Where have all the ethics gone?

Where have all the ethics gone?

There has always been bad ethical behaviour. It used, more honestly, to be called sin, but we don’t use that kind of simple, direct word any more. It is too straightforward – rude, even. Fraud, insider trading, bribery, lies in resumes, fake news, sexual intrusion, environmental rape, all these are widely practiced even though we know they are wrong. They hurt other people. One of humankind’s prime objectives is not to hurt other people, isn’t it?

We are complex beings with built-in desires and drives. We still understand very little about these, although work being done at present will probably soon change all that. Whatever we do we are likely to have bad behaviour in the world as long as we remain the sort of human beings we are. The questions are ‘how to restrain it and work towards better behaviour and higher standards?’ Personal, Corporate and Political behaviors have got worse in the last fifty years. So have the behaviours of administrative, religious and many other managerial and supervisory groups. Our dealings with each other have become egregious in their transactionality and unacceptable in their attempt to bully and coerce.

The old religious standards promoted from pulpits on Sundays were good. Belief, control, fear, all made them more observed 100 years ago than they are today. None of those reasons for behaving are good, of course. You might perhaps have expected that greater knowledge, easier and longer lives, more social living – at least at the day to day level – and greater ability to identify and deal with criminals would have reduced wickedness, or at least got it locked up. So it is disappointing that rather the reverse has happened.

‘Every lock makes a thief’ is an old saying that has a lot of truth in it. I tried the trust method of management when building Cerebos Pacific Ltd and it worked. Not, of course, perfectly. I got cheated occasionally and there was the odd misfit who didn’t understand the word. But the time saved in not having to fulfil a lot of procedural, compliance work and thus being able to discuss the business was formidable. That was forty years ago. The internet, personal computers, mobile phone-computers and knowledge increasing at an exponential rate all make the playing field different today. So are the basic behaviours we expected then relevant now?

If you don’t answer this question first, you cannot talk sensibly about control to achieve your aim. To me, forgetting all the conformist rubbish I was taught as a child and young man, the basics remain kindness, fairness, personal decency, collegiality, cooperation. These five foundations for a society obviously cover many more behavioural practices if they are to work. But they seem to me to be the most likely way to peace and harmony.

You will notice that competition is missing from the list. Even though it is the cause of our greatest achievements, I think competition should be subject to the standards I have mentioned. We are instinctively competitive and we should allow scope for that but strictly subject to the five golden rules. At present competition in commerce, sport and many other areas is out of hand. We see excessive competition everywhere. Like all excess, it is dangerous, and leads to dangerous behaviour. You see it daily in the problems of the pharmaceutical industry.

Progress born of excess is bad. If you want an example look at the two Boeing plane crashes that appear to have been caused by excessive pressure to get an airworthiness certificate. Some will argue that a greater compliance system would have saved some 300+ lives. I would dispute that. It seems as though individuals who were powerful enough to do so demanded shortcuts. The decisions were personal conscience, something we hardly hear mentioned at all today.

And yet our human brain has developed beyond belief (literally) and is capable of thinking through all our ethical needs, without the help of AI. Our ability to communicate, although declining at present, is still good enough to convince us of the value of personal interests ‘beyond the single need’. It seems that scant efforts are being made on either of these fronts. When you think of the cost of elaborate checking and compliance versus the cost of explaining someone’s interests to them, it seems incredible that we opt for the former and ignore the latter.

Ethics will not come out of a computer system, however sophisticated, unless we become robots. I fear that is a real possibility if we continue to over-systematise our behaviour and underestimate the power of self-discipline and collective interests.

Whoever ‘they’ are, they cannot legislate and systematise everything. Personal standards will still determine the success or failure of the human species.

And personal standards always means us – you and me.