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Philosophy’s dilemma: the institutionalising of ethics

By Peter Bowden - posted Monday, 11 October 2004


Recent years have seen a surge in the rules and regulations that govern ethical behaviour. Although many will still claim that we have a long way to go, these regulations are, nevertheless, widespread, stretching across a multitude of different disciplines and institutional structures. Research in these disciplines is coming up with results that have a fundamental impact on the way we run our businesses, our government departments, even the country. The growth in rules governing ethical practices, and the strong need for further investigation and additional development, have created an ethics industry, opening up career possibilities to people wanting to work in strengthening ethical behaviour throughout the country.

This regulatory surge is a worldwide phenomenon, a response to the many ethical difficulties raised by business and government in recent years. In the last 18 months, Australia has seen 10 different inquiries into institutional ethical issues and the related regulatory responses. Many were aimed at strengthening the practice of ethics in government and the professions as well as in business. Many were underpinned by considerable investigation and research.

One of the more notable phenomena, for instance, has been the growth in whistleblower protection programs. All states in Australia have now established regulatory regimes and associated legislation to protect whistleblowers, all targeted at stopping wrongdoing in the public sector. Standards Australia has even published a Standard on whistle blowing, AS 8004. This standard puts behaving ethically in the same category as making sure that buildings are erected correctly, or that food-processing plants are clean.

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The Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC), has gone further with its announcement this year of a leniency policy encouraging wrongdoers to blow the whistle on their former partners in crime, in return for a lessened sentence. Graeme Samuel, Chairman of ACCC, announced recently that they had received more than 30 tip-offs since introducing the scheme.

The use of codes of ethics is also increasing. A study by Deakin University staff shows that a growing number of Australia’s top 500 companies are now adopting such a code. The contents of the codes have expanded, as have methods for ensuring that they are followed. There has also been an increase in the use of ethics committees, in the provision of training in ethics, as well as in the adoption of internal whistleblowing systems. The ACCC has taken these steps even further, introducing a system for endorsing codes, which includes methods of adjudication on ethical disagreements by outside bodies, and heavy sanctions.

Professional bodies are also on the search for codes of conduct that define ethical practices for their members. The Professional Standards Council of NSW brought out its first “Model Code of Ethics Principles” this year, while the Australian Council of Professions had its first “search conference” on ethics. It was seeking a code of ethics that would meet the requirements of its members.

These developments have been spread over many professions. Some 30 disciplines now teach and research on ethics at Australian universities. Sources in the US suggest that close to 400 different professions and industry associations have developed codes of ethics. They range across the ethical spectrum. A member of a direct marketing association, for instance, faces many ethical obligations that are very different to those placed on the medical profession, or on a construction company.

Some disciplines are pioneering groundbreaking research on ethical behaviour. Joint US and Australian research has now shown, for instance that ethical behaviour and social responsibility in business produces on average a positive financial benefit. This research, probably the outstanding empirical finding on ethical behaviour in recent years, came from the fields of statistical analysis and organisational behaviour. Research in the field of economics has shown a positive relationship between trust within a nation and economic growth. Other research underway across the disciplines is trying to determine whether codes of ethics have a positive relationship with ethical behaviour. It is a search on which the jury is still out, but other investigations are coming up with answers: on ways to make codes of behaviour more effective, on the role of self interest in ethical behaviour, approaches to identifying stakeholder demands, even methods of measuring the ethical commitment of groups of people.

Moral philosophy is the natural parent of these activities. There is no other discipline that has a wide enough recognition to reach across the many professions and institutional entities or over the many different paths that are involved.

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Many philosophy departments and associated ethics centres contribute to these findings, and have developed programs to train the ethics professionals of tomorrow. These departments have courses in business and professional ethics, and in associated research techniques. They also have staff researching and consulting in these fields. A person wanting to work in strengthening ethical behaviour across the institutional structure would be well advised first to investigate the offerings of the schools of philosophy that he or she could attend, and choose one that provides skills in institutional ethics: for there are other philosophy departments who make no contribution. Nor do they see the need to make a contribution. And therein lies the dilemma.

Many philosophy departments have no courses in professional or business ethics, or in the analytical techniques necessary for investigating options in applied institutional ethics. This gap is an extensive one. A search for investigations into codes of ethics over the last decade located 33 articles, for instance, which were described in journals on topics ranging from forestry to journalism to social work. No research was reported in the Australasian Journal of Philosophy (AJP). Three items in the Australian Journal of Professional and Applied Ethics were in specialised fields - librarianship, property management and business. Similarly, a search for articles on whistle blowing or public interest disclosures brought over 100 results, mostly in journals in law and public administration and a half-dozen professional disciplines, as well as the media. None were in the AJP.

Many teachers in moral philosophy do not see themselves as analysts of codes of ethics, or of the problems of whistleblowers. For them, opening up the difficult, many faceted aspects of the institutional regulation of ethical behaviour is not philosophy. It is not why they entered the discipline.

There are many ethicists who find no greater joy than exploring the multitude of paths opened by the ethics philosophers over history. In the more traditional schools of moral philosophy, theirs is a personally and perhaps professionally more rewarding route. There are beliefs and theories in moral philosophy that could be endlessly debated, including a very large school that argues that regulation is an unproductive way to ensure ethical behaviour. It is an argument that is the very antithesis of current practices.

One output of the teaching of ethics, however, must be graduates who are given the knowledge, skills and confidence to handle ethical difficulties in their chosen field of work. Or in turn, who are able to contribute further to the analysis and research that supports that teaching.

It is difficult to argue that tomorrow’s teachers, practitioners, and researchers in ethics will have the necessary competence if their backgrounds do not include studies relevant to the institutional changes I have outlined, or the disciplinary skills to contribute to further changes in future years. It is a dilemma that many departments of philosophy need to face.

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Article edited by Margaret-Ann Williams.
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About the Author

Peter Bowden is an author, researcher and ethicist. He was formerly Coordinator of the MBA Program at Monash University and Professor of Administrative Studies at Manchester University. He is currently a member of the Australian Business Ethics Network , working on business, institutional, and personal ethics.

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