, that it does not depend on heroic amounts of courage. That same situation is much more likely to make cowards of most of us.
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*Movies that construe soldiers as heroes are, of course, very common. But we sometimes forget how rare they make real courage seem, even among soldiers. In most war movies (and novels), most members of the military, often including high-level officers, are “just following orders”, many of them out of lust for reward or fear of punishment. Much of the conflict pits the hero against these mediocrities.

Indeed, it is possible to raise the question of whether the modern army isn’t actually an attempt to wage war without courage or valour. (This is a common critique of drones, but was already an issue in the British navy, I was once told, when missiles were introduced that allowed one ship to sink another it couldn’t see.) Modernity aside, perhaps this has always been the purpose of a standing army; kings and emperors were finding heroes a bit too rare or too capricious (or perhaps even too honourable!) to realize their foreign policies.

**There’s probably an important relationship between courage and decency. I will explore this in a later post.