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Development team ethics, Part I – The Abyss

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The less people know, the stronger their opinion. It’s a fine American tradition, and it’s nowhere more in evidence than when people get on their high horses about other peoples’ ethics.

I was reminded of this (again!) when long-time correspondent Mark Eisenberg forwarded an article with this shocking headline: “Survey Shows Unethical Behavior Rampant Inside IT Development Teams” (Scott W. Ambler, Dr. Dobb’s Journal, 5/3/2011).

We’ll dive into the cesspool that is, apparently, IT development team behavior next week. Before that we first have to cover a few regrettably didactic essentials if we’re to avoid the argument-by-assertion pitfall that tends to dominate most exercises in ethical high-horsemanship.

Deontologism vs Consequentialism

Ethicists fall into two camps. Deontologists gauge the ethics of an action from the nature of the behavior itself … in other words, based on whether it adheres to or violates a set of rules. If you consider the ten commandments or the seven deadly sins to be your ethical guideposts, you’re a deontologist.

Consequentialists gauge the ethics of an action based on its outcomes, considering the “rules” to be more rules of thumb than inviolable prescriptions … formulations that more often than not do lead to positive outcomes, but which shouldn’t be blindly followed without regard for their actual results.

Deontologists tend to use phrases like “the ends don’t justify the means.” Consequentialists prefer phrases like, “the road to hell is paved with good intentions.”

You know you’re a deontologist if, when you’re a guest at someone’s party, the host serves an awful-tasting hors d’oeuvre and asks how you like it, you consider the ethical course of action to be an honest answer: “This tastes like something that went bad in your refrigerator several weeks ago.”

You know you’re a consequentialist if, in the same situation, you answer, “I’m sorry … I’m mildly allergic to [some ingredient you’re sure is in the recipe but that’s unlikely to get you into trouble later]. I’d better not have any more.”

For the record: I ascribe to consequentialism. If you’re a deontologist and consider consequentialism to be a horrible approach to ethical matters, please read Operation Mincemeat (Ben Macintyre, 2010). It tells the true story of a disinformation campaign conducted by British intelligence during WWII whose goal was to mislead the Nazis regarding where the Allies were going to invade southern Europe.

If you’re a deontologist, a disinformation campaign … deliberate deception … is unethical.

If, like me, you’re a consequentialist, Operation Mincemeat was outstandingly ethical. (It’s also a terrific read no matter what your ethical formulation … well worth your time just for the sheer enjoyment.)

Corporations as Moral Entities

They aren’t. Acting according to a moral code is a species-specific characteristic of Homo sapiens. As pointed out in this space quite a few years back, we consider human cannibals to be both morally reprehensible and icky. When seagulls do the same thing it’s just something seagulls do … we don’t assess other species according to human moral standards.

Human beings are presumptively moral. When we run across someone who deliberately hurts others without qualm, we figure we’re dealing with an unfortunate exception.

Corporations … publicly held ones, that is … aren’t just like people only bigger. If they were, maximizing shareholder value could hardly be represented as their highest virtue and sole ethical yardstick because really … according to what human system of values is making people wealthier an ethical matter?

Privately held corporations are, by the way, a different matter. They are extensions of their owners, who rarely separate their personal ethics from how they run their companies.

So from here on in, the discussion is about publicly held corporations, which are presumptively amoral … not immoral, but amoral. We expect nothing of them beyond their attempts to maximize profit and the value of their stock.

Employee Ethics

As employees we operate at two levels. We interact with other employees interpersonally. When we do we’re guided by our personal moral codes.

And we interact with the corporation as its agent — ethically a very different matter.

As the corporation’s agent we’re expected to subordinate our personal moral code to what it requires of us. Example: The company understaffs IT, expecting employees to work more hours for no more pay. Personally, you find this immoral. As a manager in IT you enforce it anyway.

But if, as an employee, the corporation’s requirements supersede your moral code, they supersede it whenever you’re acting as an employee.

That includes your interactions with your employer.

With that we’re ready to decide whether IT development teams are rampantly unethical. So saddle up your high horse. Next week we ride!

Comments (18)

  • I don’t agree with your assertion that all we expect of public corporations is to maximize profit and/or stock price. I believe (and I further believe that Drucker agrees with me) that what we expect is for corporations to produce goods and/or services that people (or other corporations) want at prices people are willing to pay. If they meet this expectation, then profits and increased stock values are their reward.
    We also expect them to obey applicable laws.

    • Not an assertion. Not even an inference. It’s the overt position taken by the Business Roundtable and others who speak for the business community. Economists call it the Fiduciary Theory and it dominates current thinking.

      Where I think you and I are at cross purposes is that you’re speaking prescriptively … and prescriptively, I agree with you.

      I’m speaking descriptively, though, which is a different matter entirely. Whether you and I approve or not (I’m leaving Drucker out of this, he being dead and all) really doesn’t matter.

  • Bob, good article. Of course I have an opinion. But it is irrelevant. No self respecting corporation would have me as an employee (and vice versa).

    Taking action based on probable outcomes is my preferred approach to most situations. But there are some things even a consultant won’t do. Even to cause the right outcomes.

  • “a higher moral standard than the company does.”

    But the company is amoral – so there is no “high” or “low” when you compare yourself to the company. The only measure you use is your own moral code.

    In other words, you do what’s best for the company to make money and operate under your own moral code – that code cannot be objectionable to the “company” – there is no standard there. It may be objectionable to your boss – that’s a different story.

  • Thanks for laying the groundwork. I was a philosophy major when dinosaurs ruled the earth, and find a lot of the hand waving, shouting brand of discourse to be boring and ineffective.

    Your column, generally, is a “breath o’ fresh”, and with the upcoming topic, I can see why you’d want to guide the discussion to come into productive channels.

    Again, thanks.

  • I understand the proposition, but how does one differentiate between when the manager is acting as an agent of the company… and when it is ‘only’ as a person? In my experience, not only is this distinction somewhat blurred…but often it doesn’t exist.

    Best Regards,
    Mike Hefley

    • First, I’d invert it. The question is when your manager is acting only as an agent of the company and when he/she deserves treatment as a fellow human being. I’m sure you’ll agree that humans deserve more consideration than corporations.

      Second: We’re talking about ethics here, not something clean and simple like quantum mechanics. I’m pretty sure the distinction will always exist. How often it will be clear is an entirely different matter, and mostly a matter of judgment.

  • Bob – You are right on, that corporations are amoral. They are goverend by the laws of governments in which they operate.

    The morals of the stakeholders influences the corporation and as we have seen if the morals mean breaking a governmental law in which they operate they many times will be punished at the expense of the shareholders. Everthing else to me is fair game but with uncertain outcomes. If you don’t treat people, customers and partners the way you want to be trated it will be a bumpy ride for the corporation.

  • “According to what human system of values is making people wealthier an ethical matter?”

    I try not to answer too many rethorical questions, but here’s an exception: the Protestant work ethic.

    Can’t wait to read part II.

  • If the company you work for is grossly immoral, it is time to look for a new job. Companies can only behave immorally to the degree that their employees allow it. And in the long run, immoral behavior tends to hurt the company more than it helps. Consider it short-term gain vs. long term gain.

  • Bob, Jack Welch recently said something to the effect that “maximizing shareholder value is the dumbest idea in the world.” He’s still alive. (BTW, just because someone’s dead doesn’t reduce the value of his opinion, unless the subject was how to live forever!)

    I neglected to mention that it doesn’t matter whether you subscribe to my view of a corporation’s purpose or yours. Your fundamental point is still valid: corporations are amoral.

    • And interestingly, while he never once complained over the years he got credit for it, he was quite silent as to whether he’s changed his view or is claiming it’s a view he never endorsed.

      Oh, well … at least he’s on the side of truth and righteousness now.

  • This concept of an amoral public corporation is fascinating for several reasons:

    1) I’d argue that “most” people don’t buy into this concept – they ignorantly expect corporations to ‘be like people only larger’. People and people acting in groups are constantly attempting to influence, punish, or outright destroy companies that do not adhere to (or at least show a strong “respect” for) that group’s moral code.

    2) Too many companies cave into the moral pressure exerted by outside groups, even when the actions they end up taking are clearly not in the long-term (or even short-term) interested of the shareholders.

    3) Companies that are perceived to have committed “moral sins” are often punished in the marketplace (at least for a little while, until the moral outrage dies out). This applies to leaders of companies as well.

    Finally, a question. I’ve always been curious. Is government an amoral entity? Should it be?

    • Greg … Since you ask:

      You’re probably right on all three points, when the proper response is to understand that any ethical principle that isn’t in the legal code (including the regulatory structure) is one companies aren’t likely to pay attention to.

      As for government, while I’m tempted to write a longish essay, I think the key principle is this: As citizens we aren’t government’s customers. We’re its owners. That means government acts as our collective agent and ought to behave in accordance with those aspects of morality that represent a national consensus.

      Most of us consider killing anyone, except in self-defense, to be immoral, so making murder illegal makes perfect sense — it reflects our national consensus on the subject. National consensus also means those topics commonly referred to as “wedge issues” probably shouldn’t result in legislation, regardless of anyone’s personal preference on any of them.

    • Trying to force corporations to act in an ethical or moral fashion is not necessarily exclusive of a recognition that corporations are amoral. Maybe I can’t expect a publicly held corporation (PHC) to treat customers well as a matter of ethics, but I can expect them to do so as a matter of long term viability and profitability. By the same token, PHC’s that adopt a code of ethics do so for the same reasons. They don’t say that, but that’s the reality.

      So, if I belong to “Save the Whales”, I don’t need to see PHCs as “just like people, only bigger.” I just have to figure out what will cause them to see the behavior I want them to engage in as in their best interests.

  • You can be a deontologist without being rude. I was invited to dinner once and the wife served coconut cream pie for dessert. I don’t like coconut. In fact, I hate cocnut. But, because I highly value people and don’t want to offend them over something trivial, I ate the pie. When I finished eating, she asked me how I liked it. I paused, then said, “It was the best coconut cream pie I have ever eaten.” Here I told the absolute truth (I had never eaten a slice of coconut cream pie before or since) without offending a dear woman who had worked hard to please her guests. Being truthful doesn’t mean being rude. It sometimes requires creativity, but never rudeness.

  • Unless you have very small set of very narrowly defined moral principles, deontology isn’t going to create the kind of black and white thinking you are ascribing to deontologists. To take the example provided: If I consider “Do not lie” to be a moral imperative, and I don’t consider “Do not embarrass people” a moral imperative, then I don’t have any problems. If I consider “Do not embarrass people” to be a moral imperative, then I can still get away with very black and white thinking; I just need to be a bit creative. However, if my moral imperative is “Avoid falsehood / deception”, that’s much broader. Deontologist or consequentialist, you run into a problem with that one in many cases.

    The truth is that if your moral code, whatever it is, is fairly broad, then you are going to have to prioritize the moral value of what you do and say. The consequentialist is going to do it based on the result, and the deontologist is going to do it based on the action, but it’s still going to be a judgement call.

    To take a similar example: My friend asks me how she looks in a new outfit that she wants to wear to a job interview. I think it’s totally inappropriate. From the consequentialist POV, if I tell her she gets embarrassed, if I don’t tell her, her chances of getting the job go down. From the deontological point of view, if I tell her, I embarrass her, if I wiggle out of it, I’m being deceptive (and I’m giving her poor advice, which may be another moral imperative.)

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