One of the biggest obstacles to ethics is arbitrariness. All kinds of behavior – both unethical and ethical – can lead to arbitrary ethics consequences. Conversely, arbitrariness in ethics oversight almost always generates unethical behavior. Let’s take a common example in organizations of all sectors and sizes: leaving enforcement of ethical guidelines up to the immediate boss in a hierarchical structure. One employee’s particularly punitive boss may deliver a career-damaging punishment. Another boss may not even read the e-mails signalling more serious unethical behavior leaving her direct report to carry on with impunity. Both occur within the same organization with the same ethics rules and same senior level oversight.
Why is arbitrariness such a problem? First, arbitrariness is unpredictable. Our ability to reason through the consequences of our actions diminishes significantly in an arbitrary environment. Ethics consequences are often left out of the mix. As the November 9, 2013 Buttonwood column in the Economist notes, “arbitrary decisions by governments may reduce business confidence, and thus inhibit the investment politicians want to see.” No mention of the ethics consequences. Maybe there is a rationale behind how, when, and why our Facebook and Google data is collected by and for government, but it’s not apparent to me. As a result, I’m increasingly unwilling to use Facebook for fear of unwanted exposure of my personal data which, arbitrary or not, has arbitrary ethics consequences for me. Second, arbitrariness is unfair. Had Typhoon Haiyan come through a few dozen miles in a different direction, who knows how many lives would have been saved… or how many additional lives lost. Clearly storms as physical events do not engage with ethics, but the arbitrariness of the storm has led to far-reaching arbitrary ethics consequences such as choosing which child to save. Third, arbitrariness generates risk and vastly complicates risk mitigation, in part due to this unpredictability and unfairness. Maintaining ethics oversight in a risk-laden environment requires significantly greater investment in effort and other resources.
What arbitrariness is not. It is important to distinguish arbitrariness from other “life didn’t go our way” situations.
- Arbitrariness is not the same as luck within a well-run competition. Likely a large majority of the candidates to Ivy League schools would be compelling admits. Unfortunately, only approximately 5% will receive the fat admissions envelope. This doesn’t mean the process is arbitrary but rather that there are many ways to construct a deserving class within a range of clear criteria and 39,000+ largely competent candidates. Luck is the layer on top.
- Nor is the global systemic risk environment completely arbitrary. Multiple overlapping risks ranging from climate change and financial system meltdown to cyber terrorism and pandemics defies human understanding. The current risk systems may as well be arbitrary in terms of our ability to predict or discern fairness and the risks themselves. But this doesn’t mean they are intrinsically arbitrary. It means we don’t understand.
- Arbitrary isn’t an ethics issue in a purely social context, for example someone just doesn’t want to be your friend (even on Facebook!). There are no ethics principles that everyone should be friends or a particular person should fall in love with another.
- The fact that unethical behavior targets some victims but not others in the same category does not necessarily reflect arbitrariness. The victims of the News of the World phone hacking were part of an anything but arbitrary system. From the outside, the highly intentional and organized common denominator appeared to be likelihood to generate a high-selling story. So even celebrities in the same field or with the same degree of renown may or may not have been touched depending on the unique selling point they brought at a particular time. Unethical yes – but a commercial criterion of prioritization not arbitrariness.
A full analysis of the ethics of arbitrariness is too involved for a blog. But here are some practical examples of commonly faced organizational ethics challenges applicable across the corporate, governmental, and non-profit sectors:
- Codes. Codes of ethics are notoriously arbitrary at a number of levels. Codes that include some ethics matters but not others that would seem integral to comprehensive ethics oversight appear arbitrary – or worse, manipulative. Some codes are opaquely or inconsistently drafted. Stakeholders’ interpretations vary to the point of arbitrariness. Whether, how, and when enforcement will occur then also seems arbitrary, leading potentially to highly unethical unfairness in outcomes ranging from expulsion from school to job loss. All of this undermines the credibility of the code and the willingness of stakeholders to comply. Ultimately it also erodes the credibility of the organization, not least because as noted at the start of this blog, arbitrary ethics generates a great deal of unethical behavior.
- Superficially arbitrary. Approaches like “zero tolerance” would seem at first glance to clarify an ethics position and reduce arbitrariness. Instead, often have the opposite effect. At the very least, they dissuade the kind of nuanced ethics thinking necessary in today’s world. Sometimes zero tolerance sticks only if the lawyers agree that it’s not too risky to fire the offender. Sometimes zero tolerance applies without considering mitigating circumstances or weak evidence of the offense. Sometimes zero tolerance becomes the policy for some offenses but not for others that are more serious. Almost always the term “zero tolerance” slips into organizational ethics discourse without sufficient consideration of the supporting infrastructure necessary to avoid arbitrariness.
- Models. Conflicting models of behavior send confusing messages. Differing messages from a bank President and the Head of Business Development sends the message that ethics depends on who holds a title at a particular time. Again, this leads to unpredictability and unfairness, as well as a sense of increased risk – to employees, customers, and other stakeholders. Note: this is not to say that leadership in ethics is not essential – just that it must link coherently and consistently to the rest of the ethics infrastructure.
- Confusion of Ethics and Non-Ethics Values and Principles. Most organizations today have statements of values and/or codes of ethics. Confusion between ethics and non-ethics values often creates arbitrariness. As an example, the US military Joint Ethics Regulation defines ethics values as determining “right and wrong.” To quote their example, integrity is an ethics value but happiness is not. The French government’s Code of Ethics for members of government prohibits violations of the “Rules of the Road.” Sufficiently arbitrary? Does this mean that the rules of the road are an ethical matter but robbing a bank is not? Whatever one’s views on the military or a particular political system, these models offer important learning.
- Unfair ethics. Notwithstanding differing organizational and cultural notions of fairness, many cases of seemingly arbitrary ethics unite otherwise highly pluralistic views. Widely diverse constituencies have heaped much upon universities for unfairness resulting from seemingly arbitrary disciplinary actions. Why should a student be suspended for sexual assault (of any degree) yet expelled for a first cheating offense? Similarly, why should a tenured faculty member be able to comment inappropriately on a female graduate student’s relationship habits in a blog when the remarks would not be permitted in a classroom or a library? Arbitrary unfair ethics occurs when the punishment doesn’t seem to fit the crime or when behavior is allowed “sometimes,” by “some people,” and/or via “some mechanisms.”
As always, comments and questions welcome.
Copyright 2013 Susan Liautaud & Associates Limited. All rights reserved.