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Ethics Can Be Taught
 

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Ethics scandals create a sense of urgency that business must do a better job of promoting ethical behavior. There is a growing suspicion that legal compliance alone is not sufficient to promote responsible practices and to maintain the public trust. In an earlier post, I wrote of the need to develop the moral imagination of entrepreneurs who are our best hope for insightful, innovative solutions to the ethics challenges of today and tomorrow. But how is it possible to develop moral imagination? Some say that ethics can't be taught, at least not past early childhood. Either you have ethics or you don't, goes this line of thinking. Trying to teach ethics is like trying to teach someone how to carry a tune: If a person is tone-deaf, no amount of instruction will help.

This view that ethics cannot be taught is refuted by developmental psychology, which shows that people do acquire more sophisticated forms of ethical reasoning as they mature. Learning ethics might be like learning a language: It's easier to learn when young, but everyone can improve their foreign language skills, even later in life. There's a certain kind of wisdom that comes only from experience and ethical reasoning improves with instruction and practice.

Compliance training is all about learning rules that prevent business from doing harm. It deals less with the grey area of ethical quandaries and more with basic boundaries that should not be crossed. By comparison, it can be harder to determine the limits of our obligations when we seek to do more than simply stay out of trouble. We are required to do deeper thinking when we are asking how much good we should do in a particular business situation.

In this more complex calculation, ethics instruction can use a tool like the Kew Gardens Principles, a decision guide developed by a group of ethicists in the early 1970s. These principles were a response to the brutal killing of a young woman in Kew Gardens, New York, when witnesses to the attack failed to intervene or call for help. These principles identify four factors to consider when deciding whether to help solve a problem, even if the problem is not of our own doing:

1. Need. We are not required to go out of our way to fix every trivial problem we encounter. But the greater the need, the greater is our duty to address it.

2. Proximity. The closer we are to a problem, the more we may be expected to do something about it. We may have physical proximity, but we can also be close to a problem in more complex ways if it involves people we know well or are related to.

3. Capability. Ethics does not require us to take on problems we can't fix. I wouldn't be expected to dive in a pool to save a drowning man if I don't know how to swim -- though I certainly could be expected to do something else within my capability, like calling for help.

4. Last resort. If no one else is likely to help, we have a greater obligation to act ourselves. When there is uncertainty about the availability of others to help, we should err on the side of caution and act as if we are the last resort.

Need, Proximity, Capability and Last Resort. These four factors provide a simple but powerful framework for analyzing those grey situations where we must determine our obligations to do more than simply to avoid harm. These stimulate the moral imagination to envision new solutions to the ethics issues that arise at work. Business has shown it can respond to ethics scandals by beefing up compliance education. The challenge now is to take the next step to develop more advanced skills in ethical reasoning. Tools like the Kew Gardens Principles should be part of that next step.

Last updated: Jun 24, 2008




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