Beyond codes of ethics to ethical maturity

By Martin Vogel

A recent article by Kara Swisher in the New York Times appeared under the headline Who Will Teach Silicon Valley to Be Ethical? Tech companies have been attracting a fair amount of criticism this year over their grasp of ethics. But they’re not alone in finding this area a minefield. The shareholder value view of firms, which has it that their sole purpose is to make a profit, still shapes leadership thinking in most organisations. This infects even those – like the BBC or NHS – that aren’t ostensibly profit focussed but where stripping out cost often crowds out other considerations. Where a reductionist view of purpose prevails, it’s not surprising that questions of ethics may receive scant consideration.

Kara Swisher considers various solutions including companies appointing chief ethics officers, putting in place official systems of ethics or (radical idea) chief executives stepping up to the plate to provide more leadership. She quotes an unnamed ethical consultant who complains that appointing custodians of ethics would be no more than window dressing because “we haven’t even defined ethics yet”.

Running through all of this is an assumption that ethics can be defined to delineate universal principles that clearly determine ethical or unethical behaviour in all eventualities. Coaching has been pursuing this track for some years. Every professional association of coaches has a code of ethics that its members commit to follow. And yet coaches, who are privy to ethical dilemmas more than most in business, must know that ethical choices are highly contingent on the contexts in which they arise. This is the essence of the well-known trolley problem: it’s obviously wrong to kill someone; but what if doing so saves the lives of five others? Universal principles are useful as a minimal standard for ethical behaviour. But it’s fantasy to assume they can provide much guidance in the complex and nuanced scenarios in which most of us work. To think in these terms is to collude in a box-ticking, compliance-obsessed approach which militates against people developing – still less exercising – ethical judgment.

In the real world, where meaning is co-created or contested socially, it’s more helpful to cultivate one’s ethical discernment than to rely on a checklist of universal principles. This is an approach that authors Michael Carroll and Elisabeth Shaw call ethical maturity. For them, behaving ethically is not simply a linear matter of cognitive assessment of the ethical considerations in a situation and acting accordingly. It derives from “the reflective, rational, emotional and intuitive capacity to decide actions are right and wrong or good and better.”

More than that, behaving ethically means just that: behaving in accordance with one’s ethical discernment. That can take courage and resilience. It can be a lonely choice to call out the trajectory of an organisation pursuing an ethically questionable path. Ethical maturity means being willing to be held accountable for one’s choices and to live with them – learning, if necessary, when we’ve made the wrong choice.

One thing that is appealing about this is the idea of ethics being a function of maturity. Carroll and Shaw draw on diverse influences, notably Carol Gilligan, a feminist philosopher, whose concept of the ethic of care posits the importance of reconciling self-development with responsibilities towards others. Another significant influence is the Classical Greek philosophers. Ethical maturity is inextricably bound up with the conscious development of moral character:

“It means growing through contemplation and acquisition of knowledge about what is useful and good in particular circumstances. We cannot ‘just know’ this, although some situations could be seen to ‘be obvious’. It is in dialogue with others, and with ourselves, where we consider what is not yet known, and where discomfort is tolerated, that we might develop ethical maturity.”

Ethical maturity, then, is developed with experience. But it’s cultivation can be accelerated through dialogue. The role of ethics dialogue partner is one that should be played by coaches, supervisors and consultants in organisations. It challenges them because it may call on them to draw attention to that which doesn’t want to be noticed: the gap between espoused and lived values, the relationships of power within the system, the influence of the social and political sphere beyond the organisation.

It follows that ethical maturity is not solely something for leaders. It’s an imperative for those who seek to work with them. The ethical challenges faced by organisations moving fast under competitive pressure are a good reason why leaders should seek external coaching or supervision.

Kara Swisher begins her piece with the observation: “I think we can all agree that Silicon Valley needs more adult supervision,” and ends, “Better still, Silicon Valley itself has to grow up.” The concept of ethical maturity would suggest that accessing supervision is the essence of being grown up.

Image courtesy David Clarke.

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