Sunday, 28 July 2013

Business Ethics

A recent discussion with an Indian businessman on a study break here in the UK left me thinking about business ethics, judgement, moral reasoning, and lastly, the quality of educational discourse on these subjects.

This mature student used to help out with the family business based out of a town in India, and plans to return home and continue doing so once his course ends. I don't remember how we ended up talking about ethics. I think we started off discussing what excited him, his business and how it worked. I guess the question of corruption came up soon after, and he mentioned having to pay a bunch of people in various sectors to get stuff done. He said he didn't like it, but the alternative, bankrupting his company, was unthinkable. He mentioned that he didn't like doing this, but it was necessary. He also mentioned spying on his competitors using unethical means, and again said that it was not something he wanted to do, but something he had to do, or watch his business fail. 

We then spoke about the ethics component of his course. I was curious how someone who reluctantly compromised on his personal ethics, would find a course on business ethics. He said that he had had a number of arguements with his professor about ethics (big surprise!). Apparently, his professor sees ethics as an absolute, with no space for compromise. The businessman student obviously disagrees. 

Here's my take. I'm actually not too surprised by the businessman student's behaviour. I'm sure I would do the same were I in his place. If you're handed the reins of your family business by your dad while your dad, brother and entire family watch, you don't want to be the one to ruin it. You have big plans for the company. You expand. You need things from the government. More electricity. They tell you it's going to take three months unless you pay 'extra to get it in two weeks. You need it in two weeks. Three months would bankrupt your company. You have no choice. You don't want to hand over your hard earned money to some government thief, but the alternative is unthinkable. So you do it. You know it's wrong, but you do it. It's the same with your competitors. They're going to find out how much you charge your clients one way or another, probably the same way you do. Unethically. But the alternative would be too harsh.

The thing is, I get this. I get that you can't be judgemental about about these things beacuse this isn't a straightforward black and white case. That's not how ethics works. Ethics is complex. You can be a good person and still commit unethical acts. I should know. I'm a Psychology student. If anyone should know about ethics, we should. We study and research ethics, and design our experiments according to ethical guidelines. Now, I have to say that business ethics and moral reasoning isn't a subject I know much about. But from the psychological perspective, there's Lawrence kohlberg's stages of moral development which offers us one way to view moral development. 

(I need to say at this point that I view categorisation as a double edged sword, in general. Because I think of everything as falling on a scale. To me, all phenomena are scaled variables. Grouping these into distinct categories has its uses in terms of helping us understand how the world works, but we need to be aware that creating and using these categories to build models to explain how the world works only provides us with one way to look at the world, an imperfect approximation of the 'truth'. A step forward maybe, compared to no model, but we should be careful not to confuse models, including psychological ones, as absolute truths, and end up creating self-fulfiling prophecies and indulging in circular reasoning.)

That being said, I am a huge fan of Kolberg's Heinz dilemma, which incorporates post-conventional moral reasoning in a realistic example. Imagine you wife is dying from a disease, and that there's only one person, a druggist, who has a cure. The problem is, this druggist is charging more money than you have, for the cure. So you break into the man's store to steal the cure. Were you wrong to do so? There are many ways to tackle this question, my favourites being the more complex ones. But that's not what I'm really interested in right now. You see, I get that life is complex, that life sucks, that morality is hazy, and that you need to make compromises. After all, context determines behaviour.

What troubles me is how this is being communicated in a module on business ethics. We aren't children. We don't pay 15 lakh rupees or 17K pounds on a year on foriegn education only to be told the difference between right and wrong, something we learned in school anyway. As Kohlberg illustrated with the Heinz dilemna, morality is complex, and requires a complex discourse. It's not a black vs white scenario. It's a world with an infinite number of possible scenariois, all requiring responses dependent on a number of different variables, which we call context. All discussion on morality should inculde discussions on context. Anything less is a disservice to students.


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