Many people in corporate responsibility assume that “good” and “bad” are easy to define. This vocation is filled with binary assumptions and pseudoscientific rankings. Reach the top of the index, follow that code, then apply this new standard. This is what the profession is built on.

This is true for many reasons. Scientifically established environmental limits can be found. Declarations and covenants that clearly define human rights have a near universal international consensus. It is unquestionably a good thing to help people get out of poverty.

This sense of certainty makes me feel uncomfortable. I feel something is not right in me.

It is not always easy to define “good” or “bad”. These scenarios are examples of situations where responsible and wise people might come to very different conclusions about the best course of action.

  • Many countries have poor human rights records, and inefficient governance. Are companies allowed to avoid entering these markets? Or is it okay for them to invest in those countries and help improve human rights protections.
  • Critics have raised concerns about the entertainment industry’s portrayal of torture and other human rights violations in TV, film, and video games. Films that depict torture are they promoting it or exposing?
  • The government has a responsibility to enforce laws protecting citizens’ rights. How can we balance surveillance activities while respecting privacy rights? Is it appropriate for companies to cooperate with law enforcement agencies?
  • Printing 3D objects can have huge benefits for the environment and society. What can companies do to ensure that 3D printing software and hardware is not misused?
  • My favorite: Is it right to create ever more advanced weapons systems that are more likely hit their target?

Although universal standards and international codes are always available, there is often considerable flexibility in the way they can be achieved. Different schools of ethics can lead to different paths of action. A utilitarian who seeks the greatest happiness for the most people would come up with a different conclusion from someone who is rights-based. Some people believe that intent is more important than outcomes. Others think outcomes are more important than intent.

Business and ethics collide

As the root word “busy”, business is what we do. When business and ethics meet, it’s called applied ethics. These are real-life situations where ethical questions of right, wrong, good, and bad are put to the test in business contexts.

These examples show that companies often find themselves in situations where multiple perspectives are available on the best option.

What should an ethical company do in this situation?

The traditional corporate responsibility approach to corporate responsibility is to “respond” to stakeholders’ concerns. But, this seems a little too easy. Stakeholders often have more information about companies’ products, services, or technologies than they do. So who is to say that stakeholders will raise the most pertinent ethical issues?

Companies should not wait for others to raise concerns. Instead, they should be proactive about identifying the options available, possible decisions and ethical dilemmas.

Companies can be more proactive in expressing their views on ethical issues and starting a debate. It could be in the form of white papers, opinion pieces from knowledgeable experts or direct engagement with stakeholders. But, my point is that companies should start conversations and not just respond to these issues.

Companies can certainly spark debate but they must also be open to other perspectives and accept that outside perspectives will influence decision-making. It is the society as a whole that must make ethical and moral decisions, not just individual companies.

Wide-ranging discussions about the “right” approach for companies addressing privacy and freedom to expression have shaped a number of initiatives in the information and communication technology industry, such as the Global Network Initiative or the Telecommunications Industry Dialogue.

This blog was created to help readers look beyond the codes, rankings and standards to ask important questions. Are we blindly following notions of right or wrong that aren’t up to scrutiny? Is it possible to take one version of the good as a given and ignore all other options? What ethical basis do we base our judgements? Are we sufficiently informed about the issues to make an ethical value judgement?

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