Benchmark Ethics: The Ethics of Mission Control

By David W. Gill

A “benchmark ethics” for today’s world of business and technology targets the highest (not the lowest) common denominator set of moral values. In Benchmark Ethics, Issue 1 (“Finding a Common Standard,” IBTE Bulletin, October 1998), I argued that we will recognize such a benchmark ethics when we see it, much the way we recognize a good map. A good map will guide us to our chosen destination (not lead us astray). If we get off track we can study the map and find our way back. We accept the authority of a map because it works for us and because we know that it has worked for others. Ethics “works” — in all kinds of crises and circumstances — or it is wrong.

What does benchmark ethics work “for”? Where does the ethical map lead us? The first question in ethics is “what is our ultimate destination or goal?” Alternative terms for such a goal include “ultimate values,” “purpose,” “mission,” and “end.” The appropriateness and validity of moral virtues, principles, and rules lies in their relationship to an End, a mission. Thus it is essential that we choose our mission carefully and articulate it clearly. If we do not, our ethics will have little or no persuasive force. An inspiring, shared mission, on the other hand, can lead to a highest common denominator benchmark ethics.

This is not an original idea (though it is often forgotten today). The ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle began his most famous book on ethics by writing, “The good is that at which everything aims.” Aristotle considered it essential to begin ethics by asking just what our appropriate aim should be. He decided on happiness (in the sense of well-being, a bit broader than today’s notion). For Aristotle, moral character virtues (justice, wisdom, courage, moderation, friendliness, and so on) are justified because they are conducive to human happiness.

It is also no accident that the Ten Commandments, the most famous list of ethical principles in the world, begin with “You shall have no other gods before me.” A strange “religious” beginning to a moral code, you might say. But the point is that your choice about God (the ultimate sacred value in your life) will determine your choice of good. In the Ten Commandments, for example, you must not murder (the 6th Command) because your God (of the 1st Command) demands respect for and preservation of the lives he has created. So too, you work for six days, then rest a seventh (the 4th Command), because your God worked on his Creation for six days and rested the seventh, setting the pattern. Goods depend on gods.

When I first got behind the wheel of a car as a teenager (on an Oregon backroad while on a family vacation) I scared my family to death by the way I steered. The car jerked back and forth, left and right. My dad grabbed the wheel and advised “look farther down the road as you drive.” I did and soon everyone was breathing more easily. I had thought I should drive by looking at the center line just in front of the car’s left front fender, but I needed a longer range perspective to steer us smoothly forward. Of course, to drive well we need good peripheral vision and good reactions to immediate crises (e.g., a deer runs across road, some debris was left in the road, etc.). But the longer-range perspective is basic and essential.

In a world of rapidly changing technology, our challenges tend to be right in front of us. The immediacy of these opportunities and challenges seems to fill up our agenda each day. Some of those crises are like the road debris I mentioned above — it gets in our way and we need to quickly, safely steer around it. Sometimes, however, technology modifies the long-term direction of the company. In this case, we may be headed into new, perhaps even uncharted, territory.

Al Erisman and I call most of today’s business ethics “damage control” ethics. It is an ethics focused on containing harms from problems already spinning out of control. It is an ethics that concentrates on the messes at the end of a process that has gone awry. It is crisis oriented. We are confronted by various moral dilemmas or quandaries and have to choose how best to “muddle through.” This is a little like taking off on a trip with only a vague idea of where we are going and without mapping out our journey, and then concentrating on swerving around the potholes. We go for the map only after we are hopelessly lost, tempers are short, and we have wasted lots of time.

We don’t deny that such “damage control” is an important activity. But if we think of ethics only as a matter of damage control of agonizing quandaries, we will never get to a major source of these dilemmas: a defective or weak mission and culture. Ethical values must be clearly linked to a clear and compelling mission. This is the ethics of mission control. When we have moral disagreement over specific values and practices, a common benchmark can only be found by pushing the discussion back to our fundamental choices regarding our mission.

The ethics of mission control, the center of benchmark ethics, begins with the following kinds of questions: Who are we? What is the purpose and mission of our company (or working group)? What kind of an impact do we want to have on the world we live in and our children will inherit? We know that business must have profit as one of its essential purposes (or it’s all over). But what other human and business purposes and values will be there, central to our mission? We know that technology aims at efficiency, power, speed, and so on. But what other ultimate values will guide the use of technologies in our mission?

Can we articulate answers to these questions clearly? Can we give good reasons why these missional purposes have “value”, why we should embrace these ends?

Three books that might be helpful in getting started on the ethics of mission control: Jeffrey Abrahams, in The Mission Statement Book (Ten Speed Press, 1995), provides 301 examples of corporate mission statements and some good counsel on how to approach your own. James C. Collins and Jerry I. Porras deserved their best-seller status for their wonderful study Built to Last: Successful Habits of Visionary Companies (New York: HarperBusiness, 1994). Finally, Robert C. Solomon’s Ethics and Excellence: Cooperation and Integrity in Business (New York: Oxford, 1993) is the outstanding, in-depth argument for a mission-driven approach to business ethics.

David W. Gill was co-founder of IBTE and author of Benchmark Ethics, a regular article in the first 32 issues of Ethix. After eight years of writing, speaking, teaching, and consulting in the Bay Area of California, he joined the faculty of Gordon-Conwell Theological Center (South Hampton, Mass.) in 2010, where he is also Director of the Mockler Center for Faith and Ethics in the Workplace.

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