August 18, 2011

New Book on Humanistic Ethics in Business

Here is an exciting new volume in Palgrave-MacMillan's Humanism in Business series to which I have contributed a chapter. Below are a few key excerpts from my chapter, Wittgenstein and the Challenge of Global Ethics:

"Ideally, by applying rational thought to action, we form good habits. Thus, new positive behaviors gradually become second nature, while bad habits are gradually stamped out. Eventually, we no longer have to think very much at all in order to embody a deeper ethical consciousness. Instead, we naturally desire and do the right thing, experiencing little or no temptation to regress into old habits. This is the ultimate goal of virtue ethics, namely, to reach complete happiness through self-actualizing activities.

Perhaps the greatest force compelling persons to change their behavior on ethical grounds is the realization that their behavior is somehow causing, facilitating, or ignoring some significant harm.  We look into another’s suffering eyes and we, in a sense, see ourselves. This is compelling for it is immediately experienced via our basic nature as social beings. And this is what is truly at the heart of ethics for Wittgenstein. For as he says, at various occasions:

“What is essential for us is, after all, spontaneous agreement, spontaneous sympathy” (1967, §667).
“Instinct comes first, reasoning second” (1967, §689).
So perhaps the greatest part of being ethical is simply to become conscious of the interest of those around us. And this has always been, and will ever be so. But the particular challenge of globality is specific to our age. For how can one see into another’s suffering eyes when those who are made to suffer are potentially out of sight on the other side of the planet? Or perhaps they might be future generations (if not one’s own) in any of myriad possible worlds transformed by global ecological calamity resulting from unbridled resource depletion. When each person’s actions taken in isolation have no clear and measurable negative effect on anyone in particular, everyone is much less likely to take responsibility for the collective result that billions of other people’s actions taken together may cause.

Essentially, this is what I take to be the Wittgensteinian challenge of global ethics. While applied ethicists may at times succeed in making compelling philosophical arguments for increased personal and corporate responsibility and government regulation, these can often be rather abstract. Their theoretically-based arguments do not compel us the way, say, the sad eyes of a child do who is denied an education based on her race. Similarly, if one litters by carelessly discarding a plastic bag on the sidewalk, there is a clear and immediate negative consequence to that action, namely, to the beauty of the neighborhood. In such cases, negative impacts are clearly felt in concrete human terms. A mere modicum of self-reflection aided by a degree of social pressure can suffice to eventually bring even the most callous to effect a corrective behavioral change.

Unfortunately, it is not at all clear that the disparately destructive and diffuse web of actions and reactions of globality can ever be felt by anyone in quite the same way. We do have high-speed global communications bringing news reports to mass audiences worldwide. And this certainly helps galvanize public concern on important issues—often at a bewildering pace. Still, as new information streams in day and night on myriad issues, concerns ebb and flow in and out of public consciousness. For example, global warming is now taken much less seriously, at least in the United States, presumably in part because most Americans have not witnessed much climate change for themselves and so have tended to direct their attention to more evident and immediate concerns. 48 percent from a recent poll say the science is exaggerated, up from only 41 percent in 2009 and 31percent in 1997. 35 percent say the effects will either never happen (19 percent) or that they will not happen in their lifetime (16 percent) (Gallup, 2010).

Of course government regulation can step in to pressure consumers to behave more responsibly. In 2009, Sweden for example, introduced new dietary guidelines and labeling of grocery items according to their carbon footprints. Swedish scientists estimate 25 percent of the emissions produced by consumers in industrialized nations is generated by the food industry. And if Sweden’s new food guidelines were strictly followed, the country could cut its emissions from food production by 20 to 50 percent (Rosenthal, 2009). As a result of Swedish labeling requirements and extensive government-funded research and dissemination of the causes and impacts of global warming, consumers and business leaders are beginning to take action. ….

Geographer Jared Diamond, following Garrett Hardin’s seminal article The Tragedy of the Commons (1968), argues via historical evidence that most individuals will only tend to act as responsible stewards of an environmental resource if they are either forced by their governments or can each clearly see the negative effects of each of their actions on that resource (Diamond, 2005). In the latter case, as with littering, the public tends to shame the irresponsible behavior. As it stands, few governments are enacting carbon emissions limits or even sweatshop labor rights standards on imports. And again, this is likely because there is precious little public support for such measures, which may increase costs, since the negative impacts of carbon emissions and labor rights abuses in the developing world remain mostly out of sight and mind to the bulk of consumers in most parts of the world. This is the practical ethical problem of global capitalism. We don’t see, when shopping at, say, Wal-Mart, the poor child forced to toil in a cacao field or a factory because his parents don’t earn enough to afford to send him to school. ….

Though ironically, multinational corporations (MNCs) are usually considered faceless and impersonal, we are nevertheless witnessing a dramatic rise in corporate consciousness worldwide. This ethical awakening provides a unique opportunity for widespread evolution in global consumer consciousness. If, as Wittgenstein claims, ethical norms must compel us pre-theoretically to behave in specific ways, this development certainly is a case in point. We need not abide by any philosophically abstract ethical proposition to conclude that ESG reporting is in fact a good thing. Tellingly, Intel for example, is not employing any particular definition or philosophical argument on the nature of the good, say, deontology or utility or virtue theory, to justify its new resolution. Rather, it’s expressing a new global worldview, or as Wittgenstein would say in his native German, a new Weltbild:

“When we first begin to believe anything, what we believe is not a single proposition, it is a whole system of propositions. (Light dawns gradually over the whole.)
It is not single axioms that strike me as obvious, it is a system in which consequences and premises give one another mutual support” (Wittgenstein, 1972, §141-2).
In this way, Intel shareholders have come to a new global worldview on the proper place of business in society. As a result, companies embracing initiatives such as the ESG or “triple bottom line” reporting of social, environmental, and financial performance (Global Reporting Initiative) are convincingly branding themselves as socially responsible, thereby attracting like-minded investors, consumers, and suppliers. This creates a socioeconomic solidarity of vision—a global compact—between all stakeholders involved with such companies. This should come as no surprise given the fact that humans are essentially social beings who take pleasure in shared experiences and collective enterprises. Furthermore, we in the developed world are increasingly isolated from our communities given our extensive reliance on private automobiles, personal computers, and cell phones to interact with each other. This surely creates a greater longing for connection and belonging and gives corporations a crucial role to play in filling this new psychological void. For the power of MNCs now rivals and even exceeds the power of governments to reinforce and reshape ethical norms.”

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