Benchmark Ethics: The People Factor

By David W. Gill

Ethics is about right and wrong, good and bad. But so is etiquette: there is a right and wrong way to set the table or greet a stranger, according to the rules of etiquette. So how is ethics to be distinguished from etiquette (or for that matter, from cooking, where there are right and wrong ways to make a cake!)?

The traditional answer is that ethical rightness and wrongness have to do with situations in which people might be harmed (or helped). The first principle of ethics is “do no harm.” The ancient code of medical ethics called the Hippocratic Oath stresses this fundamental ethical duty. No one is really harmed if you violate the rules of etiquette, so the explanation goes. They may be offended but not really harmed. Ethical wrongdoing harms people. Perhaps the harm is emotional or spiritual rather than physical, but if it’s harm, it’s of concern to ethics.

Even those great old vices of lust and gluttony are best understood as moral wrongs because they threaten, if they do not actually cause, harm to one’s health or because they cultivate an inclination to act in harmful ways. Ethical standards and principles provide ways of ordering our people relationships so that we will help rather than harm one another.

All of this is to say that the ethical health of an organization can be judged by the way it treats people: investors, employees, customers, competitors, family members, and others. Do we protect people from harm (physically, emotionally, financially, relationally, intellectually, etc.)? Or do we risk harm to them? Do we wash our hands of responsibility, or do we show leadership by taking responsibility in our irresponsible era? Do we actively make it our purpose to benefit people? To enhance and enrich their lives with our products and services? To enhance the work experiences of our employees and colleagues? These are all moral health indicators.

It is not difficult to see how today’s technologies can extend impressively our capacities to help people. But some vigilance is also called for: our technologies enables negative impacts as well as positive ones. Some of this is direct: job losses through technological downsizing or physical hazards from video display exposure and repetitive motion. Some harms may be less direct: computer networks undermining or impoverishing relationships by electronically separating and isolating workers and harming customers too far away to be detected.

Of course, the right and wrong of ethics are not limited to their impact on people. They also include mistreating animals and destroying the environment. This is not just because of potential harms to people (which is one good reason but not the only one). Animals and the environment have their own intrinsic value, bestowed on them by their Creator, not just by their human users. But as a fundamental point of departure for a benchmark ethics we can say that people — harming them or helping them — are the primary object of our ethical concern.

There is a second “people factor” in a benchmark ethics. People are the subject as well as the object in the moral life; they are the moral agents, the actors, as well as the acted upon. And while individuals certainly have moral responsibility, this moral responsibility is carried out with others. Benchmark ethics is not for moral Lone Rangers. Despite some popular (and some philosophical) talk to the contrary, ethics cannot be another way of expressing just “what I personally feel.” Ethical standards and values must represent some kind of group values; if they are just self-serving individual preferences, it is not ethics but self-assertion.

How do people (plural) function as moral agents in a benchmark ethics? First, it is the community that sustains and passes on ethical values as living, vital guidelines to a common good. Ethical values are passed on by people who practice them and teach them in a winsome way. Second, community helps us interpret our moral values for the complexities of our situation. For example, we believe in a right to privacy-but we need community discernment to help us judge the proper approach to employee or customer monitoring. Third, we need people for responsible, effective moral action, not just for advice and counsel. On our own, we may fail in nerve or in resources to be able to carry through. With the help and support of others, we can do the difficult but right thing. Blowing the whistle on corruption, or going the second mile for goodness, may prove impossible without the support of others.

Today’s information technology must not replace face-to-face relationships, with all their flesh-and-blood nuance, richness, and complexity. Nevertheless, web-based resources and interactivity (chat groups, e-mail, etc.) offer great potential in replacing a misguided, individualistic moral “heroism” with a relationally rich, community-based moral discernment and action. In the face of serious ethical dilemmas, it is beneficial to be able to supplement our classroom and book learning with a web-search for other resources, and it is great to be able to continue a conversation begun over coffee with some e-mails back and forth.

Two basic points here: (1) People-harming or helping them are the primary object of morality and ethics; ethics is about caring for people; (2) People (plural) are also the crucial subject in ethical discernment and action; benchmark ethics is for partners, colleagues, and communities, not for Lone Rangers.

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.