Case in Point


This blog site will feature essays, columns and musings that deal with the intersection of Christianity and journalism and the American Songbook.

“Ethics and Human Resource Management” (speech: SHRM)

Society for Human Resource Management Conference
Central Washington University
April 2, 1993

The question before us is: How do we, as business people, determine and validate what is right and what is wrong? There are three ways of coming to an answer: One solution is they’ economic solution which is based on impersonal market forces. That is, what is right is always what maximizes revenues and minimizes costs. I believe there is more to decision-making than simply an economic equation, and besides economics rests on something more fundamental. The second solution to determining what is right is the political (or legal) solution based on the political process. That is, legislated or judicial law determines right from wrong, and so political power determines what is right. I believe there is more to morality than 51% of the popular vote, and besides law and politics rests on something more fundamental. The* third solution to determining what is right is the philosophic) solution which is based on rational thought. It is this solution, that of moral reasoning, which I submit to you is the fundamental fountainhead of all decision-making. It is this philosophic solution which will be our focus today.

We live and work in a culture which is not ethically pluralistic, but rather ethically schizophrenic. Pluralism exists only when there is a commonly accepted value framework from which to differ. Arthur Balfour, British Prime Minister and statesman in the early 20th century, applied pluralism to England when he stated, “England is so at one that we can safely afford to bicker.” Pluralism assumes a basic cultural consensus on values, character, goals and visions. This we no longer have in America. That ethical framework existed only as long as the Judeo-Christian value foundation was commonly accepted.

However, with the shattering of the Judeo-Christian value consensus in the last 50 years we have been left with nothing to take its place. No new consensus has emerged to guide our actions. There are now competing value systems raging in our country. And thoughtful observers of American culture from all spectrums are noting that we are in a cultural war with armies of various and opposing ethical systems vying for dominance in our land. Ethical contradiction, confusion and conflict are the norm, and until one system proves itself to be the most salutary and acceptable we all will be working in an ethical minefield where a misstep could cause business failure, fines or even incarceration. I believe frustration and sorrow will be your lot if you stay in Human Resource Management because you are on the cutting edge of ethical dilemmas. You are on the front lines of the ethical war because you are dealing with people, and their value systems.

Every Human Resource Manager is a professor of moral philosophy because every one of your decisions embodies a set of ethical values. And always, in modern America, those values will come into conflict with those held by other people. Every single business decision, including HRM decisions, sit atop a host of often unstated ethical assumptions. By our actions, we in business are exposing our moral philosophy.

II. History of philosophy

I am going to give a very, excruciatingly simple and inaccurate (except for skimming purposes) outline of ethical systems so that you can hang some of your own thoughts and ethical notions on to a schema. There are two huge ethical systems at war today in n America: revelation ethics and non-revelation ethics.

A. Revelation ethics

Revelation ethics comes out of the Judeo-Christian heritage and is an ethical system that is received by humankind as being developed by God. It is worked out, discussed, argued, debated and applied by humans, but the source and authority for this ethical system comes from an all-knowing, everywhere-present, all-powerful, personal, loving Creator. This is the ethical system that dominated, unchallenged, the Western world for approximately 1500 years. After that it was increasingly challenged but still dominated the Western world for another 400 years, until the 20th century. It is critical to understand and appreciate the Judeo-Christian ethical system, however it is enunciated, because millions of Americans subscribe to its tenets, and it is still the dominant ethical influence with our colleagues in the workplace, even if it is under current attack.

Moving to non-revelation ethical systems …

B. Non-revelation ethics

There are four major schools of non-revelatory ethical systems of which you should be aware.

I. Rationalism

The revelatory system of ethics was challenged brilliantly in about 1600 by the Frenchman Rene Descartes who said, “Cogito, ergo sum” – 1 think, therefore. I am.” With Descartes the period of modern philosophy began. Previous to this, philosophers had begun their system of thought with God, after Descartes philosophers began to begin with man. Philosophers began to postulate that we didn’t need God for self-identity or for ascertaining true knowledge. We could do that rationally, in our mind. Thus began the philosophic school called, “rationalism”. Rationalism is the creative, conceptual ability of the human mind to deduct true knowledge about what exists, primarily us, the external world, and God.

2. Empiricism

Another philosophic school of the non-revelatory type reacted to rationalism by saying, No, the mind is not the primary faculty for ascertaining true knowledge. it is the five senses that give us true knowledge through experience. It is our ability to experience by observing, and tasting, and touching, and smelling and hearing that tell us the character of the external world. That which we cannot perceive with our physical senses does not exist – we have no way of proving that it exists. This school of thought is called “empiricism” from the Greek empeirikos, which means experience.

3. Existentialism

Another philosophic school of the non-revelatory type reacted to both rationalism and empiricism and said, no true knowledge is  only attained by coming to know reality, personally – as you exist and interact with people and things in time and space. Knowledge is relational. Facts can be generated by the rationalist and the empiricist, but only meaning, purpose and value can be derived from the relationship of the facts to us through feelings, intuition, mystical experiences. Thus, “existentialism” was born to give personal meaning in each human situation.

4. Nihilism

There is yet another school of non-revelatory philosophy (or more correctly, non-philosophy) which I believe to be currently fashionable, and destructive. It’s called “nihilism” coming from the Greek word nihil meaning “nothing.” This school reacts against all the other schools of thought, and says nothing is knowable, or valuable or communicable, or in the extreme, thing exists is a viewpoint that holds that human reason is powerless to justify one moral value over another, and that since all actions, pursuing whatever values, are therefore equivalent, nothing has any value – only the might of force can decide what is right. Moral virtue is decided by 51% of the popular vote. Might makes right!

Ill. How do we do Right?

All these philosophies have contributed to our understanding of business ethics in that they have provided us the road map of discussion. They strongly disagree with each other, but they do discuss ethics in basically two ways: First, doing good because the action is good in itself (deontology)(“Do the Right Thing, regardless of the consequences”), or second, doing good because the action has good consequences (teleological). Let’s briefly look at these two routes on our ethical road map.

A. Universalism

Let’s look first at doing good because the action is good in itself. This is called universalism ethics. Remember I said that good is an outgrowth of “being good,” that our actions broadcast our personal ethics, that our motives are reflected in our actions. That is: you are, and then you do. There are universal definitions of good.

Applying our just-mentioned ethical systems in the analysis of “good,” when someone says an act is good in itself, she is basing this value judgment either on some standard developed from personal observation (empiricism), or from rational categories in her mind (rationalism), or from her personal experience and feelings at a given moment (existentialism), or from a standard received from some external authority, e.g., God (Judeo-Christian religion), or a law (perhaps, nihilism).

In sum, human motive and intention are critical in deciding the virtuous route in universalism ethics.

B. Utilitarianism

On the other hand, there are those who say, Forget about motives because we don’t know motives, what we do know is observable “good” acts. This is utilitarianism ethics. If acts lead to good consequences then the acts are good, moral, virtuous, regardless of motive or intention.

When someone says an act will lead to good consequences, that person is maintaining that he will be better off than he was before the action took place in a given situation. A decision is good if it results in the greatest degree of benefits for the largest number of people while incurring the least amount of damage or harm in a given situation. Utilitarianism is obviously close to the economic concept of cost/benefit analysis.

In sum, Consequences are critical in deciding the virtuous route in utilitarian ethics.

C. The Ethical bind

Now, we in the business world can get into an ethical bind. The reason is that the marketplace or organizational life is viewed by most to be “amoral,” (not “immoral,” but “amoral”). That is, the organization for which we work is an “amoral” or “non-moral” entity because it produces non-moral goods or services. It simply is engaged in satisfying consumer wants or needs, it does not have an explicit moral agenda. But we humans are moral entities and so the bind comes when moral beings are expected to function in a non-moral organization in a way that optimizes or maximizes the non-moral production goals of the organization.

It is hypocritical and irresponsible for us to hide behind the mask of organizational ethical immunity. To do so, is to pretend that right and wrong are inconsequential. For moral beings this is simply impossible because we are moral creatures, judging morality, whether we like judging or not. We are constantly using moral language, e.g., right, wrong, good, bad, fair, unfair, greedy, generous, immoral, bigoted, biased, unethical, power-hungry, etc.

We work in an organizational situation akin to that described in that wonderful morality play, “The Wizard of Oz,” where “Oz, the Great and Terrible” sits behind a screen pulling levers and strings creating a production. He hides himself behind the screen in order to maintain a safe position (a safe harbor) from which he can act with authority and power, and yet avoid accountability and liability for his actions. We moral beings cannot be like “Oz, the Great and Terrible” with moral immunity, even in a non-moral organization.

IV. So how Are We to Act?

If we live and work in such ethical chaos are there any ways in which we can act morally in such an ethically schizophrenic society? I want to suggest fourteen concepts to you that have been advocated by Richard Chewning who, in my opinion, is one of America’s foremost business ethicists. These action-concepts are tied together by three basic fundamental beliefs which must be subscribed to: the, dispensibleness of social order, the indispensibleness of personal dignity, and the indispensibleness of ethical responsibility.

1. Ethical Commitment

Each of us must exhibit a commitment to be ethical in our actions. If our commitment to be ethical is genuine then our mistakes, errors, stupidities will only be momentary diversions from the basic thrust of our professional life.

2. Consistency

Each of us must be committed to exhibiting a consistency in our conduct and our decisions. Our pattern, our habit must be consistently ethical over time.

3. Facts and evidence

Each of us must be committed to gathering and considering only accurate, factual and substantiated information in making our decisions and judgments.

4. Counsel

Each of us must be committed to gathering good and wise counsel before making our decisions and judgments.

5. Multiple tracks of analysis

Each of us must be committed to testing our judgments from various perspectives, i.e. is it good in itself, does it result in good consequences, are there good virtues involved, are there good intentions, etc.?

6. Decision and implementation

Each of us must be committed to following the ramifications of our actions as far down the chain of consequences as we are able. There are no minor consequences when it comes to human beings.

7. Ethics of disclosures

Each of us must be committed to informing our subordinates of the expectations under which they work. There should be no surprises in our organization.

8. Ethics of Anger

Each of us must be committed to expressing our anger in a constructive way.

9. Ethics of Silence

Each of us must be committed to the notion that “Silence is golden” only when no harm is done by our silence. To fail to bring forward information or a perspective which may advance an ethical decision or action, is, itself, unethical.

10. Tolerance and self-respect

Each of us must be committed to tolerating another’s deviation from our personal standard, and then adjusting to that deviation. However, tolerance is only acceptable if one’s ethical integrity is not violated or adversely affected.

11. Group Airing

Each of us must be committed to going public as a last resort with a group discussion over anticipated unethical decisions about to be advanced by some in the organization.

12. Consideration of Others

Each of us must be committed to the caring for the dignity and well-being of those around us in the organization. There is no ethical substitute for simple kindness, consideration, politeness, empathy and fairness.

13. Negative enabling

Each of us must be committed to firmness and resoluteness when carrying out an appropriate action. To allow any conduct to continue that is not enhancing to the human dignity of everyone associated with an organization is to condone unethical behavior.

14. Mutually beneficial

Each of us must be committed to not taking advantage of another’s ignorance or incompetency or weakness while conducting a transaction. To purposefully seek the disadvantaged is to look for benefits that are not attached to the transaction, per se, but are a result of the deficiency of the individual. All organizational transactions can and should be mutually beneficial.

I present these fourteen ethical action-concepts to you for reflection and consideration. Mull them over.


Ethics is a mirror of our society. Our personal ethics are the reflection of our own character. If our character is not important, then neither is life, because to be concerned with ethics is to be concerned with meaning and purpose in life.

Usually, ethical action does not require the wisdom of Solomon, only the courage of David, and the patience of Job.


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