When a corporate executive, high-powered lawyer, or well-funded medical researcher is exposed for egregious unethical behavior, we often say it would have been a good idea for that person to have had a class in ethics with some follow-up training. We’d like to think that with the proper ethics training even the most heartless sociopath could be encouraged to at least follow some of the rules.
And if we can’t (note: we can’t) encourage bad people to be good people, what are ethicists worth? Well, our roles fall into several categories: 1. Providing ethical answers to dilemmas. 2. Offering ethical analysis of a particular problem. 3. Teaching ethical decision-making, which makes a good-faith assumption that the decision maker is sincere in wanting to be ethical. 4. Holding wrongdoers accountable for their behavior.
The first category is offered to clients who don’t want to take complete responsibility for their ethical decisions. Once a professional ethicist has offered an opinion on whether something is above board, an organization can say, proudly, “All our policies and procedures have been reviewed by someone with extensive training and expertise in ethics and found to be compliant with all ethical and legal codes.” Indeed, it can be a very good idea for an organization to get an outsider to review policies for possible ethical problems.
The second category is related, perhaps a subset of the first. When institutions encounter a particularly sticky issue, they might ask an ethicist to help them work through all the ethical considerations and explore how various ethical theories can help them solve the dilemma. Again, a useful role for the ethicist.
The third category involves training. Rather than giving answers to ethical questions, the ethicist can teach motivated individuals to analyze various conflicts on their own. Most people know how to think ethically, but they sometimes forget some of the considerations that professionals might find to be second nature. Developing a more thorough approach to ethical approaches can benefit individuals and organization alike. It cannot, however, turn a bad person in to a good one. Evil people don’t lack ethical tools—they lack a conscience.
So, what do we do about the evil people? An important role for ethicists, in my considered and passionately held opinion, is to cry foul when individuals and institutions engage in egregious behavior. And when ethicists disagree on what is an egregious action, fervent debate erupts in the public sphere, benefitting the public and everyone involved, or so it should be. When ethicists sound the alarm that some behavior is abhorrent and shameful, a public chorus against such actions can at least ensure that the bad actors confront public scrutiny.
Think it doesn’t work? Remember in 2011 when executives at Transocean received bonuses for their safety record after the explosion in the Gulf of Mexico killed 11 and sent millions of gallons of oil streaming into the water? After public outcry, the executives thought better of keeping those bonuses and donated them to the Deepwater Horizon Memorial Fund. Social regulation pushes and pulls behavior through honor and shame. In responding to abhorrent behavior, Kwame Anthony Appiah says, “Shame, and sometimes even carefully calibrated ridicule, may be the tools we need. Not that appeals to morality—to justice, to human rights—are irrelevant.”
Most of us evaluate ethical theories in the following way: Knowing that I am an ethical person, which ethical theory best fits my behavior? Following this method, we can all justify our actions through theoretical ethics as we simply seek out the theories that validate our behavior. Given that we all have justification for our behavior, public outcry is not likely to immediately shake our perception of what is appropriate, and, indeed, the public rarely speaks as one voice. Further, the common view is often wrong, or so I judge it to be. Bertrand Russell once said, “In view of the silliness of the majority of mankind, a widespread belief is more likely to be foolish than sensible.” Indeed.
Many people, especially those in power, feel their behavior is beyond reproach. They seem to think they could not have gained power if they were not deserving of it. Public outcry and public discourse, can remind them that they are, in common with the rest of us, flawed and fallible human beings. What this means is that we must raise our voices, express what we find shameful and honorable, and join or create a conversation over morality, dignity, and justice. Only when we suppress our voices do we lose. Only our common humanity makes our salvation possible.