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Ethics is Shaped by Your Social Network

In light of major scandals driven by ex-McKinsey employees (e.g. Jeff Skilling, Rajat Gupta and Anil Kumar) and consequent sharper focus on ethics by top consulting firms, lets continue our discussion about ethics and delve deeper into how to think about ethics, and what shapes ethics.

Ethics is required when the law is not written, not enforced or wrong

To think about ethics, let’s picture a bar chart running vertically. The entire bar represents all the actions you could undertake in your country. It is obviously a hypothetical bar since we could not list every action we could take. Yet, we know we can do countless things.

The bar chart goes from one all the way to the one billion things you could do. The bar is split into two parts. Twenty percent of the bar is dark blue and eighty percent of the bar is white.

Everything that is dark blue depicts every action you can undertake in your country that is covered by the legal system. Therefore, for the dark blue part there is a law that determines if what you are doing is legal or illegal.

Everything in the white section depicts actions not covered by laws in your country.

When we talk about ethics we are most of the time talking about the actions within the white space, where the laws have not been written to cover your actions. If there was a law telling you how to behave in a situation, would it be an ethical debate given the law instructed you what to do? In most cases it will not be.

However, the world is not perfect.

There are times when the law is wrong. For example, when black people were not allowed to attend universities in South Africa or parts of United States. There are laws like that, unjust laws, right now in parts of the world. Therefore, in situations where the law is wrong, ethics should dictate your actions.

That is one example where ethics does not just apply to the white space but also applies to the blue space.

There are other situations where ethics applies to the blue space as well.

Think of countries that have exceptional constitutions. Their constitutions are so amazing that other legal systems around the world quote from these country’s constitutions and higher court opinions. For example, South Africa’s constitutional court rulings are highly referenced internationally.

However, there are parts of that country that are lawless. Clearly the law is not enough if there is no enforcement. If there is no enforcement people will misbehave unless they are ethically bound to behave themselves. Therefore, there are two situations where we need to apply ethics to actions governed by law, when the laws are wrong and when the laws are not enforced.

To summarize, ethics is required when the law is not written, not enforced or wrong.

The application of ethical principles is inversely proportional to the correctness of the law, the reach of the law and the enforcement of the law. If there are no laws, or the law is weak, or the law is wrong, or the law cannot be enforced, you are reliant on your personal judgment to make decisions.

The question is, how good is your judgment.

If ethics is about judgment, what drives our judgement?

We established that ethics is about judgment. Now I will give you 4 situations and I will show you what drives our judgment.

Imagine it is 1940 and you are a brilliant engineering student in Germany – blue eyes, blond hair, handsome but a bit naive. All you know is what is told to you, and you just happened to be a member of the armed forces. You are sitting at a hip Berlin bar. You are in a situation where everyone thinks it is just fine to persecute the Jewish and Slavic nations. Not only is this the kind of group you belong to, it is also aligned with the law in your country.

Let’s take another situation. Let’s assume it is 1910 in Canada. You are going out with your buddies, upstanding gentlemen who don’t agree that women should have the right to vote. That is all you see in the press. That is what people talk about. That is accepted.

How do you break away from that, when it is the only thing you know to be right?

Some of you will say, “Well, we actually know that’s wrong”. However, the reality is, to a large degree, we are defined by our circumstances. It is easy to apply a higher ethical standard in hindsight. We can prove this.

In the first two examples I have presented scenarios that today, in hindsight, we know to be wrong. In the next two examples I will give you things that we don’t necessarily know to be wrong today.

Think about eating animals. Human beings consume millions of tons, may be tens of millions of tons, of animal carcasses every year. It is completely acceptable to do this. It is acceptable to make jokes about it. In a hundred years people may look back at us and think we were animals for doing this.

We think it is acceptable because the network we belong to thinks it is acceptable. If you belonged to a social network whereby your friends thought it was horrible and distasteful to eat animals, you would probably not do it.

If your reaction to this was, it is not so bad so I am going to do it, then remember this is how unethical behavior becomes acceptable. We justify it based on what we see as being commonplace.

ethics quote

Let’s look at another example. Something that I notice every single time I am in a group of people – sexist comments. It is remarkable how much we tolerate sexist comments on television and in social settings. In fact social settings reinforce this behavior. Comments like “you are acting like a girl”, “you throw like a girl” or “only girls do that” are basically accepted discriminatory banter.

Just about every major comedy show in the United States has made some off-hand sexist comments. Some thrive on it and their ratings are directly proportional to this behavior.

One of the most popular shows in United States, “How I Met Your Mother”, actually has a scene whereby the main antagonist, Barney Stinson, talks about how he may have sold a woman into slavery. That show went on to have one of the highest ratings in prime time television for United States. It was a joke, obviously, but the fact is we find those things funny.

This happens right now. We think it is acceptable to belittle half of the human race. So why do we do that?

We do it because everyone else is doing it.

The social group you belong to shapes your ethics

In conclusion, the social group you belong to (your friends, the people from whom you seek acceptance, the people you spend time trying to impress, the people with whom you socialize, engage with, build relationships with etc.) shapes your values, or lack thereof.

The social network you choose to belong to will determine how ethical or unethical you choose to be, want to be or even could be.

So ask yourself: “How do the groups I choose to belong to shape my career and my life?”. If you are not happy with an answer to this question, make the necessary changes.

QUESTION(S) OF THE DAY: Which behaviours or beliefs currently acceptable in Western culture will, in your opinion, not be socially acceptable 100 years from now? Please let us know in the comments.

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Image from Trey Ratcliff under cc.

Image from Brett Jordan under cc.

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