Ethics is not a Place

Posted on 23. Feb, 2009 by in Religious Ethics

Guy Kingston asked:

It seems that Ethics is a growth industry. There are even advertisements in the newspapers for “professional ethicists”.

Does this mean that we are getting more ethical? Are we at the place of which Plato dreamed, where “kings are philosophers and philosophers are kings”.

Alas, the opposite seems to be true. The fact that so-called “experts” have to be employed to say what is ethical is just one sign that many people are increasingly incapable of telling right from wrong for themselves.

Indeed, the “professional ethicists” are not really concerned with moral right and wrong. Rather they are a junior branch of the legal profession. Many sectors, especially those related to medicine and human services, now have “codes of ethics” or “codes of conduct”. A breach of these codes may have legal consequences. The purpose of the “professional ethicist” is to give a degree of protection from those legal consequences. Surely this is the very opposite of ethics.

The last century has seen an enormous expansion in the scope of the law in most jurisdictions. Activities which were previously left up to individual conscience are now regulated by the state.

This is particularly true of business.

Yet it has not made business more honest. To rely on force rather than conscience to get people to do what is right is to undermine conscience. When people are forced, rather than persuaded, they will do what they are forced to do and no more. They will feel no sense of obligation.

More and more, the business world is filled with people who are governed by the principle of “what can we get away with”, rather than by what is right.

It was not always so. We must not be so naive as to imagine that there was ever a Golden Age when everyone was always honest – but things certainly used to be better than they are today.

Previous generations were less likely to see a conflict between doing what was morally right and doing what was in their own best interests.

Partly this was due to the greater emphasis that was placed on Reputation in those days. Business communities tended to be smaller, either because they were geographically isolated or because there might be a small number of specialists in very close correspondence. If a man did anything dishonest, it would soon be known by everyone and his chances of remaining in business would be negligible. Today, the global market is so big that it is unlikely that everyone will hear if someone has a bad reputation.

Mainly, however, it was because business communities usually had shared religious values.

Max Weber described the “Protestant Work Ethic”. The same principle which encouraged people to work hard to succeed in business – a desire to please God – also imposed strict honesty on those business dealings. Protestant devotional works sometimes recommend standards that seem laughable today – like not taking advantage of information that was unknown to the other party in a deal and not charging market price where the profit is excessive. Yet the people who read those works often became very wealthy, not least because they had a reputation for fair dealing.

In the same way, Jewish bankers were able to do business, even if the face of virulent Anti-Semitism, because they built a reputation for scrupulous honesty. This only irritated the Anti-Semites even more.

Even today, an entrepreneur is better off if he deals with someone who is concerned about his reputation for honesty – and who possibly believes that there is an Accounting beyond the balance sheets of this life – than relying on any number of laws and regulations and artificial codes for protection.

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