Chuck Tanowitz has an interesting post “Ethicist in the Boardroom?” in which he expounds on
a discussion with Phil Libin a while back he suggested that companies should have an ethicist on board. More specifically, he suggested an outside ethics consultant to help keep them on track.
The post is worth reading in its entirety. He goes through important questions of “what is good and bad” when there are conflicts, and suggests some of the skills the person needs. I’m skeptical that ethics consultants will do any good.
First, most everyone perceives themselves as good. Sony put nasty DRM onto their music CDs in a misguided attempt to protect their musicians from internet downloaders. Enron executives such as Ken Lay (click on his ad) maintain web sites about how what they did wasn’t criminal.
So it’s unlikely that Sony would have asked their ‘corporate ethicist’ for advice on DRM. Given Sony’s orientation, it was a good idea. Similarly, cell phone companies lock you in for your own good. Without those credit card fees, you wouldn’t have access to a card. The Bush Administration believes that it is ethically justified in sending people overseas to be tortured.
Ethics comes from within. How you were raised, and how you view the world. A consultant is unlikely to be asked the right questions about the right problems. So to make good use of an ethics consultant, you almost have to pay them to roam the halls looking for trouble. What ethical consultant could take that sort of assignment in good conscience?
What’s more, ethics comes from leadership, and specifically, leaders who make hard decisions in ethical ways. Outsourcing ethics may send the message that ethics is something for someone else to worry about.
[Update: Out, damned apostrophe!]