Thursday, February 23, 2012

The failure of moral philosophy

The failure of moral philosophy

Thomas Aquinas refers to Aristotle as “The Philosopher”, as though there were no other. Aristotle is an outstanding philosopher, perhaps the greatest, but he could also be described as a political scientist, a veterinarian, an astronomer, a physicist – although not in the modern sense - and an ethicist. His observations and learning encompassed many disciplines .The argument of this paper is that today’s moral philosophers have not followed his lead. They confine their discussions to opinion and argument, reaching few usable conclusions .They claim that their teaching and writing are based on practice, and lead to action; they claim also  that  they draw on many disciplines. None of these statements are true.  Moral philosophers do not venture outside the narrow self- defined limits of their discipline. Other disciplines contribute as much if not more than moral philosophy to ethical practices which do lead to improved ethical behaviour. These contributions- perhaps a half dozen in all - are ignored by moral philosophers. The big losers are students who study moral philosophy who are not taught these practices. The larger loser, however, is society. Those philosophers who ignore, and in some cases argue against these practices, ensure that our desire to build a more ethical world will gain no support from moral philosophy.

I will take each of these statements in turn. That Aristotle was much a scientist as a philosopher can be noted from his observations on many aspects of human society. His writing, based near entirely on observation, and within the technical limits of his day, covered animals, the heavens, the political sciences as well as ethics .His thoughts can be applied practically. Nichomachean ethics, for example, sets out distinct guidelines and parameters for our behaviour.  His intellectual virtues included scientific knowledge (episteme), and technical skill or art (techne),

There has not been much progress since. The efforts of moral philosopher today lead only to talk, more talk, and disagreement. Of the many observations on the “internecine warfare” between moral philosophers, I quote Richard Joyce from Philosophy Now (Issue 82 ,2011)

“The theories are plentiful, the convolutions byzantine, the in-fighting bitter, the spilt ink copious, and the progress astoundingly unimpressive”

My second contention is the claim that the current mainstream thinking in moral philosophy leads to action. An example is seen in The Ethics Toolkit (Baggini and Fosl, 2007).This book  is intended  “to provide readers with a deeper …sense of how different ideas … may be enlisted so that people may not only think but act  with regard to moral matters.” (The emphasis is mine.).

There are many similar claims. The Blackwell Guide to Ethical Theory is written by “an international assembly of distinguished philosophers”. Its editor, Hugh LaFollette (2000), follows the present-day compartmentalisation of ethics into three – meta-ethics, normative ethics and practical ethics, the last mentioned being about “how we should behave in particular situations”. LaFollette asserts that this is a change – quoting PH Nowell-Smith, a half century ago (1957), who stated that “The moral philosopher (and) his subject matter consists … of theoretical statements”.

Some changes have taken place since Nowell Smith , but I argue that  they are still theoretical and that  , in any case, ignore developments in other disciplines.

We can see the changes today in Peter Singer’s book, Practical Ethics, where he talks about our responsibilities towards the poor, towards animals, womens’ rights, racial minorities, and the like. In short, Singer is pushing us toward the practical implications of the policies that he is presenting.

Many of the books on business ethics discuss those specific issues that occur in the business world. Frederick (2002) for instance, discusses a range of business practices widely considered unethical – in marketing, business finance, environmental issues, etc.

I argue that these books do not go far enough. They may examine some of the ethical practices that need to be followed, but not all of them. They also  give us little guidance on how to manage the ethical issues that they do raise

Most moral publications are similar to the toolkit book. They concentrate on the ethical theories   A standard text for undergraduate courses in ethics, The Elements of Moral Philosophy, by James and Stuart Rachels, for instance , does an excellent job of explaining the many ins and outs of moral philosophy. It has no mention of any of practices adopted by other disciplines that strengthen ethical behaviour.

The practices drawn from other disciplines come from the work of the Australian Association for Professional and Applied Ethics (AAPAE) , Drawing on studies across ethical practices in thirteen different disciplines, the Association identified six practices that will strengthen ethical behaviour. All are near-completely ignored by moral philosophers. They come from the business sector, from politics, from public administration, from sociology, and from the legal profession. They are (i) Strengthening our ability to recognise when we ourselves have been unethical; (ii) Steps being taken to encourage us to speak out against wrongdoing ;(iii) Developments in codes of ethics that do make them effective;(iv) policies being adopted by private sector organisations to institutionalise ethical behaviour; (v) new programs for ensuring greater honesty in government; and (vi) building action on empirical findings, not argument.  Each of these developments is being put into practice in the disciplines from which they arose. But are largely ignored by moral philosophers.

As I shall demonstrate, several moral philosophers actively decry these developments, despite their benefits. But let us first describe the practices. The first is an analysis of why we adopt practices that result in us not seeing wrongdoing, or in ignoring it when we do see it

Why we fail to do what is right

Max Bazerman and Ann Tenbrunsel (Blind Spots,2011) ,  are professors of business and of business ethics whose research that tells us we do not often recognise the decision we should make  is an ethical one .If we do, we sort our way through the maze of competing ethical theories to reach a decision. If we do however, we do not always implement it. There are many reasons why we do not act - a willingness to conform to accepted thinking (group think); our tendency to reduce dissonance when associated with rejecting a suspected unethicality, thinking for the short term rather than the long term, and finally a complete failure to recognise many decisions as ethical. They term their analyses “behavioural ethics”, claiming that it has grown “exponentially” in recent years. Their examples include the Challenger disaster and the Ford Pinto case, arguing there that these decision makers did not recognise the ethical implications of the choices that they made. They give a number of solutions for avoiding the problem, targeted at the individual, organisational or societal level.

Many developments have in fact been introduced aimed at ensuring that an ethical option is recognised, adopted, and then implemented. The following paragraphs provide a short summary. The first of the actual applications is commonly known as whistleblowing

Speaking out against wrong doing

It is only common sense that people inside or in contact with an organisation will be the first to identify wrongdoing. Several major research studies, world-wide, have confirmed that blowing the whistle on illegal or unethical action is the most effective way to stop it. But to speak out is a dangerous practice. Whistleblowers are crucified .Legislation that encourages and protects them has now been introduced in most countries. As have stock exchange guidelines that include whistleblowing .Even business standards now encourage it. These practices and their multiple problems need to be taught to students of moral philosophy. The research on ways to reduce the problems belongs in the same discipline.

Adopting codes of ethics that are effective

How many of us have signed a code of ethics without reading it, convinced that (i) we are ethical anyway and (ii) we know that it only exhorts us to be honest and to deal fairly with workmates and clients. And if we do read it, the code seems like a public relations document generated by senior management to give the impression that the organisation is honest. Research in recent years, however, has determined that codes aimed at the actual ethical issues faced by staff, identified and resolved by those who confront these issues, are more likely to be effective.Codes are not a topic of interest to the Toolkit book

Policies being adopted by private organisations to strengthen ethical practices

A multitude of these practises have developed in recent years .Thumbnail sketches would include
Growth in Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) Michael Porter, perhaps the foremost academic in building business strategies notes the link between corporate strategy and corporate social responsibility “CSR has emerged as an inescapable priority for business leaders in every country” he tells us
An ethics role for professional societies. These institutions  are developing and codifying ethical practices for the disciplines that they cover. The majority are merely exhortations to be good, and as such, are somewhat useless, but a few tackle the real ethical issues of that discipline.
Trade Practices and anti-trust. Moves to reach agreements with members of cartels to provide evidence in return for easier treatment have become near universal in recent years .In short, If you turn in your fellow conspirator, you get off.
Legislation governing business dealings Typical are the Sarbanes Oxley and the Dodd Frank Acts in the US, the strengthened Corporations Act in Australia and the Bribery Act in the UK. Some of this legislation is aimed at combatting one of the ethical blinkers noted by Bazerman and Tenbrunsel – motivated blindness – an inability to recognise an unethical act when it is to your advantage. They note that Enron was Arthur Andersen’s second largest client where the consulting fees were greater than auditing fees – a widespread weakness that has been since overcome through legislative enactment.
Securities exchanges principles Again there has been increased emphasis on ethical behaviour exercised through stock exchanges, evidenced in a number of developments -  stock exchange listing requirements emphasising ethical corporate governance,  the growth in ethical investments and the development of codes of ethics for exchange staff being the most prominent.

Ensuring honest government

Another growth field described by some as “exponential” is anti-corruption agencies or as they are termed in Australia, Integrity agencies. All are aimed at strengthening behaviour in the public sector, and at times, the legislature. They will range from Crime Commissions to Ombudsman Offices operating in a role expanded  from their traditional function as an agency that listens to (and attempt to correct)  complaints about public administrators. Some Ombudsman Offices are responsible for taking action on whistleblower issues. They work in a variety of ways, by education, providing consulting services in ethical practices, by accepting complaints on misbehaviour, by encouraging and protecting whistleblowers. They also cover illegal as well as unethical activity. The list of wrongs that one anti- corruption agency prohibits actions that “could adversely affect, either directly or indirectly, the honest or impartial exercise of official functions”. Other prohibited actions involve a breach of public trust, or the misuse of information or material. These actions are not necessarily illegal.

Adoption of empirical findings

The learning processes in philosophy are based on argument. It is an adequate process when we are simply speculating. It is totally inadequate for critical analytical action. The inadequacy of argument is reflected in the criticism of anti-corruption and integrity agencies as instruments for bringing about greater ethical behaviour in the public sector. Some moral philosophers decry these developments. Jeff Malpas, for instance, at the most recent AAPAE conference argued that the language of ethics, “seems increasingly to have been appropriated by bureaucratised systems of political and managerial control based around notions of risk management, audit, accountability and assurance “; that it presages “the demise in ethics.”

His contention uses argument to combat empirical research.Another example of where today’s philosophy has lost sight of the lessons of previous decades is  Loius Pojman and Vauhn Lewis  in the seventh edition of a widely-used text Philosophy. The Quest for Truth
“The Major task (of philosophy) is to analyse and construct arguments “ and again
“The hallmark of philosophy is centered in the argument”

Pojman makes the statement in the 6th edition “ I have striven to present opposing views on virtually every  topic “ IT is a  strange statement to make in a book questing for truth.

I quote again from Philosophy Now John Lachs decries this approach. “young philosophers (in the US) are taught that argument is king …that knowledge of facts is superfluous” (Can philosophy still produce public intellectuals? Philosophy Now, September/October, 2009)

I turn finally to the ethical implications of these approaches. The immediate losers, of course, are those young people who take a philosophy degree and who want to work in ethics. Many of them want their work to matter, to have an impact. But they have an inadequate education with which to make this impact – inadequate in two respects. They are given neither the knowledge of these current practice nor the analytical skills with which to use and further develop the practices. I could even claim that their teaching gives them an intellectual handicap with which to face the world. For they are not given the analytical techniques that they would need to make any impact.

The bigger loser is society at large, however. Research into ways that society can strengthen ethical practices is left to other disciplines. And ethical practices are not mainstream in those other disciplines   Ann Tenbrunsel, working in business ethics, is a rarity. Ethics is a branch of philosophy. The research, the developments and  strengthening of  ethical behaviour should come from that discipline .Currently It does not. And until the discipline changes, it  cannot.


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