When we think of ethics, we often think of high-minded discussions of complex topics, discussions that generally lead nowhere. This sort of view gives ethics a bad reputation as a sort of drawing room amusement disconnected from the world of action. The truth about ethics is far different than this characterization suggests. In fact, it is far different than many preconceptions about ethics.
Here are five surprising truths about ethics that will help you know what is right — and do it.
- Ethics is often simple. Most people who do wrong things are perfectly well aware they are doing wrong things. Does anyone believe that the individuals who knew about the life-threatening ignition switches in GM cars did not know that selling these cars was wrong? They knew perfectly well, but chose not to do anything about it to protect their positions in the company. The question is not one of knowing right from wrong; it is a matter of what made the organization so sick that knowing right from wrong didn’t matter. Yes, there are challenging ethical puzzles, but there are even more cases in which we know very well what is right — and just don’t do it.
- Technology can undermine ethics. Our ethical instincts arose to help us cooperate in hunter-gatherer groups. When you did something that hurt another member of the group, you were to feel some of that hurt yourself — conscience. But these ethical instincts work best when you are forced to directly experience the consequences of your actions. Today, technology enables us to do harm at a great distance and essentially anonymously. Consider the taunts and lies promulgated via social media just because they can be delivered anonymously. One reason that drone warfare worries us is that it detaches the act of killing from any experience of it. Our technological reach has outdistanced our ethical reach.
- The profit motive is not to blame. There are as many unethical actions in government and the nonprofit sector as there are in business. Even though the profit motive can drive people to get ahead no matter what, so can political and bureaucratic motives. Does anyone doubt that the drive for position, power and fame is as ethically deforming as the drive for profit? It is only when seeking profit means seeking profit at any cost that you are likely to find ethics issues. But seeking power or fame at any cost has the same consequence.
- People are not getting less ethical. Every generation regards later generations as less ethical than their own. But the evidence is to the contrary. The Council of Ethical Organizations has conducted a highly tested survey in hundreds of organizations since 1986. While particular organizations or industry segments get more or less ethical, overall scores on the survey have been stable for almost 20 years. There is no central tendency of decline. What sometimes makes us think ethics is on the way out is the fact that we learn more about ethical misdeeds than earlier generations did — partly due to power of social media and the growth of news outlets.
- You can teach a person ethics. This should be obvious since most parents teach most children ethics to some extent — although not as much as we might like. The reason we can teach children ethics is that children respond to incentives, whether it is a new toy for telling the truth or a pronounced glare for lying. Companies spend tens of millions of dollars trying to talk their employees into acting ethically. But they keep the same reward system that they’ve always used, in which ethics plays no part. And so nothing changes.