The Seductive Danger of Craft Ethics for Business Organizations

Article excerpt

Moral rules for both absolutists and relativists are certain, once discovered. Human contingency, social history, institutional diversity, power relationships, self-concepts formed via reflection and all other aspects of living that make our moral lives so messy are set aside by the overwhelming, seductive clout of ethical rules. The ordinary human anxiety that we each experience when moral dimensions approach is soothed by the security provided by pertinent moral verities. Reason plays only a minimal role in the ethical discriminations fashioned from these dominant forms of ethical analysis.

The primary point of our article is that ethical improvement is a matter of degree or comparison. Business ethics is not so much about a grandiose search for THE right decision as it is a process for constructing business behavior that we would be proud to describe to our grandchildren, absent the convenient balm of rationalization. The question is not what is right or wrong, as one whose ethics reflects a foundational epistemology would ask, but rather, "would this action improve my condition," defined in terms of a person's considered self-concept.

In the following section, we demonstrate how craft ethics represents a form of moral relativism and, consequently, represents but another illustration of modernist ethical theories. Then we apply our analysis to the alleged ethical cleansing provided by the whistle blower, exploring that often courageous and praiseworthy exemplar's limited effectiveness as a stimulus for improved business ethics. Finally, we present implications of our analysis for business managers. The Appendix establishes the significance of epistemological assumptions as the foundation of ethics.

Craft Ethics as a Form of Relativism

The dominant form of morality operational among business managers today is captured by the concept of craft ethics, a form of ethical relativism by which the moral agent discovers what his craft mandates in particular situations and follows that mandate. This ethic is characterized by an absence of reflection about what the agent personally believes would be moral; instead, there is a looking outward for what those in the craft say is right and wrong. This craft ethic is followed on the job, even when its principles directly conflict with those that the moral agent abides by outside the firm.

The research of organizational theorists supports the existence of the craft ethic in slightly different language. They claim that the primary influence on corporate behavior is the corporate culture (Deal & Kennedy, 1982). And employees know that they are expected to conform to these norms and will be rewarded for such conformity (Newton, 1986).

The application of the craft ethic by business managers was perhaps most clearly revealed by Robert Jackall in his classic study of the behavior of corporate managers. Jackall went into a number of organizations to study the ways through which the organizational bureaucracy shaped managers' moral consciousness, and the occupational ethics of these managers (Jackall, 1988). What he found could be summed up as, "What is right in the corporation is what the guy above you wants from you" (Jackall, 1988, p. 6). Concomitantly, it is crucial to be a team player.

To survive in a corporation the manager must identify what his superior wants, and then do whatever is necessary to attain the superior's objectives as expediently as possible. When faced with a moral dilemma, one attempts to strip the dilemma of anything like the commitments that define the reflective moral self and asks instead what outcome would be most congruent with the objectives of one's institution (Jackall, 1988, p. 124).

Crucial to being able to react in such a manner is the ability to distance oneself from the consequences of one's actions. As one manager interviewed by Jackall pointed out, while no one wants to harm the health of individuals or the environment, it is one thing to say that it is OK for 20 out of a million people to die when the cost of preventing their deaths would be $25 million, but if you were one of those 20, or you could identify the specific individuals involved, it might be more difficult to do the expedient thing. …