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Why Three Ethics Matter When the Outcomes Are Complex and Uncertain

The word Ethics with a capital E.  Are you Communicating with FINESSE?
You prefer duty-based ethics when you want your direct reports to give you all sides of the story.

The Board of Adjustment was having a hard time making a decision. The property owner’s new woodworking shop extends six feet into the required side-lot setback. Even worse, it blocks the scenic view of the neighbor, who paid a premium for the lot.

“So, whose fault is it that the building was built in the wrong place,” asked the board chairman. "Clearly, it was shown on the approved drawing in the right place.”

“I am still trying to figure it out, “replied the property owner.” I hired the best surveyor in town and one of the best contractors. I know it will cost me over $30,000 to move it over six feet. I paid a premium to make it look good like my house, and I am afraid it will look worse after the move. And I don't have the $30,000 to move it."

In rebuttal, the neighbor explained, “right is right." The building location violated the town's planning and zoning codes. The correct location had been formally approved by town staff, and there was no relief they could provide because this was clearly wrong. Leaving the building in the wrong place would devalue his property much more than $30,000. If the Board of Adjustment did not uphold the ordinance, he would be the victim of something he had no control over.

After fifteen minutes of debate, the Board voted to let the building stay in the location where it was built. The chairman explained, "This is not what we wanted, but there are many moving parts here. No ill will was intended. This is not on the neighbor’s property and the neighbor still has a good view. There is not enough harm here to make the owner pay that much money, even though this technically violates the ordinance."

Right and Wrong

Virtue ethics are based on the foundation that there is an absolute right and an absolute wrong. We can consult antiquity for the guidelines. Aristotle described virtue as courage, temperance, liberality, magnificence, magnanimity, proper, ambition, patience, truthfulness, wittiness, friendliness, modesty, and righteous indignation. Conversely, he framed vice as rashness, licentiousness, prodigality, vulgarity, vanity, ambition, irascibility, boastfulness, buffoonery, flattery, shyness, and envy.

In a similar frame of thought, the Apostle Paul, in his letter to the Galatians, described good as love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. On the other extreme, he characterizes bad as fornication, impurity, licentiousness, idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, anger, selfishness, dissension, party spirit, envy, drunkenness, carousing, and the like.

The difference between right and wrong is a personal journey that takes years to acquire and refine–time that senior management does not have. While we all have some belief of right or wrong, it is difficult to bring diverse decision makers to a singular allocation of resources if the underlying argument is right versus wrong, good versus bad, or virtuous versus non-virtuous.

No Harm, No Foul

Consequence-based ethics, or consequentialism, refers to moral theories that hold that the consequences of an action serve as the basis for any valid moral judgment. From a consequentialist standpoint, a morally right action is one that produces a good outcome or consequence – in other words, "the ends justify the means."

Consequence-based ethics received their primary development in the latter 1800s. John Stuart Mill and Jeremy Bentham were given substantial credit for this development. Interestingly, Mill and Stuart are also credited in economics with creating Marginal Utility Theory (MUT). In MUT, it is held that it is not the absolute value described in Utility Theory that motivates the decision maker, but rather the incremental or marginal utility. In MUT, the comparative differences and the incremental pain matter most.

Advocates, seeking to persuade or manipulate human opinion, usually encourage a consequential approach to communications and decision making. After all, “the ends justify the means," so the decision makers need to know only the aspects that bring them to the advocate's desired position. Advocates usually fall into broad classes like salespeople, attorneys, politicians, and self-enlightened crusaders.

Let The Buyer Beware

Duty-based, or deontological ethics, holds that the consequences of actions do not make them right or wrong. Rather it is the motives of the person who carries out the action that makes the actions right or wrong. The obligation for making decisions is on the process and sharing of information, which can be honestly managed, and not on outcomes, which are governed by an uncertain future.

Deontological ethics is in direct contrast to consequential ethics and prioritizes full disclosure and "treating others in the manner in which you would wish to be treated." Licensed physicians are legally bound by duty-based ethics. So are licensed professional engineers.

Communicating with FINESSE

This triangle of ethics is merely a framework. The reality is that many are not as “pure” as described in the simplified framework. Most individuals and groups do adhere predominately to one form and secondarily to one of the others when making decisions. However, in many contexts, such as the opening story, decision makers may adhere to one form more strongly before an event and a different form after the fact.

When communicating to decision makers on issues with high levels of complexity and uncertainty, use a duty-based approach. Put yourself in the position of the decision maker (have empathy) and ask yourself whether you had rather have the whole story or get only the parts that an underling wanted you to have. As a trusted advisor, the decision is not yours to make–the decision belongs to the person who signs on the bottom line. And you are a technical professional, not a salesperson.

Ethics are the way we make decisions. The second ‘E’ in FINESSE stands for Ethics.


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