The Rocket Science of Ethics

Discussion
Feb 07, 2006
George Anderson

By George Anderson


Marc Lampe is all business when it comes to a discussion about ethics.


“More than ever before, unethical behavior has the potential to do tremendous harm to our world and humanity,” the professor of ethics at the University San Diego’s School of Business Administration told the San Diego Union-Tribune. “We need to find new ways to explain our conduct.”


The new way of explaining human conduct will require ethics to move from common philosophical discussions to a scientific analysis of the subject.


“By better understanding, for example, the evolutionary reasons and neurological processes involved in self-deception and other human traits that lead to unethical behavior, we can develop more effective techniques for educating to improve individual ethical behavior,” he said.


Prof. Lampe calls his work “Applied Evolutionary Neuro Ethics.” It attempts to combine research from fields including psychology, biology, anthropology and sociology to get at the why behind human behavior.


The need for his work is clear, says Prof. Lampe.


“I think we have reached a point where ethics in business is critical. We have seen companies with ethical problems like WorldCom and Enron that have been devastated by it and investors and employees really harmed by the actions of a few executives. If a couple of people in Enron can make small decisions that injure the company, we have to take it seriously. If unethical behavior starts to snowball and everybody rationalizes that ‘everyone does it,’ we’re in big trouble.”


Prof. Lampe wants the students in his classes to come away with five key understandings when it comes to ethical issues:


  1. Ethics is like rocket science. It isn’t easy and doing the right thing can often be a struggle.

  2. The more vested your interest, the more likely you are to make bad ethical decisions.

  3. People can rationalize almost anything when it serves their interest.

  4. Decisions affect others. Understand how your ethics impact other people.

  5. Making ethical decisions is easier when you have people you can trust to help you decide what is the right thing to do.

Moderator’s Comment: What aspect of the work being done by Marc Lampe do you find most interesting and what implications does it have for managers in
the retailing and related businesses?

George Anderson – Moderator

Please practice The RetailWire Golden Rule when submitting your comments.

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15 Comments on "The Rocket Science of Ethics"


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Ben Ball
Guest
15 years 24 days ago

Perhaps Immanuel Kant might be more accurately credited with “creative adaptation” as the source of the sentiment contained in his “categorical imperative” is most often cited as the Sermon on the Mount as told in the Gospel of Matthew, Chapter Seven, Verse 12 in the Christian Bible.

Once again, full disclosure. I am NOT Biblical scholar enough to recall this detail on my own. But I was able to confirm a vague recollection through Wikipedia. Thanks, Google.

Herb Sorensen
Guest
15 years 24 days ago
Ethics is an attempt to answer the question of how “ought” we to behave, and it is a complex and difficult topic. For business purposes, predictability of behavior is crucial. If people can’t predict how you will behave, and rely on that, they will simply avoid doing business with you in the future. Ethical systems are divided into two broad groups: rules based (deontological) and outcome based (teleological.) I know of no one who doesn’t use a mix of the two. To be totally consistent here would be tragic. Educated, more intellectual types, tend to favor outcome based ethics, because they believe they can understand the role of various factors in leading to this or that result, which they may judge as desirable (or not.) The Achilles heel of this ethical approach is that it requires foreseeing what the outcome will be, and the reality is that we are all reasonably poor prophets. That is, we are not nearly as good at assessing potential outcomes as our egos might think. Rules based ethical systems are… Read more »
Ben Ball
Guest
15 years 24 days ago
Like several other commentators, I gravitated to the professor’s posits regarding “vested interest.” One of the very first entries in a mishmash of musings that I refer to as my “Miscellaneous Maniacal Ramblings” is called “Ben Ball’s theory of greatest vested interest.” This theorem simply states that the responsibility for getting anything done will ultimately fall to the person (or group) with the greatest vested interest in the result. It is a theory that has proven correct throughout my life and career. I hadn’t considered varied definitions of “vested interest” until reading Bill Bishop’s comment above. Bill raises the question as to whether managers “commitment to an interest” will necessarily lead to unethical behavior. I think the extension of that question is “should we therefore avoid committing managers to outcomes?” Management theory typically views commitment as a good thing — a logical result of our efforts to motivate managers effectively. And in most cases I would argue that is correct. Perhaps where the ethical issues begin is when the degree of “vested interest” becomes too… Read more »
Gene Hoffman
Guest
Gene Hoffman
15 years 24 days ago

The sage responses above remind me

of this verse by Willaim Wordsworth,

“One impulse from a vernal wood

May teach you more of man,

Of moral evil and of good,

Than all the all the sages can.”

Herb Sorensen
Guest
15 years 24 days ago

There were antecedents well predating the Sermon on the Mount. As Wikipedia says, “similar injunctions can be found in virtually all cultures and societies.” And Kant wasn’t referring to how you might like to be treated yourself, but what would be the global effect on society. This more closely aligns with outcome based ethics than does the golden rule.

Matt Werhner
Guest
Matt Werhner
15 years 24 days ago

In a time where the line between right and wrong is becoming increasingly blurred, it is important for companies to re-examine ethical standards. I believe companies are rewarded for holding to high ethical standards and acting in accordance with those standards. Prof. Lampe’s work is commendable. Please don’t make it too complicated.

Bill Bishop
Guest
Bill Bishop
15 years 24 days ago

It’s all refreshingly interesting, but what caught my attention was the relationship between a person’s commitment to a particular interest in the likelihood of unethical behavior, i.e., the more committed, the more likely it becomes that you’ll behave unethically in the interest of that cause.

On the one hand, the implication for managers in the intense, fast-moving retail business is negative in that the need to make things happen in a tough situation is likely to increase unethical behavior.

On the other hand, his appeal to greater awareness of the impact of what we do on others in the workplace is positive and resonates with a lot of what’s being learned in the current Coca-Cola Retailing Research Council study on improving store management effectiveness. This is still a “people” business.

Bernice Hurst
Guest
15 years 24 days ago

Ethics is like rocket science in that it obviously does not come naturally to many people and therefore needs time, effort, concentration and willingness to make it work. All that makes it hard.

M. Jericho Banks PhD
Guest
M. Jericho Banks PhD
15 years 24 days ago
Here are my five key understandings of ethics: 1. Ethics isn’t anything at all like rocket science. It’s easy, because nearly all of us know what’s right. 2. The more vested your interest, the more important that you operate ethically. 3. People must understand and be reminded of what “rationalization” means. 4. Decisions affect you, your reputation, and your future. Understand how your ethics affect your decisions. 5. Making ethical decisions is easier when you depend on truth rather than on people. Would everyone who has burned themselves on a hot stove after being warned about it please raise your scarred hands? My experience was in ’54 on a gas range that had a small, exposed pilot light located on the top of the range among the burners. It looked like one of those little white “Barbie tables” that come with delivery pizza. Same size and shape, but metal and protecting a small blue flame that I ignored or didn’t understand. I touched the top of the flame protector and carry the scar to this… Read more »
Gary Joyner
Guest
Gary Joyner
15 years 24 days ago
It seems that the only thing that exceeds a person’s ability to do unethical things is their ability to rationalize their lack of ethics. Corporations have become slaves to a speculative securities market that values short-term tactics rather than long term strategies, which in turn often results in situational ethics being applied. What we’re talking about is rationalization of what certain individuals institutional “white lies” that have a much heavier impact that that term implies. And a lack of perspective that acknowledges lying to one’s self. Henry Ford has it right — hitting the number is important, but if in your short term tactics, you have compromised your longer term market, you eventually fail. Who will be left to purchase your products and services when you have either broken them in the stock market or right-sized or outsourced them out of your demographic. Ethics is much more than not cooking the books, it is also being responsible to those who have supported your growth by either working for your company or investing in your company.… Read more »
Bill Clarke
Guest
Bill Clarke
15 years 24 days ago

The definition of ethics is a set of rules or standards governing the conduct of a person or the conduct of the members of a profession. There is no rocket science about ethics, either you conduct yourself ethically or you don’t. No need to take it to a higher philosophical level. Teach the students to use the Golden Rule as they advance in their careers. If they can remember to treat everybody the way they like to be treated, then they will never have to worry about the impact of their decisions. Keep ethics simple. Do the right thing.

Bill Bittner
Guest
Bill Bittner
15 years 24 days ago
Ethics is always an excellent topic for business discussion and it seems that Professor Lampe has rightly recognized how difficult it is to both define and practice. Gordon Gekko would have us all pursuing greed as the ethical basis of a capitalistic system. But even Henry Ford realized if he did not return some of the profits from the assembly line that there would not be anyone able to afford his cars. The best managers are the ones who can keep the corporate goals aligned with the individual motivators whether they are monetary, recognition, or camaraderie. Some people need the money, either because of life circumstances or because that is how they measure their own success. Some people need recognition and get a sense of reward from awards presented by management and their coworkers. Finally, some people need the sense of camaraderie that comes from being part of a “winning team.” Their motivation comes from the team’s success. As a manager, you must understand what drives each individual and use that factor as the way… Read more »
Warren Thayer
Guest
15 years 24 days ago

I can think of six ways to make this a terrific skit for Saturday Night Live.

Clay Boatright
Guest
Clay Boatright
15 years 24 days ago

The fact that supposedly intelligent people view ethics as difficult as rocket science, is itself indicative of a problem. Any 8 year-old knows that it takes more effort to deceive than to be honest. You may not like the outcome of honesty, but it ain’t that tough.

Mark Lilien
Guest
15 years 24 days ago

Corporate culture is set by behavioral examples (not words) from those at the top. If the leadership makes ethical standards clear, acts consistently with those standards, and measures everyone using those standards, they’ll get the desired behavior. Many retailers don’t make their standards clear or simply have no reasonable method of measuring everyone using those standards. Some retailers make it clear that ethics dealing with customers or the government have one standard, but ethics dealing with the company or the boss have another.

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