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What do we mean by "ethics"?

What do we mean by "ethics"?

An enormous literature exists around questions of moral philosophy. It is safe to say that no clear consensus has arisen from all of this effort, either in respect of how we are to think analytically about ethics, or whether we evoke one concept by the word, or many. This section is not intended to answer these questions. Rather it considers the operational interface between closed domains - where the rules of conduct are relatively clear - and the wider world. Friction between such domains can only increase at a time of fast change and new capabilities.

Ethical relativism.

Ethical relativism.

It is regarded as unethical to promote the careers of one's relations in some parts of the world, and unethical not to promote them in others. It is seen as ethical to promote gender equality in some parts of the world, and a basic affront to do so in others. The wild world is still widely seen as a threatening void, to be tamed by mankind; yet environmental movements that seek to preserve and advance wilderness are now extremely strong in the wealthy world. Animals were regarded without empathy for much of human history, and - whilst they are only extended the most basic rights in most industrial nations - the respective populations are much more ready to feel for and with them.

A cursory reading of history and anthropology suggest that humanity shares some values - particularly those pertaining to hearth, home and family - but that it also has widely divergent norms in other areas. This is particularly the case in respect of abstract social ordering, attitudes to power and conformity. It is precisely in these areas where 'ethical' issues seem most likely to arise, and humanity therefore possesses widely divergent ethical norms.

This raises two points. First, we need to understand the grounds which satisfactory but divergent systems possess in common. As this cannot be about the goals of the system, it must be concerned with the workings of it. Second, we need to think where it is that the idea of ethics is most frequently raised. What are the characteristics of a system where ethics are needed, but either lacking or flouted; and what are the parallel and little-discussed structures where this friction does not occur?

What characterises a systems of ethics?

What characterises a systems of ethics?

Some definitions are needed. People have needs and wants, and these set priorities which, without mitigation, will lead to difficulties and to conflicts of interest. Societies work out a set of balances - through laws and through tacit, unspoken agreements - and individuals and organisations accommodate themselves to these. Insofar as there is always some leeway of interpretation of these, particularly as they apply to subgroups such as the young, the educated and so forth, we say that the specific balances which are struck represent that person, group or organisation's values. Equally, a given large social group can be said to diverge from some hypothetical global norm, and so to express its own particular set of values. Values are therefore nested, with various subsets of them being more or less mutually compatible, or otherwise.

The issue of compatibility is, of course, crucial. Value sets have a particular character of harmony, of repose, when balances have been struck on all of the key issues. It may be that power is distributed very unequally in a society, but if the consequences and constraints of that situation has been worked through in a way that gives rise to a working set of values, then the society is, by definition, stable until this internal compatibility is disrupted. The introduction of 'foreign' balances is just such a source of upset. The impact of Christianity on Shogun Japan is just such a case of destabilisation through the injection of dissonant values.

'Ethics' is, therefore, the term which we apply when we are thinking formally about these balances and the quandaries which they raise. Ethical debate is, therefore, innately relativist and often self-referential, with each input to the discussion depending on the outcome to it. Appeal to evidence - to what works, to what happens to be the case - can help to provide an objective frame for some of these loops. However, rational debate sits uneasily with strongly held convictions, with communal emotion or with deeply engrained custom. We discuss this in detail, below.

Where are ethics needed?

Where are ethics needed?

Societies which are confronted with ethical issues need to go through a complex process in order to reach closure. Such processes have sometimes been called 'discourses'. The word, of itself, adds little. However, it reminds us that the procedure by which closure is reached is nothing like a rational debate or a linear set of investigations, but is instead a vastly parallel set of positions and experiments that are undertaken at many levels and in many timeframes in the society. A new language through which to talk about the issue - about mass mobility, social distinctions or medicine - will eventually emerge, blend with other sources of discourse and continue to evolve and change.

Discourse is slow. It occurs most quickly in isolated communities which have a clear set of issues with which to deal. Technologists and political fringes, the young, sportsmen and business people arrive at a jargon that expresses what are to them clear concepts and dilemmas. Many such closed communities shrivel or migrate to new positions, but some contribute their language and perceptions to the mainstream. They do so when their activities impact on the community at large: suddenly the postman talks about dot-coms and the plumber discusses bandwidth or the interdiction of international terrorism.

Discourse is slow. Unfortunately, the communities which spawn the need for it are extremely swift. More and more new capabilities are being established, each with the potential to disrupt life as it is lived in work, leisure, child-rearing and old age. More connections are being spun between geographically and socially-distinct communities. More and more alien value balances - or completely new possible balances - are being propagated into structures which are slow to respond to them.

Systems that are stable have, by definition, ways in which to check the forces that would lead to instability. Humans have an strongly developed intuition for such balances, and we are seldom happy when we sense unchecked, unmanaged sources of instability in our world. We question trends such as industrialisation, urbanisation, rural despoliation, social inequalities and pollution. Massive social movements may develop to counter these trends, as did the Chartist, labour and religious groupings in the early nineteenth century. It has taken well over a century to arrive at something of a consensus - an evolving, changing consensus - as to how these trends are to be addressed. Nations such as China, which are recapitulating the experiences of youthful Britain in less than a tenth of the time, and doing so with an aging population and a weak set of public institutions, must therefore expect to encounter friction.

The "good" ethical system

The "good" ethical system

A working system of ethics provides an agent with practical pointers as to how to fulfil the obligations placed on them by the underlying values of the society. If the society has not got a coherent set of underlying values, then the obligations shrink to what has been legally prescribed, to the necessities of tort law - of being sued by someone whom the agent harms - and to whatever minimum shared values there may be. Most people, in even the most extreme societies, will agree that children should not be killed wantonly, for example, but this seldom serves as a useful platform from which to develop more complex balances. As the Balkans have shown us, even such seeming fundamentals are dropped by supposedly educated and ancient societies when ethical chaos is let loose. Equally, if the elite has a set of values which are alien but which it can impose on the rest of the population, then whatever passes for ethics will be extremely odd, as is the case in Saddam's Iraq or Hitler's Germany.

There is another parameter against which an ethical system has to be judged, which is its functionality in the face of operational challenges to the society in question. Ethical systems may well be internally cohesive and well-loved, but fail their supporters absolutely. The writer Ian Banks described such societies as encountering challenges rather as a sentence encounters a full stop.

To say that an ethical system has to "work" may be thought to embody a value judgement. Who is to say what works? This is not the point, however: a working system has to take the system where it says that it wants to go. That is, it needs to be efficacious in pursuing eschatological or pragmatic goals, as required by the society in question. Ethical systems which are broken engines - which do not deliver Islamic paradise or technological utopia, as required - are, by definition, innately non-functional.

There are any number of 'broken' systems on offer. There are ethical structures which create irresolvable knots of conflicting interpretation. This can be the case with the Islamic fatwah system, for example. Ethical structures which embody unresolved and neurotically denied internal contradictions, such as the oxymoronic 'communist business economics', cannot lead to solutions which make good use of resources, their fundamental purpose. Male views of women seem particularly prone to this neurotic duality - whore or Madonna, trusted haven and untrustworthy betrayer - and at least three major social groups seem to find it hard to come to terms with gender-free access to choice within their society.

"Good" ethical systems therefore have two characteristics: they are rooted in a broadly shared, coherent set of values; and they produce an outcome that takes the society where it wants to go. The result may be a disaster or a success, but only a historian could make this judgement, with the benefit of hindsight.

We can now add another quality parameter. Adaptive ethical systems incorporate both coherence and popular support, but they are also shaped by a conscious understanding of the world to which the agent - person, company, society - must adapt themselves. The surge in pragmatic Protestant religions - where worship consisted of performing social duties, such as work and providing work - during the period of enterprise and belief show how this fusion can be achieved.

Two kinds of rationality

Two kinds of rationality

Ethical systems can be 'good', in the senses used above: coherent, active in leading where the society wants to go, actively designed for the purposes of that society. People have, however, fought to the death over rival systems which meet all of the criteria and they probably will continue to do so. Every teenager, confronted with this fact of history, probably will wonder why societies do not somehow create a synthesis, taking the best that each has to offer. Few adults ask themselves the same question. Is this cynicism, or realism; and to what reality does it apply?

Conflict arises around all manner of dispute. Failure to agree, however, comes in two rather distinctivew forms. Some conflicts have clear paths to resolution - that is, the participants agree that resolution can be achieved through evidence or better debate. Others issues are simply not of this nature: the participants cannot agree on what a satisfactory resolution would look like. Many debates which lack this basic 'machinery' of resolution are often of an "ethical" nature. That is to say, the shared values that would allow the participants to agree on what a solution would look like are not in place, and discussion tends to spiral down to address these underpinning issues if resolution is ever to be achieved.

This situation is very common, and it can be extremely difficult for those with a science or engineering training to understand. To such a background, there is only one form of rationality. This entails a descriptive, evidence based framework that operates within a tested model of the system in question. The entire edifice of science and technology has been erected upon this approach, and our industrial civilisations could not work without it. This approach was one of the most the profound tools in the break with history from which industrial world sprang. How, then, can there be other valid ways to think?

To answer this, one has to consider how people thought through most of human history and, indeed, how most complex choices in politics, business and daily life are exercised today. Such issues are not open to analysis:

Despite these constraints, they nevertheless work - in the sense of delivering a useful outcome - and they are the uniform building blocks on which our society rests.

Alternative rationality, in this sense, identifies three 'nice' things, two 'nasty' and one 'extremely bad' one, and somehow parses a decision out of these. It somehow concocts a space in which social embarrassment can be set against the promise of pleasure, the potential cost, the risk of accident and the possibility of new acquaintances, and can bring this fusion to closure with a choice. It is not a random process, for human behaviour is broadly predictable. We can feel empathy for the process, and be right in our judgement more often than we are wrong. Many of these choices are informed by a weighting implied by the prevailing ethics of the society.

Imperial Western ethics or a safe platform for critique?

Imperial Western ethics or a safe platform for critique?

It is said that the dominant 'Western' ethical paradigm prevents other societies from living their own story. It is not at all clear, however, that there is any such single paradigm in play, for the industrial nations are rapidly passing beyond the humanist, social democrat consensus to something far richer and more complex. Insofar as there is such a consensus, it holds that for complicated things to work, we need impersonal and equally complex rules that govern all aspects of life. These rules should not oppress individuals unnecessarily, but it is accepted that a degree of coercion is needed in order to ensure that the system works across entire life spans. We are forced to be educated, to contribute to public goods and to save for our old age, for example, and we agree tacitly to give up a great number of freedoms in order to live in a safe world that offers far more opportunities than would anarchy. Whether such a system is "fair" - and indeed, what "fair" means when it is extracted from the world of children and pets - is not always clear. This aside, the primary issues which govern our ethical consensus are those defined for us by the complexity of the world that we have built for ourselves.

Much the same will be true - has been true - for any nation aspiring to equal complexity. Is this necessarily always the case? Might a world of less growth and fewer people have rested content, shepherds making poems by day and singing together over the evening fire?

Humanity has, of course, tried many, many routes to self-organisation. Theocracies and shepherd idylls have risen and fallen. Darwinian survival has selected and (usually) passed on the traits that work, and pruned out (again, usually) those which do not.

In distinction to the blind outcome of natural evolution, however, the enlightenment gave us the knack of designing and renewing our own institutions, rather than accepting that which had evolved from violence and habit. Recently, we have done our best to invent humane, enabling survival traits to pass on to our children. Weapons of mass destruction and the state of the global environment aside, we have not made a bad job of doing this over the last fifty years. Nevertheless, we do now ride a system that has exponential growth built into it, and we do rely on better technology and better institutional constraints on the sources of harm to rescue us from the consequences of this. There is, however, no other obvious prescription which is on offer, and it is clear that some of alternative systems that are on offer mandate frankly disastrous solutions.

We can, therefore, feel relatively safe in offering a critique of ethical systems which do not meet the basic quality parameters which we discussed earlier. In addition, we can offer objective critique towards systems - including our own - which cripple the members of the society which are constrained by them. Societies which deny opportunities to able individuals for reasons of race, religion, class or gender weaken their own capacity by at least a much as they harm those individuals. In addition, we can feel certain that societies which adhere to a prescriptive ethic, based upon there being a closed class of leaders and a large class of the led will, on the whole, much lessen their capacity to adapt to new circumstances. Indeed, to minimise adaptive change is, very often, their entire rational and ethical basis.

Populism is one of the great distractions of the modern world. If we are making choices in the world of "alternative" rationality - where there are no clear routes to closure - then it is hard to label any given position as populist. One may disagree, but from no provable stance. However, when known facts are discarded and false promises made that are known to be false, and when this is done to gain power or to harm minorities, then we are safe in condemning the act as populist. The twentieth century was littered with the debris and dead bodies that result from this deliberate obfuscation. Regimes which continue to the habit in order to obscure failure, to maintain inequity or to keep a population ignorant of the choices that are open to them cannot be considered "ethical", and we are safe to condemn them.

Business ethics

Business ethics

The recent accounting scandals in the US have put the focus on 'business ethics', where this is to be taken as being synonymous with fair accounting. Others would see business ethics as having more to do with how partners, employees and customers are treated by the firm. Yet other views demand custodianship of the supply chain (as with Nike and the use of low-wage and under-aged labour) or of the environment as the firm makes contact with it.

Most firms would take the position that it is the job of government to set the rules, and the task of firms to comply with these. Some believe that pre-emptive or self-regulatory compliance will offer distinctive brand, human resource or technological advantages and so invest heavily in the relevant areas. Pressure groups do not see it this way, and regulatory change frequently occurs as a result of targeted interventions as well as effective lobbying.

This one-way flow - from pressure to reaction or legislation - Is not always desirable, and sometimes has paradoxical affects. The single most effective pressure group in the last decade have been shareholders, closely pursued by the power wielded by customers. It is shareholders, however, who have taken direct action, and it is to shareholder pressure - including the consequent incentive schemes - that many of the recent scandals are at least partly due. This is not to demonise the legitimate desire to get the best from one's property, but a demonstration that unilateral and intense pressure will produce bad results unless countervailing force is brought to bear. Ethics are, fundamentally, about the maintenance of balance. Ethics in the modern world have to be about balanced adaptation to the forces of change. Business ethics are, therefore, inseparable from the processes whereby the firm recognises the forces on it and reacts to them in a timely and appropriate manner.

Social trends as these affect ethical behaviour

Social trends as these affect ethical behaviour

The industrial societies are, by an large, becoming more impersonal. Vertical communities of geography are being replaced by horizontal communities of interest. We individually tend to dwell in these for limited periods during the day, adopting the norms of them when we arrive and parking these when we leave. Our ability to do this is the mark of the urbane sophisticate, but it also can leave us without a portable set of values unless we have worked hard to develop these. As throughout history, many who have come quickly up the income ladder have acquired only the mores of consumerism and competition. A second generation tends to fill the gap. The rise in generalised ethical yearnings, if not adherence to strict values, is a major feature of the middle aged and middle class in US and European societies. There is a desire to create a 'no victim' system which includes and enables as best it may, and - almost on aesthetic grounds - which performs as effectively and parsimoniously as it can. The continued rise of technocratic governance - where expert judgement and evidence weigh over opinion and moral certainty - further enables this. The rise of the 'systems rationalist', discussed elsewhere emphasises this trend. Ethics are stripped to the minimum, shorn of special cases and firmly grounded in pragmatism: in what works, and in what can be delivered.

There are two contrasting trends. The first is demographic, for citizens are getting older. The elderly are much more likely to adhere to normative values than are the young. They want to live within an ethical system which is explicit, policed and to which all must adhere.

The second trend is connected with the growth of activism. The roots of this lie beyond this note, but the steady growth of NGOs and of contributions to them is a general feature of the industrial world. Indeed, it parallels the decline in respect for and commitment to conventional political parties. Activism is extremely heterogeneous in the way in which it engages with power, but at least some of it addresses symptoms rather than syndromes, and its dynamic often encourages impatience. Where there is debate, it is often conducted in terms that were discussed earlier, under 'alternate rationalities'. The thread of activism that is fuelled chiefly by emotion prefers deeds to words, however, and it will not easily recognise - let alone engage with - a rationalist agenda. Populism and slogans replace the possibility of constructive debate. Where such forces are powerful, those under assault have to put their viewpoint independently into public domain, and the matter becomes a propaganda war before a bored public that becomes disillusioned with both parties. Ultimately, the ethical model that had been in play for the public loses its clarity and functionality.

Few nations amongst the industrial nations have had a meaningful debate about ethics for a generation. The few politicians who have stuck out their necks have tended to suffer for it. It may be time for non-politicians to pick up the torch. The post-war humanist consensus is failing in the face of evidence, biology and its bankrupt smuggled assumptions. The new model - shiny evidence-based expertise playing against open outcry and semi-professional communication gimmickry - has yet to come into balance.

In the world outside of the very complex nations, however, strong certainties are being used to prop the door shut against the encroaching monsters of cultural and economic integration. Nations are seemingly limited in what they can achieve by the pace with which their institutions can adapt themselves to complexity. We may yet need a clearer head than we have allowed ourselves.

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