Ethics at Work
Recently, I was asked to participate in a panel on business ethics sponsored by the
Entrepreneurship Initiative, a program at UMass. The first speaker was a former stockbroker
who was sent to jail for illegal activities and wrote a book about his life, warning others not to
follow his path. He encouraged young entrepreneurs to behave in a legal and ethical manner or
“suffer the consequences.” When asked to comment on his message, I acknowledged that
staying out of jail was a fine reason to be honest at work. But I wondered if the threat of
punishment was really the best reason we might put forth in support of ethical behavior in the
workplace. The following is a summary of my thoughts and remarks.
Aldo Leopold wrote in his 1948 classic essay, The Land Ethic….
When god-like Odysseus returned from the wars in Troy, he
hanged all on one rope a dozen slave-girls of his household
whom he suspected of misbehavior during his absence.
Hanging slave girls would certainly not be acceptable human behavior today (even on Wall
Street), so I guess we’ve made some progress. Leopold reminds us that concepts of right and
wrong were not lacking in ancient Greece as Odysseus was certainly loyal to his family, but the
rights of slaves had not yet been included in the ethical framework of the day. Over the past
3000 years, basic human rights have been extended from the family, to the tribe, to the nation,
and in some places on earth to all humans.
This ecological progression of ethics however, does not always move in a linear manner. We
live at a time in which extreme relativism has become a social norm in some parts of our
culture. There seems to be a belief that what is right and wrong for me may not be right or
wrong for you. We get to choose, and at the extreme there is no evil, other than that which I
proclaim to be evil for myself. Extreme relativism is based on extreme individualism, which
only makes sense if I believe that I am separate from you.
At the same time,