Character Development and Business Ethics
Research into the content and development of character has played an important part in the field of business ethics. While abstract moral principles, codes of ethics, and detailed employee handbooks are a standard part of ethics education in the workplace, a significant number of business ethicists also encourage a developmental, character-based approach. Author Joseph Spino, in this article from The London School of Economics and Political Science, worries that the ease with which even low stakes behavioural expectations can be derailed or disrupted presents a challenge to character-based approaches to business ethics.
A 2010 study at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill found that participants were more likely to cheat on a self-graded anagram test, where each correct answer earned subjects a monetary reward, if the room where they took the exam was made slightly darker. Studies like this are part of a body of evidence that some have used to cast doubt on the robustness of our character. This doubt applies to both everyday conceptions of character, as well as sophisticated philosophical accounts of character in the virtue ethical tradition (e.g., Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics).
A character-based approach to business ethics aims to develop particular character or personality traits thought to be amenable to good business practices. Such traits are a common part of ethical parlance, including honesty, courage, and empathy. But more specific to the business world, additional traits such as those related to negotiation, competitiveness, and even “grit” have found their way into the ethical lexicon. Part of the interest in a character-based approach is that, for many day-to-day activities, while disagreement about best practices abound, general expectations are not a great mystery to all those involved. What we see lacking in unethical business dealings, scandals, and employee mistreatment is not so much confusion as to what the right thing to do is, but rather a lack of motivation to actually do the right thing. Developing certain character traits, at least for business practices, is thought to provide an answer to this motivational problem.
Despite his criticism of some character-based approaches, Spino says he believes such approaches “will continue to play an important role in ethical thought. In industries where highly specialised skillsets are required, there is sometimes only a relatively small community of individuals who understand the full scope of related ethical problems (to say nothing of their solutions). Accordingly, there is an even greater need for people to perceive, deliberate, and act in virtuous ways when there are so few people who can competently look over their shoulder. And a well-developed and empirically supported character may be one of our best answers to this issue.”
The London School of Economics and Political Science, Joseph Spino, 13 August 2020. Read the full article here.
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