Perspectives on Ethics

Ethics is very important in every field, particularly in procurement. I want to first acknowledge the high ethical standards that my colleagues live by in the performance of their duties as public procurement officials. Many states and municipal level governments have adopted their own ethics laws. These laws generally prescribe principles that all public officials must abide by.  

Ethics has been talked about since ancient times. In Ancient Greece, Socrates was and still is considered the Father of Ethics. The ancient Greek term for ethics is êthos, which refers to character. Socrates’ teachings focused mostly on good and bad character traits; on virtues and vices. Plato also spoke about ethics from a virtue-based perspective. He argued that happiness and well-being are the highest goals of moral thought and conduct. Well-being is the result of a virtue-based pursuit of higher knowledge and fulfilling man’s social obligation to the common good.

Ethics shows up in your decision-making.  Twenty-five-hundred years after the eloquent work of the great thinkers, Larry Chonko, PhD, Professor of Business Ethics at the University of Texas, Arlington, defines four categories of ethical theory associated with decision making. Not everyone has the same ethics filters when making decisions.  

  • Deontology: People should adhere to their obligations and duties when making decisions.  
  • Utilitarianism: It is based on one’s ability to predict the consequences of an action. 
  • Rights: The highest priority is to protect the rights established by society or community.
  • Virtues: Focuses on a person’s character rather than any action that may deviate from normal behavior.

Three of these categories deal with the external aspect of ethics and what it looks like to be ethical. One of them focuses on the person and his/her core values.  Our interpretation of ethics is important because there are two different perspectives: policies and people. 

The first perspective deals with acceptable behavior based on external parameters, whether law or policy. These laws or policies help define how an action would be interpreted by others and what the potential consequences might be. Organizations have institutionalized ethics to establish principles that govern the behavior expected of its members.  This is often referred to as the code of ethics. In some jurisdictions, ethics is handled by the attorneys. I have nothing against that, someone needs to oversee that function. The point that I want to make is that ethics is not just about what’s legal or not. It is about what’s right and what’s wrong, which the law attempts to codify from the perspective of legality. 

A second perspective deals with a person’s character and the values that they live by. Integrity plays a big role in the result of an established ethics code.  Integrity is the person’s moral compass that guide their every action. It guides them in their decisions between what’s right and what’s wrong, even when no one is watching. Without minimizing the value of a code of ethics as guidance based on principles of good conduct and the behavior expected from each individual, people ultimately dictate the level of effectiveness of such ethics policies and laws.

A solid character makes trust possible. Character communicates consistency, potential, and respect. This is true for everyone, especially leaders.  It is hard, if not impossible, to trust a leader who does not consistently show inner strength. A person who is talented but has a weak character is like a time bomb that can cause significant damage. Having talent is not enough because people with weak character are not trustworthy. A person who does not have a strong inner compass cannot earn the respect of others. To achieve ethical behavior in an organization, personal inner values must align with ethics principles.  

In some instances, fraud, abuse, misconduct and overall unethical behavior still occur despite the ethics codes adopted by the organization. We have seen cases come up in the business world, government, media, entertainment, and even in the religious area. Most of the organizations where high profile scandals occurred had a code of ethics of some sort. Yet, those policies did not stop the wrongdoing that cost many their careers, reputation, and even freedom. Sure, anyone can make a mistake.  But these cases are not the result of a one-time mistake. They were the result of a series of  repeated actions… the wrong actions. The State of  Illinois took on an ethics reform initiative after corruption at the highest level planted doubt and distrust in government in general. Like Illinois, there have been other states and municipalities that have fallen victim of a scandal and tightened their ethics rules as a result.

These were actions by individuals who perhaps lost their way at some point in time and were overcome with the dark thoughts that they held deep inside.  What may lead a person to lose their way? Perhaps it is greed, the desire to get ahead at all cost, the thought that they will not get caught, or simply a weak moral compass. One can only speculate what the reasons might be.  I’m not here to judge their actions. I am sure there is more to the story than what’s been shared in each case. Why did they consider deceit as the best choice? Did they think they were choosing between right or wrong or did it not cross their mind? How did they justify the actions in their conscience? Were they not aware that the choice could harm others? These are questions that linger in my mind.  In each case, the fraudulent and deceitful actions were kept from public knowledge. I think that the reason why these actions were hidden is because those involved knew they were wrong. Perhaps their motives were stronger than their values, or maybe it is simply a character weakness.

Every profession has a code of ethics. As we have likely all observed first-hand or read about cases of unethical behavior, we know that a code of ethics may not prevent an individual from wrongdoing. But a formalized code provides guidance and a reminder of the type of behavior expected.

Ultimately, ethics is a personal matter. A person’s moral compass must point in the right direction for ethics policies to be truly effective. Having integrity, character, and being trustworthy is about the small things. Trust has a compounding effect. If a person can’t be trusted with small things, they definitely can’t be trusted with bigger things. A strong foundation can withstand the challenges of temptation. A reason why some people may struggle with issues of integrity is because they look outside themselves to explain character deficiencies. Integrity commits to character over personal gain. A person of high integrity will adhere to moral and ethical principles whether written or implicit.  

Most people want to do the right thing or at least, I choose to believe that. They want to live in peace and harmony with others. Then, what is the solution to minimize ethics breaches?  I don’t think that anyone has found the solution yet, but the reactionary approach is to enact more laws and implement tighter policies. These are all external solutions.  I don’t think that the problem is that people chose to conduct themselves unethical due to the lack of policies and laws.  No, I think it is a values issue. As such, it is an inside job.  

It starts with all of us and the behavior that we model for our children, particularly in their formative years. Perhaps we don’t think much of small infractions like cutting a line, forgetting to pay for an item and not rectifying the situation, watching a second movie while at the movie theater without paying for the second one, or telling the little white lies to get by or avoid an undesired task. It is about the little things. If the little things compound to build trust, they can also compound to build distrust. I believe that we should raise our awareness and take inventory of these small infractions. Even though these small infractions from a consequential perspective did not significantly harm anyone, we need to be intentional about taking action to keep these little wrongs from potentially having a negative effect in society.  I think that we are all responsible. Do I think there will no longer be a breach? No, I think that there will always be someone whose unchecked ambition will drive him/her to deceive others.  But any effort that we make will move our community in the direction for a better future and a make this a better place for future generations.

To conclude, people have different filters when it comes to ethics. There is an external perspective that focuses on the actions that we see and judge; and there is the internal factor that relates to our core values. Both perspectives are valid, and they complement each other. I don’t believe that you can have an effective ethics policy without people’s good moral compass. Ideally, external, prescribed behaviors and internal, personal values align to create a self-perpetuating ethical culture. Individual decisions and actions that consistently reflect institutionalized norms and personal value are the basis of integrity. Integrity fosters trust. And trust is the foundation of our relationships, society and government. 

I think a better way to look at ethics is by simply following the golden rule. Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” Ethics is really about the golden rule!