Coherence of character

In ethics we typically look at actions rather than people. But part of ethics involves understanding what actions can tell us about the people who perform them.

Confucius said:

Look at the means he employs, observe the sources of his conduct, examine what gives him comfort – where can he hide? Where can he hide?

In other translations: “In what way is a man’s true character hidden from view?”

We can indeed separate a person’s actions from their character, but when a person’s actions become habitual, or are chosen ‘freely’ without external constraint, then we can also make assessments or at least hypotheses about their character.

Someone might lie to you once under pressure, and we forgive it. But if they lie regularly, we recognise that this is somehow their habitual response, part of their character. Likewise, if someone lies when they are not under pressure, ie. they lie gratuitously, we realise there is something wrong with them personally.

Let’s say for the sake of the argument that a person is habitually manipulative and a liar at work, yet seems to be a ‘good mother’, friend, or partner in private contexts.

Typically we try not judge someone ‘as a person’ because we may not see the full picture – they may exhibit different qualities in different contexts. However, I would argue that a) behaving differently in different contexts can most likely be coherently explained, b) it is possible that some people behave incoherently/inconsistently, and c) either a or b actually further implicates the person’s character.

Let me explain:
If someone is willfully manipulative of others in a work context, I would not be at all surprised if she is equally manipulative in other private contexts. I would never broach this in public of course, but we can take the disarray of a person’s private relationships as another ‘data point’ in an ongoing assessment of their character.

If she is *not* equally manipulative in a private context, there must be reasons. The reasons may be that her manipulations are only really motivated by money or by power, and her private relationships at present do not happen to impinge on those motives. Yet in theory there would always be potential for the line to be crossed.

If, on the other hand, someone truly behaves inconsistently, this is far from a redeeming feature. Inconsistency is not a good character trait, not a virtue. There’s a story of a senior Nazi officer who would quite happily murder Jewish children and then go home to his own young family and be a ‘loving father’. There is no virtue in this…the fact that he didn’t murder his own children, or the fact that he didn’t feel any love or mercy toward the Jewish children…in either case, he clearly had some kind of deep incoherence in his psyche. Call it a lack of ’empathy’ if you will.

Let’s say I lie to everyone at work, but I never lie to my wife. There’s no real merit in this, unless perhaps I constantly struggle not to lie to my wife, and in that sense am fighting with the ‘thin end of the wedge’ in my lying behaviour more generally. But if I am stable in my behaviour, lying to others but not lying to my wife, I am either acting out of an irrational incoherence, or I am acting rationally according to some arbitrary moral principle such as “you can lie to anyone *except* your wife”, or something more utilitarian such as a need to have my wife’s support in case everyone else turns against me.

Such character assessments should never be taken as a definitive judgement or total condemnation of an individual. But the fact is that a person’s character cannot remain hidden, and for our own sake we can draw reasonable conclusions about how a person is likely to behave in future.

As Confucius’ schema suggests, a person’s ‘true character’ can be ascertained from their actions, motives, and where they turn for comfort. In a truistic sense, we can tell how a person is likely to be by observing how they already are.

The ethics of management: honesty

Two readers have asked me to elaborate on the earlier post in which I touched on the issue of ethics in management.

Ethics in management is a subset of ‘business ethics’ or ‘corporate ethics’ in general.  As someone with a great deal of experience in bio-ethics, I have to admit that business ethics never struck me as particularly complicated.  Whatever challenges business may face, they pale alongside the complexity of issues such as human cloning, xenotransplantation, or ectogenesis, to name a few.

I assume (let’s call it an educated guess) that ‘business ethics’ is just a matter of applying regular ethics in a business context – the kind of problems that could be resolved merely by not ceasing to act like a good person during your day-job.  So let’s start small and see if we can devise some applications for ethics in the realm of business.

Honesty

In a previous role with a corporate not-for-profit aged-care provider, the manager once emailed our team of eight to organise a meeting with the director of our department.  The email included the time and date, noting in advance that two of our colleagues would be busy and unable to make it, with ‘apologies’ suitably noted. It was unusual for our director to want to see us, so I emailed the manager to ask what the meeting was about. “Just a catch up” she replied.

On the day of the meeting the director and an HR manager arrived at the office where I worked with two of my colleagues.  The HR manager’s presence was slightly ominous, as was the non-appearance of our own manager, or any of our other colleagues.  As it turned out, the email setting up a ‘team meeting’ was a ploy to ensure the three of us could be made redundant without any fuss, awkwardness, or opportunity for difficult questions.

To identify this as an ethical lapse would sound naive in a business context.  No one would be losing any sleep over the fact that our manager told us a blatant lie.  Anyone we might complain to would see the complaint as merely a reflection of our bitterness over having being made redundant, and would interpret the ethical critique as a churlish attempt to throw mud at our former manager.

So perhaps the need for ‘business ethics’ is real after all – not because business throws up unique ethical challenges, but because people acting under the auspices of professional authority need a specific reminder that ethics still applies.

In a business context the fact that our manager so obviously lied to us would not be viewed as an ethical failure, but simply as how she chose to deal with this particular management scenario.  She could potentially be criticised for her management style, but even then the lie would be viewed merely as a tactical failure, not a moral one.

If we were friends or relatives instead of subordinates, the lie would take center-stage.  No one would critique her ‘friend management style’ as though there are a number of techniques and tactics for controlling and manipulating one’s friends; they would immediately recognise that the moral issue of honesty was the point of concern.

The Ideal

Why is it wrong for a manager to lie to her subordinates?  We could spend all day looking at a number of contentious ethical theories, but let us confine ourselves to the understanding that honesty is a virtue.  As a virtue, honesty is the habitual inclination toward the truth.  An honest person prefers truth over lies and acts in accord with that preference.  Lying is a breach of that virtue, and an unrepentant lie suggests a dishonest character. Naturally, a dishonest person cultivates distrust in those around her.  Looking back through the two years we worked with that manager, it is now unclear if anything she ever said to us was worthy of trust.

In this sense, a dishonest person is bad for subordinates and colleagues who cannot trust her, and bad for superiors who cannot rely on her.  Distrust and unreliability are bad for morale and undermine the culture of the organisation.

But more importantly, dishonesty is bad for the individual herself.  Dishonesty means routinely putting other motives ahead of the truth. It is a sign of a disordered soul that does not value the truth and can no longer preserve a sense of reverence or even obligation to the truth.  It also signifies a lack of respect for others, a callousness towards colleagues, subordinates, and superiors that ultimately implies a deeply egoistic individual.  Whatever her deepest motives, a manager who lies is simply a person who lies; and a person who lies has a disordered soul.

An organisation that encourages its employees to lie – either tacitly or overtly – is itself disordered.  But the reality is that any ‘organisation’ is, in ethical terms, no more than the sum of its parts.  That means a director who encourages a manager to lie, or a colleague who turns a blind eye to it, are increasingly complicit in the dishonesty at play.  It is not possible to hide behind the organisation any more than it is a viable excuse to be a passive bystander to some kind of group violence.  We cannot look at others being lied to or otherwise deceived by a colleague, say “glad it’s not me!”, and then move on with ‘business as usual’.

Ultimately we too are culpable for making ourselves accomplices to such deeds.  A dishonest manager wreaks havoc on her own character; colleagues who excuse or rationalise such behaviour as ‘just business’ damage themselves in the process.  At the end of the day, we have to ask ourselves who and what we wish to align ourselves with: powerful people who have forged careers with scant regard for the truth and respect for others?  Or do we prefer truth and respect over money and influence?

What price do you put on your own good character?  And do you truly recognise the price you are already paying for your dishonesty?  These are hard questions, and they are meant to be.  Ethics is not about basic rules or protocols, but about the substance of your own life – what kind of person you are, and what kind of person you are becoming.  The problem with business ethics in general is that when money is involved we lose our normal sense of priorities.  We act as though the organisation shields us from culpability. But this sense of being ‘shielded’ is already a kind of damage to your psyche.  It’s an unsubstantiated dissociation from one’s own moral sense.  It is what allows dishonest people to thrive, and honest people to let them.  Can you imagine what would happen if every employee of an organisation took personal moral responsibility for their actions?

More to come…

 

 

The ethics of management

I have a friend who is considering studying philosophy next year, and I once would have told him to do something useful and interesting like….anything that pays money and isn’t fundamentally hateful.

But “I need money” is not an ideal motivation for pursuing a vocational path, and in light of what I’ve since learned about melancholic idealists, pursuing a less-than-ideal motive is psychologically and spiritually self-destructive.

Look at me: I stuck with a weird and uncertain job for two years because it was the sensible thing to do, leaving only when my ‘superiors’ had completed their task of making my and my colleagues’ roles entirely redundant.  It wasn’t a good position to be in, though I learned a great deal about the inanity of corporate culture and can now list on my CV under ‘achievements’: “gained a healthy and fully justified contempt for management practices in the corporate not-for-profit sector.”

My time in that role taught me two things about philosophy:

Firstly, philosophy is totally beyond the scope of most people, including otherwise intelligent or seemingly successful corporate types.  Not beyond them by nature, but beyond them by training, inclination, and perhaps by temperament.  For most people, engaging in philosophy would be a real struggle.  They might struggle to appreciate the point or the purpose, they might struggle to understand the necessary distinctions and subtleties, and they may well struggle with the sheer practical demands of having to read a great deal and think a great deal.

Secondly, I learned that something like a corporate not-for-profit actually needs philosophy, and ethics in particular. But they get along fine without philosophy, if by ‘fine’ we mean something better than criminal incompetence but so short of the ideal that any actual idealists within their ranks will inevitably adopt a defeated and cynical attitude.  What passes for idealism in such an environment is actually the motivated self-belief and personal ‘marketing’ of key choleric (ambitious) individuals; the kinds who generate enthusiasm that is entirely directed toward their own career goals, and whom underlings learn to fear for their self-interested domineering.  A best-case-scenario is that an ambitious corporate choleric will pursue self-interest through an intelligent and genuinely beneficial scheme, delivering real improvements while enhancing their own career.  Unfortunately not all cholerics are intelligent enough to achieve such a ‘win-win’ outcome.  Other, less enlightened cholerics will simply lie, exaggerate, and play politics with Machiavellian intent if not intelligence.

This is the basic difference between a choleric and a melancholic: a melancholic will look at the unethical behaviour of various employees and say “this is not how it is meant to be”.  A choleric will make the same observation but add “and I’m the one to change it”.  A corporate choleric will go one step further, latching onto ‘business ethics’ as the Next Big Thing, and using it to promote his or her own position within the organisation, replete with powerpoint presentations, posters, wristbands and other corporate merchandise, and perhaps a business-wide ‘be ethical’ day where everyone makes a special effort to do something ethical and tell everyone about it.

The relationship between a manager and her team is fundamentally an ethical one.  The need for an ethical perspective is clear when a manager lies, deceives, or otherwise undermines her team for the sake of her own career or under the auspices of her superiors.  Indeed, a corporate culture or ethos that requires its managers not merely withhold information but actively lie to their subordinates, is unethical and hence dysfunctional.  All the effort, time and money invested in trite and manipulative management theories and techniques, unscientific personality type indicators such as the Myers-Briggs, and corporate propaganda such as values statements and clever slogans, would be better spent inducting the organisation into a basic set of ethical principles.  All the superficial management tricks are belied the moment a superior treats a subordinate unethically without repercussion or justice from within the organisation.  An organisation that cannot do right by its employees may survive, but it will never reach the heights portrayed in its own propaganda or PR.  And in nevertheless persisting with a positive image that it cannot or will not strive to fulfill, it will continue to cultivate cynicism, distrust, and contempt among its employees.

Philosophy could fix this, but unfortunately philosophy and ethics are not deemed useful in such an environment.  A corporation will not open itself to philosophy and ethics unless it has an appreciation for the benefits these disciplines can bring.  Yet corporations are ruled by individuals who have gotten where they are in part because they have not dedicated themselves to philosophy and ethics, but have sought personal profit and career advancement over all.  The tragedy is that any adoption of ethical principles would require ‘buy in’ from precisely the kinds of people who regard lying and scheming as necessary – not even necessary evils, but simply necessary to the achievement of their personal aims.

As Socrates recounts in the first book of Plato’s Republic, when he and Glaucon are imposed upon by a group:

“May there not be the alternative, I said, that we may persuade you to let us go?
But can you persuade us, if we refuse to listen to you? he said.
Certainly not, replied Glaucon.
Then we are not going to listen; of that you may be assured. ”