A couple weeks ago I started enumerating the things I most disliked about the literature I had to review to update my Business Ethics classes, coming up with the following list:
· Acritical (many times unacknowledged) acceptance of the current social arrangement (post-industrial, globalized, short-term oriented capitalism)
· Exclusive focus on a slice of human life (salaried employment) that, when taken in isolation, can only be very problematic from an ethical standpoint
· Disregard for the tradition (let’s call it “non-business ethics”) of the preexisting field it should have arisen from
· Underlying assumption (sadly, not borne enough by the facts) that being ethically good helps the business earn more money
· Lack of commitment to any kind of “substantive” values (so old-fashioned!) other, that is, than a facile hyper-individualism of the utilitarian stripe
· Excessive emphasis on recent articles, normally very shallow and of little originality, at the price of ignorance of deeper and more difficult primary sources (books)
But, due to other commitments, back then I was able to expand only up to the fourth point. I would like in this post to finish with my criticism, so I can move to more pressing matters (like what my British friends are likely to do with their country in the following weeks). So let’s get back to debunking the incredibly naïve (and, most likely, incredibly false) assumption that helping companies make more money is in some way or form a legitimate justification for them behaving “ethically”…
4. Assumption that being good = earning more money
In my previous post I pointed to the flimsiness of the studies purporting to show a correlation between ethical behavior and shareholder value creation, starting with the fact that the real “goodness” of the prevalent behavior of any given company is, for all practical purposes, impossible to measure. That’s why “researchers” normally look for some proxy like existence of a code of conduct, a “creed” (mission, vision and set of professed values), issuance of an annual “Corporate Social Responsibility Report” in which they announce to the world how many good deeds they have performed, and how much they foster diversity internally, and how respectful towards the environment they are. All such nice declamations are, of course, perfectly compatible with a toxic business culture that forces everybody to work 60 hours a week with no overpay (hey! If they are so zealous as to do that “entirely voluntarily” it is surely because they are so committed with the company’s goals, they find their own objectives so coincident with those of the company, that they are willing to entirely renounce to have any kind of life outside of it!), to fire as many employees as needed to protect the bottom line (as long as they are the ones contributing less to the results, all is well! A meritocracy is a meritocracy, and keeping those able to produce more at the margins, remember, is the only way to maximize everybody’s utility) and, in general, to champion a consumerist lifestyle that impoverishes all of us and brainwashes its employees in an endless race of sumptuary consumption (a.k.a. “keeping up with the Joneses”, a.k.a. “the rat race” where even if you win… you are still a rat!).
Which means that a) none of the studies I’ve seen really tell me anything meaningful about the really ethical behavior of the companies considered, just showed how much they were willing to spend on window dressing; and b) the correlation they show between that window dressing and the results are flimsy at best, and most fleeting (it’s funny but disheartening to see how prominently tech companies that end up being a flash in the pan figure in those studies… looks like the advantage given by appearing to act virtuously is not long-lasting). But of course, using a specious argument can only take you so far.
The premise most Business Ethics texts start with reminds me strongly of the one used by “evolutionary-psychologists-turned-ethicists”. In that case, we heard how so-and-so-behavior is “good”, or is justified (and thus can be endorsed, prescribed, rooted for or whatnot) because it is “natural” for us, it has been “selected” (by Darwinian evolution). That was, indeed, frequently sold in the nineties of last century (and in the aughts of this one) as the “only” possible rational explanation for all of morality, able at last to free itself from the shameful shackles of tradition and superstition and obscurantism. At last we had a good, solid, scientific argument grounding resolutely “how we should behave” in Nature and Nature’s laws, instead of in fuzzy metaphysics! Until, of course, you unpacked (not much subtlety was needed) the lofty rhetoric and found there was not much “there” in there: so the real justification for me choosing behavior A over behavior B nowadays is because behavior A helped my ancestors in EEA (Environment of Evolutionary Adaptedness, which psychologists of this persuasion assume was inhabited by hunter-gatherer tribes in something vaguely similar to the present African Savannah, only a tad wetter) have more babies? Whoa, that’s some argument! And a pretty lousy one, at that! Because, as moral reasoning goes, that gives me exactly ZERO reasons to act one way or another… And, as is only to be expected, the kind of behaviors such argument would condone are not that morally enticing to begin with (from killing the offspring your current couple may have had with a previous partner to cheating your current one in favor of someone with a better genetic endowment).
It is not surprising that the kind of behaviors a Business Ethics that thinks the only justification to behave ethically in the first place is because it helps the company make more money are not that enticing either: treat your employees as badly as you can get away with! extract from them every last ounce of effort, ‘til they drop dead! (or, almost as bad, ‘til they denounce your greed in Facebook… at that point you may start considering giving them a break); extract every ounce of added value from your suppliers, every penny they lose will be your gain! (but hey! Tell them you are a win-win partner and you are only after a “fair” negotiating outcome, so they may not sully your pristine reputation); skimp on quality as much as needed! barely comply with safety regulations! as “quality” is just a matter of marketing and product placement and market positioning, and it is subjective anyways, so better spend a few more bucks on advertising and increasing awareness in social media than actually pay to make the product (you mean the “physical” thing? Who cares about such things nowadays!) a iota better or more solid or more durable in the first place (durability? That sounds too much like “liability”! Planned obsolescence is all the rage! Who wants customers to hold on to their thingies for more than a few months? Better entice them to throw them away ASAP so we can sell new replacements to them!)… But sure, publish a CSR report every year (in glossy pages! And send copies to everybody with a pair of eyes out there! What, you say? Those pages come at the expense of a few thousand trees that had to be felled to produce the paper pulp? Pay, then, to some NGO for the plantation of a thousand more!) and you have a get-ot-of-jail-free card that earns you the plaudits and admiration of every self-respecting Business Ethics scholar this side of the Mississippi.
I can hear my horrified readers objecting: “no, no, no, that’s just corrosive cynicism, and suicidal, populist and arrogant-to-boot nihilism! The corporate leaders that commit to behave ethically, and invest in writing those codes of conduct, and in putting their wallet where their mouth is, and thus guide their corporations towards acting as responsible corporate citizens are not, by any measure, the scoundrels and hypocrites you are depicting! I’m sure they really believe in a better, fairer, more sustainable world, and strive their utmost to achieve it”. At which point I can only remind said readers of the beautiful, beautiful bridge connecting Manhattan with New Jersey that I am willing to sell for a pittance. A real bargain any which way you look at it. Note that I do not deny some corporate leaders maybe moved by selfless, generous, high-spirited impulses and truly want to make the world a better place. What I bluntly say is that as long as they aspire to construct that better world because it will happen to (what a lucky coincidence!) make them even richer, we should all be extremely suspicious and extremely weary of the sincerity of their declared intentions and of the likely results of their initiatives. Because with that justification such initiatives will amount to little more than window dressing, and the real-world effect of them is likely to be more deleterious than beneficial.
Thus, if we really want to research, and some distant day agree, on a set of rules to make corporations behave more ethically, in a more beneficial way (beneficial, that is, to the whole of society, and not only to its shareholders and executives) we necessarily have to start by ditching the poisonous canard that “they have to behave well because that will make them earn more benefits”. They have to behave well, in the first place, because we as a society have put in place an effective compliance mechanism (laws and courts to ensure they are applied) that will land them in jail if they don’t. And in the second place, because the kind of life they will lead if they don’t comply, even if they are never caught, is a second-rate life, a life that nobody finds admirable, or enticing, or worthy of emulation. But for that second argument to have bite we need to restore a minimum of social agreement about what constitutes a “life well lived” that we are far now from achieving… Which takes me to my next point
5. Lack of commitment to any kind of “substantive” values
Look, I get that we don’t live in good times for value appreciation. Samuel Biagetti said it before myself (The IKEA humans), although he lacks a bigger framework to explain how the Enlightenment, freeing and emancipating as it was, could not but corrode the tradition and shared narratives of the citizens under its sway, and that the logical conclusion of such corrosion could only be the anomic hikikomoris that now populate the West (and the East, and the North and the South), valueless, having in common only a reverential respect for “everyone doing his or her own thing” and universally unable to judge if such thing is good or bad (so old-fashioned! Good or bad for whom, or according to what shared norms?) But who are we to blame the Enlightenment? I for one considered myself a loyal foot soldier of the Enlightenment until not long ago… the Enlightenment, in turn, was but the necessary consequence of the collapse of Christianity (maybe Judeo-Christianity) in the XVI century under the weight of its own contradictions, expressed in genocidal wars of unimaginable cruelty immediately after the Reformation’s schism. All we can do at this point is certify the depth of the crisis, and live with the consequences.
But that doesn’t mean we have to take a page from the sceptics’ catechism and accept that all values are arbitrary constructions, built to hide and justify the equally arbitrary domination of the few over the many. Call me an absolutist (I’ve been called worse things), but I still believe there are such thing as the ultimate, indisputable good, the ultimate, indisputable true and the ultimate, indisputable beautiful, and that such concepts have objective reality, even if there is nobody who believes in them or who can appreciate their existence. For complex and convoluted reasons (spelled out in these wordy and contorted posts, long even for my stretched standards: What to believe I, What to believe II and What to believe III) I think there are valuable things, and ideas, and states of affairs. That it makes sense to find out what those things and ideas and states of affairs are, and that when we value something, we have real, undefeatable reasons to bring that something about (or to sustain and maintain that something already in existence, whatever the case may be).
However, I recognize that this is a very minority position nowadays. If you accept, as the majority of public opinion seems to do, that we live in an exclusively material universe, with no real consciousness, with no free will, where things simply happen in succession following unyielding laws, regardless of who thinks what of them, where history (biological evolution included) is just “one damn thing after another” with no real rhyme or reason, I can understand you don’t feel much inclined to appeal to any purported “value” as justification of your behavior (or of anybody else’s). What does such appeal add, as an explanation, to the enumeration of the natural laws that caused such behavior in the first place? In a deterministic universe things like will, or voluntary action, or agency, do not really have much purchase. And nothing, really, can be called valuable. We may enjoy a bit more or a bit less. We may suffer ourselves, or make others suffer, a bit more or a bit less. It really is all the same, as we will all die and the universe will go on unfolding exactly like if we had never been here in the first place. Even if we were to “cause” some cataclysmic event, it would be but an illusion to think we played a “role” in any meaningful sense, as we were just the puppets of a blind fate that had determined how we would act and react long before we came to the scene.
So Ethics textbooks, written by well-intentioned authors that have been mostly raised in such an intellectual milieu, are understandably wary of appealing to values, or mentioning them at all. Is it good or bad that some powerful executive berates his underlings and makes everybody around him feel bad? I have not found many cases discussing that all-too-frequent situation (maybe the authors I surveyed didn’t consider it a Business Ethics question to begin with, assuming it had more to do with “leadership” or “human resources management”), but from a valueless perspective the only claim that could be levied against the bullying boss behavior is that it somehow fails to extract the last drop of productivity from his employees, as treating them more kindly would surely make them produce more, through enhanced “motivation” and “engagement” and “commitment” and similar bullshit and claptrap… I hope I make it evident enough that such line of reasoning really enrages me and makes me almost want to shout “No! the reason to treat people decently is empathically NOT because you can exploit them better being nice! It is because people have something beyond their salary (their price) to be balanced against the value they add to the production process! They have DIGNITY, dammit!!!!” and, as Kant famously said, dignity is non-negotiable. You cannot exchange dignity for anything, and it demands absolutely and in any situation a modicum of respect and recognition. Respect and recognition that I have failed to find in all the Business Ethics texts I’ve perused, no matter how hard I’ve looked for them.
That’s also why, only in Business Ethics textbooks, you find so peculiar a concept as “normative ethics”, something supposedly in opposition to “descriptive ethics”. The former is typically glossed over, and few pages are devoted to it (in the most cursory manner, along the lines of “some people at some points in history have maintained that really some behaviors were better than others, maybe because of their consequences, maybe because of the intention with which they were approached, maybe because of the type of character they fostered), but those people never really reached any kind of agreement, and the language they used is really confusing and obscure and dense, so we don’t need to concern us much with ‘em”. The second is given more consideration, dealing with how “ethical” decisions are made, and how “ethical” choices are arrived at. But of course, a “descriptive ethics” has as much to do with practical philosophy (or with plain ol’ reason) as a “normative physics” would have. How would you feel reading in a physics book something along the lines of: “it’s a pity the electrons are negatively charged, because negative really has the connotation that it is bad they are so, and indeed, the universe would be a better place if electrons were as positively charged as protons, as we would get rid of all that suspicious attractions (and what is it with that heteronormative tyrannical imposition of particles of opposite charge attracting one another, whilst those of the same charge repel each other? It would certainly be much better if each individual particle could choose who to feel attracted to and who to feel repelled by!)”? You may be amused by the implausible nonsense, but certainly your understanding of physics wouldn’t be much enhanced.
Similarly, your understanding of Ethics, Business or otherwise, won’t be much enhanced by reading 99% of the books of the subject, precisely because they avoid any substantive discussion of normativity (what is it that we have reasons to do, what states of the world should we actively promote, and which ones should we actively oppose, and what is the nature of that “should” and those reasons) focusing instead in an accumulation of “cases” or “practical applications” that, as I said in other place, are as “ready to be applied as sure to be forgotten or circumvented”. Which in turn explains why they have to focus on what I mentioned as my final gripe…
6. Excessive emphasis on recent articles
The vast majority of the “traditional” ethical treatises presuppose some values, and a shared understanding of what constitutes a reason. So they grate any modern economist’s sensibility, nurtured in a valueless world where people are just a particular kind of “resource” (and, like any other resource, has a marginal cost and a marginal contribution to benefits, and that is all there is about it). So, as we mentioned in point number 3, all the pre-existing ethical tradition can be glibly disregarded. Which suits the authors fine, because they have not been trained (not noticeably, to be sure, and looking at their CVs it is clear why) in the humanities, or in philosophy, and they probably find the texts that expound that tradition wholly alien, obscure, uninteresting, abstruse, ambiguous, abstract and impractical. Not a single equation or graph, not a single statement that can be empirically validated or falsated (although you look at what trained economist consider an “experiment”, normally involving a couple dozen highly unrepresentative students, and what they consider “empirical validation” of a model and you cannot avoid smiling condescendingly)…
Furthermore, again as I have stated in another forum, Business Ethics was born as a distinct and promising new academic discipline in the tumultuous years of the 70’s of the last century. They probably attempted to enroll some moral philosophy professor or other, but they were to wooly-headed, too accustomed to the rarefied air of the ivory towers of academia (and too ignorant of the humbler realities of corporate life) to say anything that was of much use for the hard-nosed world of the capitalist, competitive, dynamic firm in which the hapless students would have to develop their professional lives. So the discipline was assigned to teachers with backgrounds in psychology, sociology, economics and BA, that had no patience at all for Aristotle and the like. And so it has remained, paying lip service to “ethics” by quoting some Cliffs Notes version of some tradition or other (digested so a fourth grader could understand it) and then inundating their texts with more recent papers, in the traditional dynamic of “I scratch your back so you will in turn scratch mine” that has become ubiquitous and a fixed part of the landscape of an academic career. Papers that may enhance their intellectual bona fides in the eyes of their colleagues but that are, I’m sorry to say, of absolutely no value whatsoever either to students or to society in general.
But the sorry state of university professors’ writing, and how it has contributed to the current state of technological stagnation, would merit certainly a post of its own…