Practical ethics is an important and relatable branch of the philosophical study of ethics. As a discipline, it connects academic theory with real-life practice. Practical ethics is most commonly encountered in typical scenarios which are referred to as ethical dilemmas. Ethical dilemmas, which have been discussed at length here on this blog before, often present seemingly simple facts which in reality involve maddeningly complex and fraught moral and personal considerations. When faced with such dilemmas, individuals need to reconcile ethical principles which may be in opposition, as much as they need to rely on those same principles to inform their internal register of right and wrong.
Moral character – this individual internal register – and moral perception – the individual’s capacity to understand that an ethical issue exists and may need to be addressed or accepted – are both rooted in the ongoing observation of practical ethics. Identifying and resolving conflicts between personal ideas of ethics and integrity, and the situations and roles that person may find in a working situation, is a crucial application of practical ethics and a fluency which is necessary for corporate cultures to establish a successful compliance program.
Practical ethics goes to the root of so many dilemmas which are germane to the working experience. What are the limits of professional responsibility? What are the obligations of and restrictions within authority and control? How do interpersonal or relationship-based ethics play out into institutional structures and corporate policies or organizational decision-making? How do individuals work within institutions that may have implemented moral decisions which differ from the person’s own or present the individual with the need to dissent from policy or practice? To what extent should organizations address the public good and how can they do this if they choose to do so?
These questions can go on and on; practical ethics represents the attempt to navigate the broad social context of the workplace by reconciling professional rules with moral expectations and norms. This, again, is highly pertinent to a corporate compliance program, which seeks to encourage an business culture that respects legality, approaches business competitively yet thoughtfully, and also sets standards for employee and organizational integrity. It is imperative for compliance professionals to understand practical ethics and use dilemma sessions or open discussions with the businesses they advise in order to encourage a common comfort level with this sort of thinking throughout their organization.
The below TED/TEDx talks offer a survey of how people approach these conflicts between individual and societal morality on one side and professional ethics within organizations on the other side.
- Legal vs. Ethical Liability: A Crisis of Leadership and Culture (Mel Fugate) – Very frequently, there are stories in the news that outrage and offend people due to perceived moral trespasses. For example, tax avoidance which is positioned as optimization rather than evasion is not against the law; in fact, corporate structures and arrangements that allow companies to take advantage of this are often sanctioned by national governments and facilitated by law firms. However, whenever information detailing these arrangements is made public, people are always stunned to find they are legal and feel let down by the justice system. So too is this true in any situation where individual or organizational accountability is not strictly required by law and therefore is not implicitly considered in decision-making. The distinction between legal liability and ethical liability reaches to the core of the true character ethic and leadership qualities. An organization which considers ethical liability will have a more transparent and sustainable culture, leading to increased transparency and accountability.
- The Significance of Ethics and Ethics Education in Daily Life (Michael D. Burroughs) – The concept of individuals as “everyday ethicists” is powerful and useful. People must first take individual responsibility for approaching and addressing ethical issues. Individual ethical awareness is an unavoidable first step on the journey to a culture of compliance within an organization, or for that matter, increased integrity and honesty within society. It is important to consider an ethics education as foundational for both children and adults, and to establish the role of ethics in everyone’s lives and above all else, encourage discussion and information-sharing.
- Ethics for People on the Move (Catharyn Baird) – On the subject of translating individual ethics into a group or collective moral code, individual perceptions of morality can have powerful impact on the ethical identity of a community. Both alongside and beyond business ethics, how is an ethical life defined and how does this contribute to the character of the communities in which we all live? Here the interpersonal aspect of ethical relations, including decision-making, has an especially strong influence. For that to be successful however, individuals still have to form and commit to an ethical life that is each of their own.
- Is your work aligned with your values? (Geoff DiMasi) – As discussed above, one of the challenges of practical ethics is to reconcile the individual sense of morality with ethical decisions implicit in corporate policies and required due to organizational processes. It can be powerful for individuals to consider their purpose, both in life and professionally, and then to question whether the work they do allows them to contribute to this, or asks them to labor in opposition to it. As many organizations turn to social impact and political engagement to establish their corporate identities in a crowded marketplace, individuals would do well to compare their ethical leanings with their professions and the companies with which they are associated.
- Why “scout mindset” is crucial to good judgement (Julia Galef) – Scout mindset is an interesting proposition, valuing curiosity, openness, and practicality over defensiveness, heuristics, and routines. Approaching decision-making with this disposition can help to overcome narrow frameworks, habits, and other strong organizational contexts. This can also help people to determine individual integrity and morality, which can contribute to and position them within broader and sometimes challenging societal and corporate structures for ethics and compliance.
Check back in the coming weeks for further posts on the theory of practical ethics and its application in the corporate context, including discussion on the distinction between ethics and business ethics, as well as that between compliance and corporate compliance.