Benchmark Ethics: Facilitate Human Relationships

In my last column I discussed the benchmark value of privacy — the critical importance of being left alone, uninvaded, unobserved by others. This is a benchmark value, not a luxury “add-on,” because it has to do with our basic humanity and health. All human beings must have some kind of privacy or their personalities break down. All experts in psychology, propaganda, and brainwashing know this.

Today’s technologies may actually help people find that essential bit of privacy by allowing them to work and communicate from a home office, or by serving as a screen shielding one’s identity and privacy. More often, though, we can see a threat to privacy in information technology. There can be no single, permanent answer for dealing with privacy/technology issues. But, all of us need to recognize privacy as a fundamental, benchmark value and strategize together on appropriate, ethical responses.

The flip side of our privacy need is association. If privacy is “being left alone,” association is “being allowed together.” Association means human relationships and community. Meaningful social relationships are every bit as necessary to human health as privacy. It is fundamental to human nature to have a private “self” — and equally fundamental to have social relationships with others. We are “herd animals.”

Personalities vary widely. Extraverts have less need for privacy and more for association; introverts need more privacy, less association. Everyone, however, needs some of each. A business or technology that undermines or thwarts privacy and association (whether among employees or customers) is trampling on critical ethical and human values. A business or
technology that protects and facilitates them, on the other hand, is ethically praiseworthy.

No surprises here: today’s information technologies might undermine and diminish human relationships — or enable and enhance them in extraordinary ways. One way their impact might be negative is by erasing the boundaries of our work time and space. They allow us to work at home with only rare eye-to-eye contact with our office colleagues — while paradoxically inviting us to neglect our family or roommates by holing up in front of the computer all evening!

Second, the omnipresence and portability of our telephones and laptops can disrupt conversations with those in our presence. Third, by vastly increasing the quantity of our contacts, today’s information technology might diminish the quality and depth of these contacts. Fourth, by increasing the speed and turn-around time of our communication by e-mail, hasty, thoughtless, or superficial communication often results — hardly what quality relationships are built of.

The other side of the story is that today’s technologies can help us build and maintain (and sometimes even initiate) important relationships. So, while telecommuting and home-based work isolates people physically from their co-workers, it may link them even more frequently and effectively in other ways. And, not every home-based worker chooses the computer screen over the people around them. For some, distance work based in the home has truly strengthened and improved family and neighborhood relationships. Requiring every worker to come to the same physical location may be ineffective or even disastrous for human relationships if the internal office culture and ambience is one of strife, suspicion, and vicious competition.

I am now in Bordeaux, France, on a research and writing project for six months. Daily e-mail and weekly video-conferencing have been terrific improvements over the letters and occasional long-distance phone calls we depended on during similar experiences in years past. Of course, in this case the technology is preserving and augmenting relationships that already had a rich, face-to-face history. Even so, I have had important relationships begin through e-mail. At some point, they are limited by the medium and can proceed no deeper without some face-to-face time. Still, these e-relations had value even before any face time came into play.

There are no simple formulas. Every relationship does not need to be deep, holistic, personal, or long-term — but some “quality” relationships are essential. How to facilitate such human association is largely an individual responsibility and choice. But, since our work dominates so many hours of our life, business leaders must pay attention to the impact of this work on employee and client relationships.

Embracing and promoting association as a core value is the first crucial step. A company culture-audit can assess how we are doing, promoting or undermining teamwork and relationships by our structures and practices. No one can say in advance what the implications will be, but some tweaking or even major reforming of our house may be in order. This is not a luxury but a moral imperative.

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.