Ethics in a post-Christian world
Dave Durand writes that it’s difficult to separate ethics from morals. This is highlighted, he says, by the fact that most people use both words to define one another. By definition, ethics is almost always rooted in morality, whereas morality is sometimes defined without ethics. Most people define morality based on differing philosophical perspectives . . . .
It seems that certain issues find their way into my inbox in groups. Recently, ethics vs. morals has become a theme. I’ve been in discussions with business leaders who are working through complex ethical issues. It seems that no matter which direction they turn, on the surface, a moral argument can be made and someone will feel the pain of their decision.
In one meeting an executive, who previously touted her adherence to “high level ethics,” vehemently opposed a colleague who used two biblical passages to support his perspective. She exclaimed, “I’m fine with my ethics but don’t push your morality on me!” It was striking how she separated her ethics from his morality.
How is it that people who use “ethics and morality” as the grounds for their position can see things so differently? In this instance, I deduced that the chaffing in the meeting was a result of the biblical references. In the work place, references to religion can cause a visceral reaction in some people. This is often because they tie morality to religion while they connect ethics to business. But people who claim their own ethics separate from morality are futilely attempting to have their cake and eat it too.
Technically, it is really difficult to separate ethics from morals. This is highlighted by the fact that most people use both words to define one another. By definition, ethics is almost always rooted in morality, whereas morality is sometimes defined without ethics. The real confusion comes in because most people define morality based on differing philosophical perspectives. That method creates different standards and “rules” for behavior that seep their way into the workplace. In the end, it creates moral relativism.
As Catholics, we have access to the proper understanding of morality because we are grounded in natural law and guided by the Church. As simple as that sounds, moral issues can be very complex. For example, we know that in Catholic moral teaching there are situations that fall under the principle of Double Effect. (Click here for a related story) In these cases, a morally permissible action may unintentionally create an effect that, as a primary objective, would be immoral. An example could be the unintentional deaths of civilians in a just war.
The desired outcome of ethical actions may also be a factor that confuses people. In business, many people see profit as the desired outcome. Of course, there is nothing wrong with that outcome. However, if the desire for profit becomes disordered, then self-justification can pave the way to nearly any behavior.
This reduces ethics to a tool instead of a framework. Catholics see morality and ethics as means to holiness; therefore they are used to frame a structure, not simply as a tool or veneer to cover it. “Ethics as a tool” encourages people to “look” ethical rather than be ethical. Thus permitting unethical behavior is fine as long as a profit is realized and, according to them, everyone looks good and no one gets hurt. As Catholics, we know that outcome is impossible and that every immoral action has an effect on our world, even if we can’t see the effect for ourselves. We also know that appearances do not equal holiness.
In the business world, the green movement is an example of a mix of true morality and artificial ethics. I have witnessed organizations make the decision to stop polluting and or wasting resources and materials in ways that are very responsible and necessary in order to be good stewards. The sincerity and sacrifice made by these people is real — and even a heroic correction of poor decisions from past generations.
On the other hand, there are executives laughing all the way to the bank regarding green initiatives. Some corporate officers even quip, during drinks, that the whole thing is malarkey in their opinion but necessary in order to appear politically correct. During meetings they publically proclaim that taking the company green is a moral and ethical issue when in reality their private opinion is that it’s only necessary to maintain a client base, therefore profits. Of course, there is nothing wrong with catering to a customer base but it is dubious to use the boardroom to appear ethical when that is not the actual motivator.
Universities are wise to teach business ethics courses. We may have even avoided the financial crisis had the ideas in these courses been put in practice. But teaching ethics without teaching the fullness of morality as the Church understands it, will always fall short. And teaching both in depth will have little effect if grace is not flowing into the hearts and souls of those who make decisions.
As Catholics we can change the direction of companies and even of nations by doing three simple but not easy things. First, we need to learn the faith. Second, we need to participate in the sacraments and in prayer. Third, we must live out the grace that God bestows on us after we do the first two things.
Tackling moral and ethical issues requires a mix of fortitude, wisdom, understanding and downright worldly strategy. We need to be as cunning as a serpent yet as pure as a dove when we mingle with the world. That means moving people’s hearts and their minds. And in most cases, it’s not the mind in the way of sound moral decisions — it’s the heart and will.
So if we speak to people’s hearts before we speak to their heads, we can win them over. It just may take more time than we want, but morality is beautiful like art — and the most beautiful art takes time to construct. Once it is created, it’s enjoyed by lots of people for many years.
Dave Durand is the best-selling author of “Perpetual Motivation” and “Say This, Not That.” He is a business executive and trainer of over 100,000 individuals in sales, marketing and business management.