How can business ever be ethical when we don’t know what ethical is?
First published in 2018… still bang on.
Before we can even begin to understand how to do business ethically, and live ethically, we need a universal understanding of what ethical even is.
The dictionary.com definition is “pertaining to or dealing with morals or the principles of morality; pertaining to right and wrong in conduct.”
So we google again. What is moral? “Concerned with the principles of right and wrong behavior. Standards of behavior. The principles of right and wrong.”
Asking “What is right and wrong?” opens the doors of philosophy and welcomes in the ongoing problem. There is no workable definition of ethical. It immediately reduces to principles of right and wrong, descending into individual morality, conscience, scruples, preference, and is thus rendered meaningless, other than as a ball in a debating game. So let’s try to give it some solidity, so when we see the word, we know are on common ground.
Ethics is the consideration of right and wrong. This we can understand, theoretically, but if we don’t have a framework for what is right and wrong, where does that leave us? Perhaps this has been one of the underlying thorns in the human side, the search for a foundation upon which to build. What is right? What is wrong? Where is the bottom line? And so philosophies and religions and cultural movements provide or attempt to provide baseline. Or perhaps we choose to believe there is no right and wrong, and these are totally human constructs, and can be discarded entirely for convenience. Or perhaps ‘the market’ is right and preventing or intervening in the market is ‘wrong’. Capitalism is right. Communism is wrong. Or liberalism. Or Nationalism. And so on. No wonder the strife when we lack collective understanding of what ethical even is, what right is. And how typical of us to try to make it binary, ethical or unethical. As if anything in life were that simple.
So for the sake of a foundation, here’s the definition we use: Ethical is a scale of that which is most beneficial to life. Pretty simple really. Applying it in practice may prove to be more complex.
Using this definition creates a spectrum, a scale, of ethical. It is no longer binary, a matter of ‘Right and Wrong’. It is a scale of alignment with life. And Ethics becomes the contemplation of life and the impact on it of ourselves. This removes the ‘right or wrong’ divisiveness, absoluteness, and surety, and even the human centric and individual centric perception, and replaces it with a detached position from which to ask the questions. How does this impact Life? Not just an individual life, not just human life. All life. Life itself. From this understanding, maybe we can apply a consistent way of thinking. Let’s try it.
Where, on our ethical scale, does burning fossil fuel sit? Historically it was vital to human life and greatly benefitted us, the taming of fire changed everything, and without significant negative impact on the rest of the biosphere. Now, in 2018, burning fossil fuels somewhat endangers human life, and much of the biosphere. Burning fossil fuels as an activity has moved along the scale of ethics with time and volume. It’s still doing so. Is eating meat ethical? Again, we could use the same process to look at how that dynamic situation is changing. It becomes complex, and multifaceted, but at least it brings us into the same place, whereby we are looking at the issue from the same perspective, and without a ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ option. There is only more or less ethical.
Ethical is a scale, a gradient, relating to life enhancement of all living things. It changes with time, place, and circumstance.
Back to business. This definition provides us with interesting questions to apply when engaged in designing systems, machines, software, businesses, politics, and all. How does this impact life? How can this be made to benefit life? What are the negative impacts on life? How can we limit or prevent those? Can it be made perfect? Asking the right questions can raise the ethical standards of any creation, and in doing so, prevent the pitfalls of short term thinking, including unsustainability.
Ethical is life enhancing. Let’s start there. And build up.
Image credit to Florencia Potter on Unsplash