Who decides business ethics?
Of all the lessons we learn in this world the most compelling is that it is no good expecting “them” to do something unless we do it ourselves, at least at first. “They”, of course, are Governments, European Unions, Business Associations, Religions, Social Associations of all sorts. The lesson of age is how amazingly singular we remain in spite of all our efforts to join together. No amount of collegiality can reduce personal conscience or responsibility.
In the last two centuries we have largely forgotten that. It has led us into seriously irresponsible behaviour towards our planet and our fellow humans. If we continue at the present rate we will soon have no planet, no people. We have relied on invention to solve the problems we create but new inventions often cause as many problems as they solve. And these new problems are difficult to solve because they are ethical.
Instead of asking what the impact of invention on business ethics will be we should ask ‘how can we change our ethics to handle what comes next?’ We are beginning to do that where climate is concerned. We pay attention to climate because we see what is happening and feel the consequences of it. We know that if it gets much hotter we’ll all fry to death. Cooling the climate requires discipline.
Many new issues are more formidable than climate change. They may take time to impact but they demand ethical answers now. From altering genes to bring about the perfect person to the ability to prolong life indefinitely human ingenuity is developing to the point where control of our species is looking God-like. Our behaviour makes us anything but God-like.
Not to use our gifts to improve the species would be insulting to whatever the source of life is. You do not have to be religious to understand that the human species has, for reasons we don’t yet fully understand, outstripped all other species in creativity, logical thought and inventiveness. The sought-after improvement is not always in favour of peaceful co-existence. A spear is a nasty weapon but causes less damage than a nuclear bomb.
Almost miraculous developments have not been matched by an increase in the wisdom of self-control. We do not give loaded firearms to children – except in America – because doing so causes unnecessary death and injury. But we do allow lunatic leaders to develop weapons of mass destruction. And we do promote geeks with clever brains to develop images and noises of mind-blowing ferocity without the controls to stop them corrupting the young. We shall soon have power which wisdom does not equip us to handle responsibly.
Handing our consciences to regulators gives us more drinking time but is a denial of the unique spirit humans have. That spirit is a moral acknowledgement that civilisation produces manifestations of mankind’s expression that are above measure and that speak to a higher purpose than simply beating the competition. It allows us to give something of life to those who cannot compete, to produce expression of feeling that is beautiful as well as useful.
We strive for happiness but fail to realise that it already is there. We pursue it when all we need to do is hand it to others and it will come back to us. We search for a God when we only need to look into the eyes of the people we meet to see an adequate replica. We ban heavy lifting but spend time in the gym lifting heavy weights. We deny the value of wisdom and then dose ourselves with drugs to see beyond our limited horizon. A Shakespeare sonnet is better than any shot of crack but you have to be educated to appreciate it.
Soon we shall have control over life and death. Handling it demands more than Google shutting the Pandora’s Box they may be opening. The circle of science we are travelling must lead us on to philosophy. If not we shall merely have substituted one jungle for another.
If we put as much effort into developing wisdom as we are putting into driverless cars and energy storage we may yet be able to enjoy the world we are developing.
If we do not it will all have been a colossal waste of time and creation.