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ETHICS

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WHY BE ETHICAL?

Sometimes, I am tempted to lie to my students. Well, not “lie”, exactly. More like “not disclose material facts”. I see the irony in deceiving a class of ethics students, but, hell, if some of them can plagiarise their essays, can’t I leave out some inconvenient truths in order to get the job done?

The job, in this case, is convincing them to be ethical accountants. Poor me. Unlike lecturers in other disciplines, not only must I teach the material, but I also have to convince students that they should actually choose to act with integrity for the entirety of their future professional careers. Being able to quote the Code of Professional Conduct or write a fine essay on the weaknesses of utilitarian theory, may earn the student a distinction, but the profession and society at large score zero if one day he/she will nonetheless accept gifts of more than “insignificant value” or stand by while a colleague is unjustly persecuted by the majority of his/her peers.

One common suggestion for inspiring ethical conduct is to cite examples of how businesses, and the people associated with them, benefit by being ethical. There is Johnson & Johnson’s famous recall of every unit of Extra Strength Tylenol because a psychopath killed seven people by replacing the headache medication with identical capsules of cyanide. The cost to the business was $100 million, but the public relations gain far outweighed that figure: within a few months of using new, tamper-proof packaging, market share had climbed 23% from a low of 7%, and the share price had surpassed its previous level. Another, local example is that of Blue Financial Services, which has made its mission “banking the unbankable” – rescuing Africa’s low-income workers, historically ignored by larger institutions unwilling to deal with loans so small and insecure. Today’s newspaper reports that, over the past year, Blue’s share price has rocketed by 82.6%; and those larger institutions (represented by the JSE financial index) are down 28.1%.

So, ethics pays. What is more, unethical behaviour actually costs a business. Look no further than Sasol’s recent fine of R3.7 billion for godfathering the European “paraffin mafia”, while Shell, a former henchman turned state witness, was exempted for displaying good conscience.

In cartoons, making a moral choice is often depicted as listening to a series of arguments presented by two creatures perched on opposite shoulders. Perhaps if I tell these and other stories often enough, any devilish inclination that my students might feel to take the unethical route will be shouted down by the angelic memory of countless examples proving that, in the long run, it is more profitable to be ethical.

If only the examples did prove such a thing. This is why it is tempting for me to hide certain truths: the countless counter-examples to the angel’s argument. The Lehman Brothers’ executives, who will earn $2.5 billion in bonuses, despite gross and indisputable mismanagement. The businesses genuinely empowering disadvantaged workers that lose market share to competitors whose BEE practices simply window-dress further enrichment of the elite. The countless immoral business decisions that we will never even find out about.

Logically speaking, the existence of some that have benefited from making the right choice is no proof that being ethical is better for all of us in the long run. And we can’t produce the research to test this notion, because it’s impossible to say if the Johnson & Johnson or Blue executives really made their business decisions for ethical reasons, or if they are just as greedy as their equivalents at Lehman Brothers, but better at spotting a profit opportunity and keeping their jobs.

Let’s be realistic. We are usually tempted to act unethically precisely because it appears to be less costly, or more beneficial. Surely this assessment isn’t wrong all of the time? Surely, if you’re ethical because you were told that ethics pays, before long you will find yourself wondering if it pays enough, or soon enough, or often enough?

So I teach my students differently. I teach them that ethics is about values. The ancient Greeks, who invented ethics, called it the study of the “good life”. When I ask what they think this means, I usually get answers involving Ferraris and carnal relations with characters from music videos. I ask them instead to imagine answering the question on their death beds, aged 99. Wouldn’t other factors count far more than physical accumulation and sexual exploits? Your treatment of others? The emotional depth of your experiences? Your reputation for courage, fairness and honesty? I suggest to them that they begin with the end in mind: if they set out to make that inevitable old codger happy, true contentment will in fact come much earlier. Aristotle spoke of eudaimonia, a special kind of happiness that comes only from living virtuously. Consistently make choices to be the best person that you can be, and this active well-being – a flourishing of the soul – will be yours.

Perhaps I am naive to imagine that students will believe it, but they are young and less jaded than the rest of us. Also, I’m not cynical enough to believe that deceit is more likely to do the job than a simple truth: if you are willing to accept the most valuable currency of all, ethics does indeed pay.

Jimmy Winfield, B.Bus.SC, BCom (Hons), PGDA, is a lecturer in the Department of Accounting at the University of Cape Town, and also runs the Cape Business Seminars.