Sunday, January 18, 2009
Ethics for the Real World: Creating a Personal Code to Guide Decisions in Work and Life
by Ronald A. Howard and Clinton D. Korver.
Harvard Business Press.
Pages 240. $24.95.
DO ends justify the means, or is it the other way round? Such questions have kept moral philosophers arguing for centuries. Most of us are deeply influenced by ethical philosophy, but when it comes to real life, we often violate our cherished moral codes saying — everything is fair in love and war. In everyday affairs, we often dismiss minor ethical compromises that we make all the time. We find comfort in thinking that, for all practical purposes, we are within the limits of acceptable moral behaviour.
However, the authors do not accept such excuses. For them, the real world, the world of business and workplace are actual test of our moral standards. According to them, deception, stealing, and harming are most common ethical transgressions people make.
Quite often we do not realise that we are doing something wrong because we have a natural tendency of making compromises and rationalising. But making compromises or rationalising our improper actions is only a way of justifying our misdemeanours.
In a world, where the competition is cut-throat, is it possible to be morally correct all the time? "Yes, it is," the authors say. No doubt we might have to face difficulties, but it is better than resorting to immoral or unethical practices. In the long run, it is honesty that sets you apart; it is honesty that wins trust of your colleagues and customers.
We might say that it is easy to give sermons to others, but Ronald A. Howard, one of the authors, claims to have actually practised what he preaches. He turned down a lucrative defence contract rather than compromise with his moral beliefs.
Considering the fact, that every situation could be tackled through various options, the question arises how does one make the final choice. The authors say that people often make ethical choices reflexively. When caught in a dilemma, especially when we have to make decisions in an instant, we are often guided by certain preset ethical values that guide our actions. In moments of danger, for instance, as we have to act quickly, we do not have the time to consider moral implications of our actions. At such times, we make use of readymade options. A second way we make choices is by rationalising an otherwise-not-so-ethical choice. We think we are reasoning, but we are actually rationalising. What is the difference between reasoning and rationalising? When we reason we analyse the situation and form judgements, and when we rationalise, we try to justify an action which we deep down know is not right.
The authors further talk of prudential, legal, and ethical actions. An action is prudential when it is guided by self-interest such as financial gain, loyalty to others, friendliness, thriftiness. Here we weigh the options and do what is the best possible in a given circumstance. An action is legal if it is done according to the legal system of the land, although it might not be entirely moral. And finally, an action is ethical if it is in accord with our predefined notion of right and wrong. The classification is not all that neat however because illegal actions might be prudential, unethical acts may be prudential, illegal acts may be ethical.
The authors take up these issues in separate chapters, and show us how to deal with ethical dilemmas. Excellent though the book is, its price is rather too high for the Indian reader.