Some may ask themselves, “But why do we need to talk about ethics? Isn’t the concept a bit passé?”
Indeed, if you look at academia, you could find arguments supporting this critical stance. After all, “corporate social responsibility” and other similar concepts have replaced “business ethics.” In addition, recently concepts such as “sustainability” and “sustainable development” have become more common. It would seem as if the expression “business ethics” has a moralizing tone that is unappealing, compared to these other more scientifically manageable and politically correct concepts.
In addition, if we take a look at the business world, at least in Europe, it is more common to find directors of social responsibility than of business ethics. Furthermore companies publish reports on social responsibility, more and more often referring to them as sustainability reports.
However, with just a glance at the front page of the newspaper, much of what we read is related to ethics, or more precisely, the lack thereof: fines and penalties for misconduct, espionage and information leaks, corruption scandals between politicians and public officials…
When I speak to people, the issues that worry them the most about work are usually in essence related to ethics. Many are fed-up because they have felt compelled to act against their conscience, because they are caught between conflicting loyalties that they don’t know how to overcome, or because they are lacking support from their superiors or company to express their concerns and deal with these problems.
So it is not sustainability or social responsibility that keeps people up at night, but rather ethics. For this reason, at IESE we don’t shy away from speaking about ethics. While the Business Ethics Department has been an important part of the school for many years, given the subject’s pervasive nature, we ensure that it has a place in many other courses and programs as well. After all, ethics is one of the pillars of the school in its mission to train leaders.
Certainly it is possible to discuss social responsibility without dealing with ethics. The motivations for doing so might be various others: concerns about image and reputation, market position, financial interests or legal restrictions. Sustainability, however, risks becoming void to the point of converting self-perpetuation into its sole purpose. However, we can all come-up with examples of companies and activities that have lasted through time – and as such can be considered sustainable – yet are anything but ethical.
For this reason, it is critical to think about ethics as one more criteria to guide companies’ actions. Beyond being one more criteria, however, it is the criteria where we find the raison d’être, and as such, it gives meaning to our deepest actions. If we forget about ethics, we become a bit more superficial.
A poem by T.S. Elliot comes to mind, “Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge. Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?” We might rephrase, saying instead, “Where are the ethics we have lost in social responsibility? Where is the social responsibility that we have lost in sustainability?”