Tuesday, March 2, 2010

About Ethics

I grew up thinking that ethics were central to the way the world worked. It has taken me a long time to realize that this is not very much the way it is at all. I am a slow learner … but I am still an optimist that it will be an ethical society that emerges in the end.

Clearly there are very powerful forces that try to make ethics go away … but in my view they are no match for the good that is latent in most human beings. Over the years I have done work assignments in more than fifty countries. In every country my local colleagues have been delightful people … good people … ethical people. I have had to deal with people who I would not describe in this way, but they are few in number, get to have too much press and attention and quite often run things!

I was shocked years ago when I was living in Canada in British Columbia when the Provincial Government banned the teaching of religion in the school system. I had difficulty with the idea that right and wrong could be effectively taught without a religious foundation for these ideas. Religion was a very convenient way of putting right and wrong into context for children … and indeed adults. Ethics without religion was not an adequate substitute … but it was absent anyway!

Not much later, I was associated with some of the faculty at the Harvard Business School … and while I admired the case system for teaching business and was a disciple of management information for decision making in the corporate world, I was shocked and appalled at the absence of any ethical limits on what the decisions might be. If the numbers worked, then that was good enough. Ethics was absent from the HBS teaching in the 1960s as far as I could tell.

As I progressed through different management responsibilities I was shocked over and over again at the way ethics was pushed aside in the interest of corporate performance or for personal gain. While my job was to facilitate corporate performance, my underlying assumption was that the staff would behave in essentially ethical ways while striving for good results. How wrong this proved to be. The reality turned out to be that people would do whatever it took no matter how unethical it was if it produced results and they thought they could get away with it ... so much more profitable to dump toxins into a river than to process them safely!

Eventually I worked on the assumption that everyone was a crook and had little or no ethical compass. When I designed accounting systems using this idea, they were very strong accounting systems and the management information was very reliable. The good news that most people including crooks are quite lazy so they could not be bothered to “break” our accounting systems, and everything went along very smoothly. But … how awful that I had to assume the worst in order to make something work.

If I fast forward to my present interest in global development in all its aspects … and specifically the microfinance sector, ethics is a critical matter. If you merge the idea that most people are good people, and the idea that most people will do what they can get away with, and the idea that meaningful metrics matter, then there can be a good outcome for society … but it does take measurement and it does required transparency and accountability.

Peter Burgess

No comments:

Post a Comment