An ethics primer:
"[To] do this to
the right person, to the right extent, at the right time,
When an individual or group in the workplace does something "wrong," people oftentimes will wonder: "Why do people do bad things in their public lives in organizations? Do they also do bad things in their private lives at home as well?"
Private ethical standards...
Jackall (1988) responds to questions like these in Moral Mazes, arguing that bad conduct on the part of organizational leaders results from what he calls “moral schizophrenia.” That is, Jackall believes that organizational leaders possess two personas, a public persona and a private persona. There is little or no interaction between these two personas, as each enables organizational leaders to survive in very different settings. For his part, Williams (1992) asserts in Ethics in Modern Management that bad conduct is the consequence of organizational leaders holding what he calls a “double ethic.” That is, Williams believes that organizational leaders knowingly enact one ethic in their public lives and another in their private lives. In a report published by the Hastings Center, Callahan (1981) asserted that bad conduct on the part of organizational leaders reflects what he calls “moral minimalism” that is, there are token standards that limit public conduct. But, beyond these standards, organizational leaders are free to do as they like, guided by nothing other than their own private standards defining what constitutes good conduct.
Whether "wrong" behavior in organizations is due to moral schizophrenia, a double ethic, moral minimalism, or a host of other possible explanations, the simple fact is that each is reflective of privately-held ethical standards. And, because these standards are private not public, behavior is cannot be categorized as "right" or "wrong." Instead, both right and wrong are judgments imposed by human beings upon other human beings, judgments that have no basis in rational thought. Because of this, happiness is discovered as citizens pursue what is in their self-interest as they define what constitutes their personal happiness not as others define it.
The following private ethical standards evidence themselves in American society and, it should not prove surprising, in American organizations:
Amoralism: some citizens believe they possess no duties or responsibilities at all;
Ethical egoism: some other citizens believe that one's duty is to pursue one's own good irrespective of what that might mean for others;
Subjectivism (personal relativism): some citizens believe that one’s duty is based upon a personal code that one believes in, accepts, and acts upon; and,
Minimalism: some citizens
their liberty rights and the duties they do not possess (e.g., voluntarism,
Each of these private standards stands reveals what ethicists call "subjectivism," that is, the belief that what is "right" or "wrong," "good" or "bad," or "ethical" or "unethical" is determined solely by individuals, the "subject." For the subjectivists, ethics is an entirely private matter and making determinations about what is right or wrong, good or bad, ethical or unethical is what enables human beings to experience happiness. For example, subjectivists would assert that dabbling in illegal substances is neither right or wrong, good or bad, or ethical or unethical. Whether dabbling in illegal substances makes an individual happy is what is important, ethically speaking.
Public ethical standards...
Opposed to subjectivism is what ethicists call "objectivism." Those holding this belief assert there exists a transcultural set of enduring principles that have independent validity regardless of what individuals and societies posit or believe. By implementing these transcultural principles in private and public life, so the objectivists posit, human beings will experience happiness and exhibit virtue in their conduct. Those who believe ethics is a public matter do so for the reason that, as social beings, human conduct inevitably will impact the lives of other human beings. That accounts for why the objectivists assert, against subjectivists, there must be a set of standard that guide human behavior. For example, dabbling in illegal substances is wrong, bad, and unethical for a variety of reasons, the most important being that doing so can be injurious to one's health and well-being as well as the health and well-being of others. Even if one experiences happiness when dabbling in illegal substances, they are illegal precisely for the reason that such conduct inevitably impacts negatively the lives of other people.
The following public ethical standards evidence themselves in American society:
Natural law: the belief that human beings can derive from an epistemological examination of nature as well as a metaphysical study of human nature and its potentialities and actualizations the conclusion that certain things are good for human beings; thus, human beings are obligated to pursue these things, that is, "to do good and avoid evil";
Categorical imperative: some people believe that all people bear the duty to will that course of action which is intrinsically right in itself (e.g., to tell the truth, to keep one’s promises, to respect life) and to refrain from any course of action which is intrinsically wrong in itself (e.g., lying, breaking promises, or murdering);
Justice: because of its substantive importance for organizing and governing society, all citizens must do what justice requires of them; and,
some citizens believe that good acts are intentional, that is, they lead
into one another, reinforce one another, and form those patterns of good
conduct characterizing a truly happy person and contributing to the
construction of a truly happy society.
Each of these public standards stands reveals what ethicists call "objectivism," that is, the belief that what is "right" or "wrong," "good" or "bad," or "ethical" or "unethical" is determined "objectively." For objectivists, ethics is an entirely public matter and making determinations about what is right or wrong, good or bad, ethical or unethical is to be guided by objective, public standards that contribute to personal and societal happiness. For example, objectivists would assert that dabbling in illegal substances is wrong, bad, and unethical because this conduct negatively impacts others' lives. Whether conduct makes an individual happy is not what is important, ethically speaking. What is important is what the "good" requires of every human being.
Ethical inquiry and ethics...
When people observe an organizational leader engaging in "wrong" conduct in the workplace, they almost intuitively question "Why?" and wonder whether this conduct is specific to the workplace or whether it permeates all aspects of the organizational leader's life. Ruminations such as these provide a starting point for ethical inquiry about leadership ethics. Confronted with the specter of wrong conduct in the workplace, ethicists ask: "What ought these people be doing?"
Ethics is that branch of philosophy (φιλόs―the love of; σοφόs―wisdom, what is right, good, proper, just) which inquires into precisely what constitutes right conduct. In addition, ethics investigates the decision-making process by which individuals and societies can identify what constitutes acting in a way that not only promotes the achievement of what is good but also what will bring happiness to individuals and society as well.
This basic definition challenges the stance adopted by many in contemporary American society because it stands opposed to how these people think about themselves, their lives, and how they might lead good lives and discover happiness. For example:
Properly speaking, ethics does not concern not morality, feelings, or a code. Ethics is an activity of the intellect through which human beings inquire into what constitutes the good life and, by using the power of reason, formulate those principles which can serve to uphold and support a truly good ("happy") life as human beings make decisions that direct the power of will so as to conduct themselves rightly. Stated in a slightly different way, ethics is a field of human inquiry into and speculation about why human beings do what they do so that "right" conduct is achieved and "wrong" conduct is avoided.
Ethical decision making...
Human beings generally make three types of decisions. These include: 1) the things one ought to do; 2) the things one ought not to do; and, 3) the things one may either do or not do. The proper focus of ethics is those decisions regarding what citizens ought to do. These “oughts” provide the foundation upon which what otherwise would be ordinary acts are elevated through a rational principle into ethical acts which serve to improve the quality of life both for oneself as well as for others. Ratiocination—the act of thinking reflectively—is what differentiates human beings as rational animals from other non-human rational animals.
The study of ethics, then, subjects private desires and values to public scrutiny in an effort to discover the logical strengths and deficiencies of various arguments concerning those desires and values as human beings seek happiness and engage in conduct that leads to a truly good life. The goal of this arduous intellectual work is to formulate a stable set of principles that individuals can consistently apply to situations in which they find themselves so that they will act rightly (i.e., to promote the true good both of the individual and of the society) and exhibit this in one's public conduct.
What precisely is conduct and how does it relate to ethics?
For ethicists, conduct is action and, in particular for human beings, those actions through which human beings consciously control and deliberately will the good, that is, "what ought to be." Through such reflection, human beings give ethical significance to their existence as a being-in-the-world.
Some conduct does not require deliberation, for example, eating a meal, taking a walk, or shopping for food. These "acts of man" are of little or no consequence, ethically speaking. But, when such conduct proceeds from deliberation, it becomes a "human act," that is, one's conduct evidences a complex psychological process involving wish, intention, deliberation, choice, consent, use, and enjoyment. For example, eating a meal with one's spouse to celebrate a wedding anniversary, taking a walk with a son or daughter to discuss a problem that has cropped up and needs to be dealt with, or selecting items at the grocery store because one is intent upon preparing a special meal for family members represent conduct that is of immense consequence, ethically speaking. These human acts disclose the character of a person who yields to the attractiveness of the “ought,” commits oneself to it, and reveals it in one's conduct.
Voluntariness is the chief characteristic of a human act because it is “willed” (in Latin, voluntas) that is, it proceeds from the will with knowledge of the desired end which is guiding one's deliberations. Thus, the decisive point that differentiates an "act of man" from a "human act" is the free consent of the will following deliberation by the intellect. One ethical consequence of voluntariness is that the agent bears full responsibility for one’s freely-willed choices, thus illuminating not only one's self-determining nature but also one’s dignity as a human being. That is, one’s freely-willed acts are caused by a person who is a self-governing agent, one who could have acted otherwise but freely chose not to do so in order to promote the good and to experience true happiness in doing the good.
Ethics and the search for happiness...
Ethical decision making is not an end in itself. No, the desired end of the ethical decision-making process is to achieve happiness both individually and collectively.
What, then, is happiness?
Happiness is a natural desire (eros, in Greek, ερόs) that the intellect acts upon in order that a human being might experience enjoyment by consciously possessing the good (i.e., the desired end). Happiness is neither a psychological feeling of contentment nor of optimism. Instead, happiness is an intellectual feeling of pleasure as a human being directs one's conduct toward the good and grasps it by performing the good. This is the type of intellectual pleasure one experiences, for example, in telling the truth and suffering for it (and, perhaps, dying for it) because, as Plato noted in the Apology (1981a), "it is better to die for the truth than to live a lie."
By nature, human beings are "hot-wired" to seek happiness as they attempt to satisfy their desires, the deepest desire (or "motive," as psychologists call it) being happiness. The legitimate self‑seeking of happiness is not selfishness. Instead, it is constitutive of one’s being‑in‑the‑world. However, the finite capacities of human beings mandates that happiness cannot be absolutely but, at most, relatively perfect. However, human beings differ in what they judge will make them happy and, because of this, ethics enables human beings to make determinations about what constitutes true happiness.
Ethically speaking, then, happiness is a lasting subjective state of enjoyment that one experiences in the intellect not the momentary and fleeting pleasure experienced through the senses. The Greek word for happiness, ευδαιμοία ("through having the spirit of a god" or "good spiritedness") best captures this concept. That is, human beings experience lasting intellectual enjoyment through their good conduct.
Conduct, happiness, and the development of ethical principles...
It is in this sense that ethics examines those enduring customs (ethos, in Greek, εθόs) which have shaped how individuals and societies act (e.g., cultural mores) as they have sought happiness. These customs developed through human experience and over time formed a transgenerational and transcultural code of behavior. Building upon this, ethics invites human beings to examine and to inculcate these customs as personal dispositions so that, for example, as organizational leaders , human beings will conduct themselves in a way that improves the quality of life in organizations not only for themselves but also for its members as women and men freely will genuinely human acts, conduct themselves accordingly, and experience abiding happiness in doing so. Indeed, an organization can be an excellent place for testing and perfecting one's ethical principles.
This arduous intellectual work will require students to engage in the ongoing conversation among ethicists who, for centuries, have been grappling with the issue of identifying what constitutes the good life and right conduct. It will also require students to reflect about the quality of their lives by better understanding the choices they have made (or will make in the future) more clearly and by identifying the most ethically appropriate course of action to enact in their conduct. Fortunately, students will quickly discover that no clear-cut, definitive answers exist when confronting ethical dilemmas. Instead, there are a variety of principles—each of which introduces an important concept for consideration but also possesses inherent limitations that must be considered—that need to be examined very carefully and painstakingly as the ethical decision-making process unfolds.
Thus, as students enrolled in MPA 8300 engage in this ongoing conversation, they will grapple with very different approaches to the question concerning what constitutes the good life and right conduct. Furthermore, students will strengthen their intellectual powers so as to recognize the strengths and weaknesses of each approach as well as what each does and does not contribute to the ongoing conversation. Lastly, students will discover that ethics is primarily about leadership, that is, demonstrating through their conduct how they utilize rational principles when making principled decisions and how their conduct will improve the quality of life both for oneself and others in their organizations. This is what Cooper (2006) calls "the responsible administrator" or in this class what is called "the ethical leader."
It may very well be that students believe they know less about ethics when they complete MPA 8300 than when they first enrolled in the course. But, again, as Plato (1981b) noted in Meno, "to know what one does not know is to be wise." As students know better what they do not know and engage their followers in substantive discourse concerning principles to guide what they ought to do, this is how students completing MPA 8300 will be able to provide ethical leadership for their followers and build more ethically responsive organizations.