Ethics without Philosophers

Could someone without a business degree become a marketing consultant?  Then how is it that people without philosophy degrees are becoming ethics consultants? [1]  Is it that people don’t know that Ethics is a branch of Philosophy just as Marketing is a branch of Business?  Doubtful.  Is it just the typical male overstatement of one’s expertise? [2]  Perhaps.  Is it that people think they already know right from wrong, they learned it as children, there’s really no need for any formal training in ethics?  Possible.  I have certainly met that attitude in business ethics classes and ethics committees. [3]  Or is it that ethics consultants (advisors, officers, practitioners, and so on) don’t really act as consultants about ethics?  They act as consultants about managing ethical behavior.  No, not even that.  Ethical consultants, practitioners, officers, focus on how to increase the likelihood that employees will follow some specific professional code of ethics or, more likely, the ethical rules the company’s elite want them to follow. [4] [5]

As far as I can see, business ethics taught by business faculty, ethics programs run by managers, and so on    any applied ethics taught by non-philosophers    is superficial at best.  [6] First, following a code if just an appeal to custom, an appeal to tradition, which philosophers consider a weak basis, even an actual error in reasoning: just because it’s common to do it that way, doesn’t mean it’s right; just because you’ve always done it that way doesn’t mean it’s right. 

Second, legal moralism is prevalent: if it’s legal, it’s right, and if it’s not illegal, it’s not wrong.  Few philosophers (and I daresay few intelligent people) accept this equivalence of moral rightness and legality.  After all, slavery was once legal, and even at that time many considered it wrong and had excellent arguments to support their position (which is, to some extent, why the law changed    ethics should determine law, not the other way around).

Third, the so-called ‘media test’ and ‘gut test’ are essentially nothing but appeals to intuition, which is nothing more than childhood conditioning that makes us say X ‘feels’ wrong.  I think it far better to approach ethical issues with thought, to consider the many rational approaches to making decisions about right and wrong, such as an appraisal of values, principles, consequences, and so on.

 A second weakness of ethics as done by non-philosophers is that what takes place is usually preaching not teaching.  That is, course material consists of ‘This is the right thing’ and ‘Do this in this situation’    professors simply convey the current conventions and standard practices and legal obligations.  The underlying principles and values are unexamined, and likely to be inadequate or contradictory in any case. 

The human resources director or management executive is simply not equipped to examine the principles and values enshrined in the code she or he advocates [7], nor to approach an ethical issue with any rigor (for example, to figure out whether affirmative action programs are really fair, to determine if a proposed advertising campaign is really coercive, or to decide if anticipated environmental destruction is ethically justifiable), let alone teach various ways of making decisions about right and wrong.

Philosophers are.  Not only are they equipped to approach ethical issues with rigor, they look at the principles and values involved in such approaches; they would consider whether one should conform to the codes that are so taken for granted by those in business, whether those codes are at all adequate.  A philosopher’s focus is thus more fundamental.  And therefore prerequisite.  That’s why the business ethics done by non-philosophers is so alarming: it’s building a house without a foundation – or, rather, convincing people to live in the house, without examining the foundation.

A very rudimentary version of a philosopher’s “methodology for ethical decision-making” would be something like this: 

1. Identify the ethical issue, the question to be answered.

2. Identify the relevant facts, consulting all involved.

3. (a) Identify the relevant moral principles and values.

    (b)  Rank them.

4. (a) List all the decision options.

    (b) Identify the consequences for each option.

5.  Align the options with the values and principles    which are upheld, which are violated?

6.  Decide what’s the ‘rightest’ thing to do.

7.  Repeat the process for deciding about the ‘rightest’ way of doing it.

 I present below notes that I made for analyses of ethical problems presented while I served on the ethics committee of a local hospital in order to show what a philosophically trained person can do.

I.  A Nephrology Questionnaire was presented to the committee by Dr. X for approval.

The basic question underlying the questionnaire is this: Who gets dialysis?

This question can be framed as

(1) a futile treatment question 

(2) as an allocation of resources question

The first has already been discussed, the main issues being the definition of ‘futile’ and whether we have a moral obligation to provide futile treatment.

With regard to the second, decisions can be made according to the following three criteria:

(i) medical value in prolonging life, alleviating pain, and/or enhancing life    key questions are ‘How much value?’ and ‘How likely is the value to be achieved?’ and the central conflict would be between the ‘best outcome’ approach (an end point approach) and the ‘most in need’ approach (a beginning point approach)

(ii) self worth     the key question here is ‘Does the person have a high or low quality of life?’ (and is a subjective standard or an objective standard used to determine this?)

(iii) social worth – the key question here is ‘Does the person contribute to or cost society?’ (this would include consideration of emotional and/or economic dependents)

These three criteria can be used

simultaneously (consider all three at the same time)

serially (if, and only if, the first criterion is met – that is, the dialysis    does have medical value – is the next criterion considered)

These three criteria can be given equal or different weight.

One can judge 

– according to consequences (in which case the ‘best outcome’ might weigh heavily, but one would have to ask outcome for who – the patient only, or for the family, or for society as a whole)

– according to rights (do all have equal rights to the treatment, in which case we toss a coin or consider ‘first come, first served’)

– according to justice (are some more deserving than others?)

One can also, of course, combine these approaches: for example, a person might by lifestyle forfeit their rights and so another might be more deserving.

 This is how non-philosophically trained people (the others on the ethics committee) would’ve responded: ‘I think the questionnaire’s okay’ or ‘I think it’s too long.’  See the difference?

II.  Dr. Y was faced with a request by a mother to employ aggressive management for her newborn son whose longevity is limited (following a premature birth and surgery for a severe fetal anomaly). 

I identified six ethical issues involved the decision faced by Dr. Y:

(1) the conflict between physician and patient/proxy issue:

– the physician can override patient/proxy requests in some circumstances, one of which is a request for futile treatment, another of which is a request for harmful treatment unbalanced by benefit; this may be especially defensible if the proxy has already made an ethically questionable decision (in this case, the decision to carry to term with full knowledge of the defect)

objection: patient/proxy requests must always be fulfilled

response: this position simply seems indefensible                                            

(2) the futile treatment issue:

(i) the “aggressive practices” requested fall into the category of ‘futile treatment’ (they won’t cure the condition)

(ii) the “aggressive practices” won’t prolong life – and if they do, such life is of ‘insufficient’ quality (must define ‘insufficient’, perhaps by reference to mental abilities, physical abilities, and presence of pain) and/or the prolonging is too short-term to be worthwhile (must define ‘worthwhile’, perhaps as above)

(iii) the “aggressive practices” won’t alleviate pain

objection: treatment would alleviate the parents’ pain

response: this would be using the baby as a means to others’ end; such   alleviation doesn’t override lack of  benefit to the baby; such alleviation doesn’t override harm to the baby

objection: life should be maintained at all costs in all cases

response: this position is indefensible                                               

(3) the harmful treatment issue:

– the “aggressive practices” requested fall into the category of harmful treatment unbalanced by benefit because there is physical trauma involved and/or because there is no resulting recovery, minimal prolonging (quality and quantity), and/or minimal alleviation of pain

(4) the DNR issue:

– the physician should (a) make a DNR order (b) against the proxy’s wishes

– re (a), arguments re futile treatment apply

– re (b), arguments re conflict apply

– also, proxies don’t have medical expertise

– also, proxies are biased by love/emotion

objection: the parents bear the consequences the most

(5) the euthanasia issue:

– the physician should (a) provide euthanasia (b) against the proxy’s wishes

– re (a) and (b), if the patient is in pain, especially/but only (?) serious pain, which is resistant to alleviation and/or there is no hope of recovering to a certain quality of life ( must define ‘certain’ perhaps as above with ‘insufficient’)

– re (b), if the proxy’s wishes are clearly not in the patient’s best interests (in this case, we can’t use the ‘patient’s previously expressed wishes’ standard, nor the ‘patient’s would’ve expressed wishes’ standard)

objection: life should be maintained at all costs in all cases

response:  this position seems indefensible

objection:  passive, but not active, euthanasia is acceptable

response:  there is no difference if the motive, intention, and consequence are the same

objection: euthanasia is illegal in Canada

response:  ethics overrides legalities

(6) the allocation of resources issue:

– probably doesn’t apply in this case, but if it does, it seems merely to strengthen most of the preceding arguments (rather than add any)

Recommended reading:

“Defective Newborns” Michael D. Bayles

“Selective Nontreatment of Handicapped Newborns” Robert F. Weir

This is how the non-philosophically trained people on the committee would’ve responded: I think you should do what the mother has asked you to do, after all, she’s the mother; I think you should do whatever is in the baby’s best interest.  Again, see the difference?  These responses are no different than, no better than, what the physicians would’ve gotten in the lunch room.  Which is why they brought the matters to the ethics committee!

To see similar differences in business, one need only compare business ethics articles with papers written by philosophers.  The philosophers will deal, in depth, with any one of a number of difficult issues; for example, if the issue is advertising, she or he might investigate the various kinds and degrees of influence and deception; the rights of persons to be free from intrusions in their physical, sonic, and visual space;  the difference between private and public space; the special rights of children given their undeveloped cognition; the relevance of what’s advertised and how it’s advertised; and so on.  The managers will present a checklist for making sure their marketing campaigns don’t break any laws.  The former will contain arguments, the latter mere assertions. 

How has this terrible misunderstanding, this doing ethics without philosophers, come about?  Perhaps the problem lies with the term ‘applied ethics’.  Business people take it to mean applying ethical codes, setting up policies and procedures that conform to – well, there’s the problem: that conform to which ethics?  (And perhaps only a philosopher would ask this question.)

Perhaps the problem is that philosophers have understood ‘applied ethics’ to mean applying ethical analyses – identifying and examining the ethical issues in business.  Because ‘ethics’ doesn’t mean ‘moral rules’; ‘ethics’ means ‘the study of moral rules’.  This is a common misunderstanding.  A term with a very specific meaning among specialists has been adopted and used erroneously in the general population.[8]

But I can’t help wondering if it hasn’t just been a case of blatant appropriation. Business has hijacked ethics as a marketing tool, just as it did with environmentalism, and turned it into something superficial and useless. Managers aren’t really not interested in the substantial, fundamental matters.  They just want a new way to attract customers and clients and so increase profits.  Indeed the blurb for an ethics seminar titled “Integrity Wins”, offered by and for ethics practitioners, not philosophers, described its purpose as “explor[ing] how ethical issues … can affect the legal status, revenue generation, and perceived trustworthiness of your organization.”  A subscription form for The Corporate Ethics Monitor says this:

 “Successful executives, investor relations professionals, and independent corporate directors understand that business ethics is not a fad.  They know why companies are beefing up their ethical management, training and compliance programs.  They understand that high-profile misconduct can cause serious repercussions for a company – including alienation of customers, suppliers, employees, investors and business partners.  Therefore, quite apart from a desire to avoid fines and other financial penalties resulting from ethical problems, an effort to identify potential points of ethical weakness can pay off in higher morale and productivity, an enhanced reputation, and a healthier bottom line.”

Nothing is said about doing the right thing because it’s the right thing! 

However, I don’t want to put the blame solely on business.  If philosophy faculty didn’t have such disdain for business, and if they took a little responsibility for their discipline, there would be more preparation for philosophy majors to be ethics practitioners.  Philosophy departments should advise their students of careers as ethics officers and consultants; they should encourage their students to, therefore, take courses in business (if they want to become a business ethics officer) or science (if they want to become ethics consultants in bioethics or environmental ethics), because without a background in business or science, philosophers won’t know which questions to ask, what difficulties to anticipate (for example, ethical belief in intercultural business is a real thorny issue – philosophy students will have to grapple with moral relativism in a big way…).  Philosophy departments could even arrange to have their applied ethics courses team-taught; this would require business, similarly, to dampen their disdain for philosophy.          

[1] I have only anecdotal information here.  I did send a three-item questionnaire to survey the Ethics Officer Association (U.S.), the Ethics Practitioners Association of Canada, and the Canadian Center for Ethics and Corporate Policy.  In the first case, I was informed they have no way to track the education status of their members as that was not one of the questions asked on their membership application, and apparently they were not interested in sending my three questions to their members; in the second case, again, I don’t think my questions got passed on; in the third case, my questions did get passed onto the Board of Directors, but no further, and I received three replies    one person had a B.A. in Science and an M.B.A., another indicated that he was a Chartered Accountant, and the third had a B.A. and an LL.B. with no particular training in ethics.   

[2] Most ethics consultants are men, I believe.

[3] Though, of course, childhood ethics doesn’t tell you who gets the kidney and at what price.

[4] Since “developing methodologies to inform decision-making” (a common part of the job description) surely refers to making decisions that accord with the company code    because methodologies for making ethical decisions already exist: are ethics practitioners intending to reinvent or surpass Aristotle, Kant, Mill, McIntyre, and the many, many others who have developed ways to determine what is right?

[5] And yet even at this rudimentary level, they fail.  Perhaps the biggest obstacles to ethical behavior are bonuses for behavior that increase profit.  Dangling such a carrot in front of someone for doing the profitable thing makes it harder, not easier, to do the right thing.  High salaries, which will be lost if one loses one’s job, which will happen if one doesn’t increase profit, is another way exactly not to “encourage compliance”.  So of course if a company were really serious about their ethics, they’d give bonuses for doing the right thing, whether or not profit is increased or decreased. 

[6] Of all the conferences I’ve attended, only for the ethics practitioner one was I told what to wear.  Philosophers don’t care; they understand it’s not important. 

[7] Consequently, ethical codes remained unexamined and, therefore, more often than not, useless.  Partly, this is because there is no definition: what exactly is professionalism, for instance?  Excellence?  Integrity?  The latter, so often listed as value in codes of ethics, is nothing more than non-hypocrisy: having integrity means that if you think X is right, you should do X.  It doesn’t indicate what is right in the same way that, for example, ‘honesty’ or ‘beneficence’ does.  Examination reveals that ‘transparency’ and ‘accountability’ are similar to integrity.  I’ve even seen ‘objective’ listed in a code of ethics – again, qualified attention to definition would reveal that objective isn’t a moral value.

And partly this is because of internal conflict and lack of prioritization.  For example, one code I looked at says employees “shall act in a manner that is in the best interests of their clients and employer consistent with the public interest.”  That one item alone is fraught with internal conflicts.  It doesn’t take a genius to imagine an instance in which the best interests of the client collide with the best interests of the employer, let alone the public interest.  When they collide, when, for example, honesty conflicts with loyalty, or providing the highest quality of service conflicts with providing the highest return to shareholders, which one is to take precedence?  The code doesn’t say. I’ve seen no code of ethics provide a means of ranking values, a means of resolving such conflicts.

[8] The term ‘philosophy’ is itself is another example: to philosophers, it means something like ‘the critical examination of fundamental concepts’, but to the general population it means simply ‘a certain view of or attitude toward life”. 



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