Ethics for managers

Ethics for managers

  •         Presented by Marie-France Lebouc, professor of Applied Ethics, Laval University
  •       Thursday, February 25 2010 at 7 p.m. at the Morrin Centre
  •         $8 members and students / $10 non-members
  •          RSVP 418-694-9147  / [email protected] /

How many times have you encountered the word ethics over the past three days? You may have read it in the paper, heard it on the news or even mentioned it in a discussion. The truth is it seems to have become omnipresent nowadays when it was hardly ever heard of twenty years ago.

What does it mean anyway? Is it good for business or me? Is it just a fad? Is it difficult to implement? Let me work this backwards. Ethics can be defined as the choices/decisions we have to make in order to input our moral values in our actions. For instance, the decision to lie or not to lie to a client about the quality of a product you sell reveals whether you value more a profit that helps consolidate your organization in the short term or the slow building of a reputation of truthfulness and dependability. In that respect, as long as your personal moral values fit with the values in your organization, ethics is good both for you and business. And this is all the more interesting that ethics is here to stay.

It is about being and doing good. Ethics in business is by no means a fad. It should instead be seen as a transformation accompanied by new social demands for more accountability. It finds its roots in deep existential needs to define what being good and doing good means. Indeed religion used to be the only source of reference but in modern times, even before making a decision about what good is, we have to choose what we will retain as a moral reference: liberal religion, fundamental religious beliefs, science and rationality, New Age values, a mix of those or any other, etc.

So, since you cannot escape ethics, is it difficult to implement? Do we have to go back to university benches? The vast majority of ethicists argue that managers must develop their moral and rational judgement in order to be able to take ethics into consideration. Decisions ought to be made after careful moral deliberation (or inner dialogue) if not ethics cannot be aid to have been integrated in the decision-making process. You may do good deeds yet it is not because you are a highly moral person. This message seems to have conquered the business collective psyche. You probably believe that you have to consult a specialist or take some sort of course. It sounds complicated and time consuming. No wonder many are tempted to forget about it.

However, not all ethicists think that ethics is inseparable from rational judgement. This difference of opinion appears to many specialists as the most fundamental division in the history of moral philosophy. To our right, ethicists who believe that reason is fundamental to ethics and see rational deliberation as the sign of the greatest moral evolution. To our left, ethicists who consider that ethics is more intuitive and that the good person is someone who succeeds in aligning her actions with her moral values. For instance, if you jump off a bridge to save an endangered child in the river below, spending time on that decision might be the worst thing to do. It is very easy to rationally justify the jump afterwards. Yet the fact that you made up your mind in an instant shows that your parents did a very good job at raising you. “Thou shall not kill” or let die. That you know; not much thinking required here.

As a university professor and researcher in ethics and as an ethics counsellor, I am convinced that you do not need to rely exclusively on rational deliberation in order to take ethics into account. That makes me and other ethicists in my case a different kind of counsellors. Indeed, instead of trying to teach you what is moral and how to rationally apply moral principles and values to arrive at the best decision, we prefer to insist on the fact that you already know how to do just that. What we have to do instead is help you identify how you do it and help you build confidence in your moral capabilities. Of course, there are moments when you need to take time to reflect on a situation and weigh your options. But time is precious and rare in the life of a manager and the moral extent of a decision is unrelated to the amount of time you can set aside for it.

As a teacher or as a counsellor, rather than lecturing you in moral philosophy and reasoning, I prefer to listen to you and help you find answers to your questions within yourself. It is called practical philosophy and it has been around since Socrates. Yet a Socratic midwife is no shrink! First, you won’t be sitting in front of me for the next 20 years. Second, I do listen but I cannot remain silent for very long. Third, psychology is not my area of expertise; I do not tackle psychological problems. My role is to strengthen your capacity to make judgements that are more in line with what the situation calls for and above all more in line with your moral values and aims for a good life.