The Moral Maze of Decision-Making

Originally Published in Fair Value

As I sit down to write this article in the solitude of my study, there are people gathering in churches across the United States, encouraged by their preachers to come together for worship. In a secular equivalent, the politically faithful are being urged to attend party rallies over the coming weeks. And all of this in the midst of a Coronavirus pandemic where the clear scientific advice is that public assemblies will lead to the seeding of infection and a significantly greater loss of life.

It’s not my purpose to criticize the actions of those who choose to attend their churches or gatherings. These people are not foolish, nor can we assume they are indifferent to the suffering of others. My tendency to put caution over civil liberties is a personal view, and the public mood is seldom characterized by universal agreement, even if a sober consideration of the facts were possible. When the issues have become politicized, as is certainly true in this case, it’s inevitable that we’ll see passion on either side.

Ethical Trade-Offs Happen

But despite these caveats, I’m still left pondering and troubled by the stark conflict between the near-universal advice of independent experts on the one hand and the actions of those influencers who have an interest in a different outcome, on the other. Perhaps my discomfort is rooted in the notion that this friction is not unique to politics or pandemics. In some form or other, ethical trade-offs are inherent to most businesses of some scale, and the value judgments we make in resolving them are a signature of our leadership.

Tobacco Industry as a Negative example

The behavior of the tobacco industry is a case study of the moral pressures within corporations. Over many decades, the leading firms marketed their products as safe and socially desirable despite clear evidence that smoking was both highly addictive and a direct contributor to premature deaths. A culture of denial fostered resistance to health warnings, restrictions on advertising, or any other measures that might discourage sales. In what has become an archetypal example of ethics vs. economics, the historic practices of the tobacco industry have been rightly condemned.

Packaging with an Eye for the Environment

While this is one of the clearest of cases, there are countless others where the ethical considerations are less obvious and prominent in the public consciousness. In the sphere of logistics, for example, how do we best balance obligations to shareholders with a responsibility for the environment? Should vehicle manufacturers have a duty to lead on low emissions, or is it reasonable for them to wait for legislation that creates a level playing field? And what of biodegradable packaging, fair-trade sourcing, or raising wages above a strictly competitive threshold? When first movers bear the burden of risk, is it ethical to hold back from the morally principled but commercially disadvantageous course?

Long-term View Doesn’t Always Add Clarity

There are some who would seek to deny the existence of the conflict, arguing that an appraisal of long-term costs and benefits will show the right path forward, leading to the appropriate balance in the medium- or long term. Perhaps so, but it’s significant that few of those taking this stance are at the sharp end of business. It’s easy to promote an ethical utopia when all is academic and removed. You’re the third-placed player in a market, pressured on all sides by competition and expectations; try convincing your employees that you should be at the bleeding edge of ethical change.

Doing the Right Thing

Even a lesser goal of playing our part or doing the right thing assumes that the moral course is relatively clear and divisible. In practice, we live in an interconnected world, where our actions-no matter how well meaning-can have a butterfly effect that is beyond prediction. We should be skeptical of supposed solutions that take insufficient account of their own uncertainty. For all of the urgency of those passionate about change (the activist environmental movement is a good example here), history has shown that the messy process of evolution is usually a surer and safer route to success than five-year plans or Arcadian visions of great leap forward.

Competing Virtues and the Moral Minefield

And what about the multiple instances in which we are faced with a choice between competing virtues? My opening example is ultimately a tension between the civil liberties we have come to expect and a desire to protect the health of the wider population. Article 11 of the Human Rights Act of 1998 seeks to guarantee freedom of assembly and association but caveats this with proportionate restrictions that protect the health and freedoms of other people. The critical word in that clause is ‘proportionate,’ but unfortunately there is no strict definition we can turn to. 

So how, as organizational leaders, do we navigate this moral minefield?

5 Principled Pragmatic Maxims to Guide Descion Making

I’d propose that for most of us, the way through is not to become philosophers but to pursue a course of what I call principled pragmatism. As that label suggests, we should focus more on the optimum than the perfect. It’s close to what Aristotle would call the Golden Mean path between deficiency and excess, underpinned by good intentions and care for others.

And more tangibly, I’d offer five maxims that we could all adopt regardless of circumstance. 

Be agnostic

Be agnostic. When considering the thorniest of issues, I find it helpful to ask, ‘what course would I choose if I didn’t yet know how it impacted me?’ Would I, for example, introduce universal healthcare care if my immediate or future requirement for healthcare was not revealed until after I’d made the choice? How would I structure the executive bonus if I didn’t know what position I had in the firm or if I were an employee or a customer? When ignorant of our personal best interest, the most rational course is to choose the fairest for all.

Focus on direction, not destination

Focus on direction, not destination. Most progress is a journey, not an event. Indeed, my belief that markets and their morals evolve means there’s never an end point we can reach. It’s therefore vital that we consider the course and the speed at which we’re traveling rather than being obsessed with our arrival. Don’t be dogmatic. Many ethical judgments and the evidence supporting them, are not as clear-cut as leaders would wish. As with parenting, playing soccer, or, for that matter, mastering an instrument—all of us make mistakes. The important thing is that we correct them, responding to feedback and facts rather than digging in our heels.

Beware of moral myopia

Beware of moral myopia. Publicly prominent concerns can often feel compelling, and at times, it’s vital that we react to these with speed and clarity. The recent Black Lives Matter campaign is a good example of how long-overdue progress can follow from a sea change in sentiment. But we should be wary of being too short-sighted. It’s better to set a course and truly steer it than to react to every twist and turn of public opinion. 

Communicate the trade-offs

Communicate the trade-offs. If you need to make compromises, then be clear on what they are and why you’re making them. Explain the mitigation for any negative consequences and how these might lessen over time. This helps everyone understand that doing the right thing is seldom a binary choice.

Have Confidence In Leadership

Returning to those gatherings that are happening as I write, I must be one of the few people who has spent time throughout this crisis in the US, the UK, and mainland Europe. The divergences I’ve experienced in the public’s attitude and mood are striking. In part they reflect cultural characteristics, but I’d suggest that trust in our politicians and advisors is the critical difference. And it seems to me that to win that confidence, leaders of all types must first and foremost show that while the world and the choices we face are invariably imperfect, at least our intentions are good.

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