Ethics practitioners know a great deal about what is likely to succeed
in a given work situation. But some of us are less clear on precisely
a particular approach is the right thing to do. What follows is a
brief outline of a personal quest for some whys.
The authors admitted that no one approach has been shown to be the best. To deal with the variety, some of the texts did little more than encourage me to pick a theory and apply it to the problems set out in the rest of the text. Slightly more sophisticated texts told me to apply several approaches to the same problem and examine the different results.
Even more sophisticated texts told me that the process of applying theories
to practical issues only gave me deeper awareness of moral issues and ethical
reasoning — its purpose was not really to give me answers. The solutions
to real organizational dilemmas require good common sense. This is,
of course, where I had begun my quest.
The approach does not try to set out the conditions that make an act
ethical (because it is virtuous, utilitarian or whatever); rather, this
approach sets out a procedure for arriving at ethical conclusions based
on reasoned agreement among concerned participants. The approach
is called discourse ethics (championed by Jürgen Habermas in
Consciousness and Communicative Action, MIT Press, 1990).
Notice that these characteristics of good conversations are also frequently
cited as traits of good solutions to workplace dilemmas, and of course
as values of ethical organizations — sincerity, respect, fairness and
Other provocative suggestions to stimulate dialogue have been made by Frederick Bird (in The Muted Conscience, Quorum Books, 1996): speaking up should be part of managers job descriptions, not just to do trouble-shooting but to improve quality; the auditing function should be transformed from one-way policing to two-way interactive activities; there should be regular discussions of ethics in each work unit; employees should have access to multiple media to voice their concerns; and there should be training in conflict resolution.
Adapted from an article that appeared in the Newsletter of the Ethics
Practitioners Association of Canada (vol. 2, issue 4, winter 1999).
The author is EPAC Membership Secretary.
Please do not reproduce without permission.
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