Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Ethical Thought

I am an employee of a very large company. It is surprising to me that we seem to require ethics officers, ethics training courses, and Code of Conduct agreements to keep us all ethical. For the first 20 years of my career, there were no such things.   I don't understand why it is necessary; I think we were all pretty ethical back then even without all this hoopla.

So what has changed? Have we become so craven and degenerate that we constantly need to be told what is right and wrong -- on an almost case-by-case basis?

Well, maybe. A civilization is based on shared but individually-held beliefs. I am not sure that "anything goes" can be considered a belief to build a civilization on.

Thinking back to the '70s and '80's, the whole concept of right and wrong seems like it was simpler then. And indeed it was. In the past, ethics was based on the concept of malum in se -- things that are inherently wrong or immoral in and of themselves.

But "ethics" today encompasses all of malum prohibitum -- things that are not inherently wrong, but are simply prohibited by rule or statute. And this latter category has grown by leaps and bounds since the 1970's, to the point where no one except an expert can navigate its torturous passages.

We have been told at work that if we don't follow proper procedures, it is an ethics violation, punishable by termination and by being banned from ever working in the industry.  And you can never know all the rules -- they are written in literally hundreds of thousands of pages of online processes and procedures, constantly being updated by an army of writers.

It is probably no coincidence that the number of malum prohibitum items is exploding at the same time that the very existence of malum in se is being questioned in our society. In the absence of malum in se, or without a distinction between the two, malum prohibitum takes on the full self-righteous power of malum in se, and punishments for what used to be small violations of rules or laws escalate accordingly.

I see people at work who used to be motivated to think up creative and efficient ways to get the job done, now saying, "Why bother?  I did my job. The widget may not work properly, but I followed the process, and I don't want to get into trouble."

I am reminded of Spanish explorers in the New World, who were subject to so many arcane and contradictory edicts that nearly all of them were eventually sent back to Spain in chains.

In the larger societal sense too, the explosion of new governmental laws and regulations is at least partially driven by the changes in individual behavior caused by the decline in internally-held malum in se beliefs.  And that is likely driven by a decline in religious beliefs.

Without an internal sense of right and wrong, people simply can't be trusted.   The response of governments and employers is to attempt to define exactly what we can and cannot do.  Everything becomes either prescribed or proscribed.  Motivation goes away.  Creativity goes away.  Freedom goes away.

And then there is this homily:

If the people are good, only a few laws are needed.  If they are bad, no number of laws will be enough.

Good luck out there.