Wednesday, December 06, 2006

On Corporate Ethics

I am in a Business Strategy class right now for my MBA. We were talking about business ethics. The conversation is a damn mess.

It's like talking about ethics with five year olds. I have the impression that this wasn't always the case. As much as we have the illusion in our culture that we are morally advanced, I think the opposite is true.

For example, my professor is making a distinction between "ethics" and "social responsibility". There may be a difference in emphasis in the two terms, but they are really the same thing. "Ethics" has become a fuzzy term for not breaking the law and "social responsibility" is a touchy feely term for donating to trendy charities that look good on paper.

My professor kept reiterating that ethics is a "grey area". The idea that ethics are a grey area is the source of the error that keeps ethics weak. You have to be very specific about what ethics are, and what they entail, for them to exist at all. This doesn't mean that there is no room for debate and argument about what is ethical and what is not. On the contrary, our current situation is characterized by a lack of debate.

When you are having a conversation with five year olds, whether they look five or not, you feel a bit of pity for them. As much as I feel that we are all responsible for the development of our own conscience, so many people are starved for any real ideas. We're in the cave, baby, and it sure is hard to see in here.

So how do you teach ethics to five year olds? Very slowly.

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