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GEOSYLLOGISTIC ETHICS

In a case study that I use early on with students in a business ethics course, 'Dressing for Success,' the main character is a fellow named John Tatting. Tatting has been laid off from his job at Dorware International. He had worked there for seven years. With an eye to getting another job he has done a number of things, including 'dressing his resume for success.' For example, in his resume Tatting 'claims to have an MBA, though he never finished the MBA program at Triedantrue University. He was three credits and a thesis shy of the degree when he left Triedantrue in 2005.' Tatting also claims to have been 'an assistant vice president, though when he was let go he was a senior project manager, a position to which he had been promoted in 2007.' In discussion, I usually reframe the issue and bring it closer to home by asking students to consider another hypothetical case in which a person who had attended Clemson but did not graduate - because she was three credits shy of the 120 she needed, or her diploma was withheld because she had not paid fees such as library fines or parking tickets - is putting the finishing touches on her resume, a resume that she is 'dressing for success' by claiming that she is a Clemson graduate. As with Tatting, I ask whether what she is doing is wrong and if so why (following Marianne Jennings, I also ask what one should do if one has an opportunity to intervene as the resume is being finalized (Jennings, 2009)).

One common answer, which is fine, as far as it goes, is that in either case dressing a resume for success is wrong because …

He/she is providing false information for personal gain.

This response puts the action into a category of wrongs. Put another way, it identifies the act in question as an action that violates a particular rule, say, one should not lie for personal gain or it is wrong to lie simply to gain something for oneself.

Some codes of conduct, for example a collegiate honor code, suggest that there are just two other categories of wrongful action: cheating and theft. (Some include one more, which we'll consider shortly.)2

Putting aside troublesome questions about what counts as cheating, for example, it is sometimes suggested that in the end wrongful actions belong in one of these three categories. Bribery, adultery, or tax evasion, for exam- ple, are at bottom cheating; murder is theft (another's property, his/her life is stolen), and fraud, failure to keep a promise, or plagiarism would be lying. To be sure, it might be argued that plagiarism belongs in the theft category or that adultery counts as theft (taking what rightfully belongs to another). These are intramural disputes. Nothing much turns on how they are resolved, because the outcome is the same: the action in question is wrongful action.

What we've got here certainly has the merit of manageable size; it

appears to be a strong candidate if what we're looking for is a pocket guide to ethics. There are some problems, however. First, and this brings us to the third additional category I promised to get to earlier, what about a case in which one observes another person, say a fellow college student, cheating (or lying or stealing)? Using this guide I know that I should not lie, cheat or steal, but one wonders, would it be wrong to ignore the wrongdoing I have seen, to not say anything? It seems clear that if I were to ignore it and not say anything, I would not be lying, cheating, or stealing.3 Thus, it appears that I would be in the clear; I would not be doing some- thing that is prohibited. Indeed, there is a sense in which I would not be doing anything at all. There is something that I could do. For example, I could report the wrongdoer to appropriate authorities. But I may choose not to do this; it would be one of many things that I willfully do not include on my action agenda, for example, reading Sarah Palin's book or listening to Rush Limbaugh's radio program. Willfully not including them - so, too, willfully including them - among the things I (will) do would not be wrong. And that, one might suggest, is the key point: these things, and in particular, not saying something about wrongdoing I have witnessed, fall outside the categories of wrong action. So, again, it appears that I would be in the clear; the code would not be violated.

An honor code might address this by including the matter among the things one ought not do. The honor code of the United States Military Academy does that: 'A cadet will not lie, cheat, steal, or tolerate those who do.' According to this code, tolerating acts that fall into one (or more) of the three categories we have been discussing is not an option. In this respect, it is no different than lying, cheating or stealing; all are (and equally so, it seems) not an option. All are forbidden. But this last, unlike the others, is not simply a duty to refrain from action. If I were to look the other way or say nothing, I would be tolerating forbidden conduct, but that is forbidden. So, I can't look the other way or say nothing; I am duty bound not to do that. More precisely, unlike not lying, for example, which requires only that I refrain from a certain sort of action, in this case, I will have to do something that counts as not tolerating the conduct I have observed; I am duty bound to do something such as report the offense to appropriate authorities.4

This is where the rubber meets the road, not only because this is the juncture where, in trying to institute or administer an honor code, one is likely to meet with resistance, but also because it raises in a forceful way what is in the end the key question ethically.

Determining whether an act falls into one of these categories of wrongful (forbidden) action leaves a crucial question unanswered: What is it about the acts that fall into a category of wrongful action that makes them wrong? Another quite direct way to get at the same thing would be to ask why this sort of action is wrong. The duty not to tolerate lying, cheating, or stealing brings this question to the fore in a powerful way because (a) it calls on one to act rather than refrain from action and (b) the action it seems to require, blowing the whistle - being a snitch, tattletale, or 'narc' - is generally regarded as quite disagreeable and/or inconsistent with the basic value of loyalty. The query why one has to do such a thing is perfectly understand- able. It is most likely sincere and serious as well. Consequently, a response that simply says failure to do it falls into a category of wrongful action (or violates a rule), will not do, for like a father telling his son something must be done 'just because I said so,' it is deaf to the sincerity and the seriousness of the question. More important, if what we are trying to do is nurture the capacity to live a life of integrity, to conduct oneself responsibly, surely we have to do more than set up hoops and get students to jump through them. To be sure, if we set them up, most students will jump through them. But something important will be missing. It's what is missing when rules or poli- cies are seen in something like the way teenagers see what their parents tell them or when legal requirements are effective only insofar as those they gov- ern are sufficiently fearful of the sanction imposed on those who don't com- ply that they do in fact comply with the law. In both of these cases, what's missing is normativity, in the sense that rules are seen as authoritative and capable of making conduct non-optional by imposing obligations. As legal philosopher H. L. A. Hart famously put it, in cases such as these one is merely 'obliged' - as one is when ordered to hand over one's wallet at gunpoint; obligations are not created in this way (Hart, 1961).

This lack of normativity is a huge problem if our aim is to promote integ- rity. Why? Because it does not follow from the fact that one's conduct falls within the parameters of a rule that one is acting integritively. If action marked by integrity is what we are interested in, it matters how it happens that conduct is within the boundaries established by a rule. Suppose that we were assessing our success in promoting integrity. In that case, surely, mere coincidence would not do as an answer to our question. So too, our efforts would not count as successful if the answer to our question were fear of sanctions, or that the agent had been programmed (by means of rote mem- orization) or had mechanically applied the rule to the situation at hand.

Having placed an act in an appropriate category of wrongs sets the stage for a syllogistic/mechanical handling of the case:

All acts in category 1 are wrong.

This act falls into the first categor y. Therefore, this act is wrong.

In addition, we might see our way to clear to say that if a student cate- gorizes an action correctly, she/he knows that it is wrong. However, at this juncture, as with a correct answer on a multiple-choice test, it wouldn't be prudent to bet the farm that if you were to ask the student why it is wrong, the answer you'd get would be satisfactory. Trouble is, what's missing here - knowledge of why the action is wrong - is precisely what students need if they are going to be in a position to make ethical judgments in a systematic, reflective, and responsible way and live their lives with integrity.

So, what explains the widespread appeal of such an approach in ethics? As I indicated earlier, I think it may help to consider something analogous in the law.

 
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