Situational Morality

Back in the 1950’s, Charles E. Wilson, president of General Motors, was quoted as  saying: “What’s good for General Motors is good for the country.” That’s not exactly what he said, but that’s the way the press reported it, and he was widely criticized for his arrogant, corporate-centric attitude. He tried for clarification, but didn’t deny saying something to that effect. He didn’t claim that he had “misspoke.” He said what he believed was true. He was talking from within the framework of his own corporate ethical system.

Every ethical system requires that we establish a touchstone by which we judge good or bad, right or wrong. We measure our ethical issues against that touchstone. If that standard happens to be General Motors, then what is good for GM is indeed good for all, and what is bad for GM is bad for all.

My question is: What is that touchstone or standard, and how do we select it?

Most of us base our ethical systems on The Golden Rule, the Ten Commandments, or some  revealed Truth, such as Jesus’ great commandment, “Love thy neighbor as thyself for the love of God.”

But, we see educated, intelligent, and basically good people letting their moral compass swing away from the central path and choosing another touchstone. such as an organization, success, or profit,  and taking that as the standard from which they measure right or wrong.

In the case of Wall Street, it might be the acquisition of wealth and the continued survival and growth of their firm. In the Catholic Church scandal, the bishops chose the protection of the Church’s institutional reputation above the welfare of the laity and their children. A Saddam Hussein might place the success and continuation of his government above the people’s interests, and even their lives. A politician may sacrifice a career for “the good of the Party.” An inventor may rush a product to market without adequate testing or safeguards to achieve recognition, market position,  or sales. A university may turn away from recognizing and dealing with abuses so as not to jeopardize a successful athletic program. Athletes, taking the achievement of medals and records as their touchstone, might justify the taking of steroids as “right.”

I think we can all add examples of our own. They abound.

I find that there are many actions being taken in all these fields to get people’s thinking back on  track. The Big Three Steps in this arena are:

1. Ethical Training: Many organizations already have such training as part of their familization program. They tell the new people what they stand for, and challenge newcomers and old-timers both, to know and do what is really expected of them. These are continuing, not one-time programs. There are responsible officers on the corporate staff who monitor, conduct follow-on training sessions, and deal promptly with ethical issues and violations.

2. Third Party Auditing: No organization can audit itself. No exceptions here: None. They can monitor and make course corrections, but they are simply too close to be trusted with the true problem situation. They may “understand” what drove the person to do what they did, and minimize, cover-up, or even ignore, the problem. Every organization must have outside, disinterested, third party auditors, perhaps reporting to the board of directors, who can talk to everyone in the organization, see everything, understand everything – and take action or make recommendations accordingly. There may be no secrets kept from this auditing team.

3. One Responsible Manager: It all has to come together at the top with one credible, responsible, competent person in each organization, again perhaps reporting to the board. The US Army calls this person the “Inspector General.” Some papers and media outlets call their top ethical person “The Ombudsman.” Many firms now have a corporate “Vice President of Ethics.” These key people have the training, view, motivation, and clout to deal with the problems, and engage the outside third-party auditors assigned to the organization.

They are such people as may be closest as humanly possible to Plato’s ideal of “Philosopher Kings.”

These steps, enforced with the proven carrot and stick (the carrot as the reward, the stick as the punishment) will help bring everyone back to the real world where what we say and do truly matters in the human paradigm that too often exists outside the organizational interests.

We start to accomplish this by establishing our own ethical touchstone of honor, integrity, consideration, and perhaps even The Golden Rule.

It is against this standard that we decide good or bad, right or wrong.


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