Benchmark Ethics: Recognizing An Ethical Challenge

We all talk some about ethics and morality but what exactly are we referring to? The short answer is that ethics and morality are about “right and wrong” and about “good and bad.” (”Ethics” terms have Greek linguistic roots, “morality” terms have Latin roots. Their subject matter is exactly the same).

But this only defers the really hard question: what makes something right or wrong or good or bad?

The classical way most people figured out what was right or wrong was by appealing to a sacred text (or priesthood). But since we don’t all share the same sacred texts, we need some other common starting point. My argument is that the key characteristic to look for is harm (or hurt). What makes something wrong or bad is that somebody might get hurt.

Merely stating this criterion doesn’t resolve everything. We still need to debate whether something (some technology, some toy, some business policy, some legislation, etc.) is really likely to harm people. How likely is it? How serious would it be? Do those in harm’s way have any choice? And life doesn’t fall into two neat categories of “safe” and “harmful.”

An ethical organization, in this perspective, is one that always keeps the commitment: “in the carrying out of our business practices we will not harm people.” This, by the way, was the first ethical principle in the Hippocratic Oath taken by physicians (dating from about 600 B.C.). “First of all, do no harm.” Of course, this is still just “fencing off the wrong” and doesn’t address “finding the right.” But there is always a kind of priority to the task of avoiding harm.

The challenge then is to interpret and apply this criterion. It is never easy, but here are three good ethical tests. First, when considering the potential impacts of a business or technology decision, ask yourself “Would I want that for me and my loved ones?” If it is a privacy or surveillance or data mining or employee benefits decision, mull over in your mind how you would like it applied to you. If it is a product put to market or some advertising coming via telemarketers or at the ball park between innings, ask yourself, “would I like this? would I consider it safe enough and healthy enough for me, my physical health and my sanity?”

I am not inventing this, of course. It is the famous Golden Rule: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” I loved that story from China in late 1999, that all the aviation ministers and airline company presidents were ordered to be up in the air on their planes when Y2K arrived. It is so much easier to get ethically sloppy when we don’t have to experience personally the consequences!

Second, before going to market with your product, before imposing your policy on the distant multitudes, test it on a pilot group composed of your immediate colleagues, subordinates, and employees. Try it out on your staff before your customers. Review your V-P’s e-mail for a while, or cut their benefits, before submitting the whole staff to this practice. Why? Your test pilots can help you improve and fine tune the process. They are also close enough to you that they can and will protest if something is wrong. The point here is that it is easier to go wrong when those whom we affect with our decisions are a long ways away and have little or no voice.

Third, run this final thought experiment: how would my church (or synagogue or club) react if what I am doing was announced and described from the pulpit? Or how would readers respond if there was a front page news story describing the details of what I plan to do? Naturally, if we really did have to explain everything to everyone we would be completely paralyzed. But my argument is that we should only make decisions that, if it came down to it, we would not be afraid to tell the world about (including our heroes and our grandchildren).

Let’s put this together: if I am designing a new vehicle, and my engineers tell me that it still doesn’t fall within our safety margins and it will likely need early and costly repairs, then we recognize an ethical challenge here: somebody, maybe many people, might be harmed. When we begin the redesign toward an acceptable vehicle my questions are (1) would I drive this vehicle down the interstate in bad weather? Would I want my granddaughter doing so? (2) would our staff and their families be happy to use these vehicles for the next five years? and (3) how will people respond if the New York Times or a local investigative television reporter some day do a story on this product and on my leadership?

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.