by Jeremy Whitty, Professor of Operations and Quality in the Life Sciences at IE Business School
As a programme director of a Masters in Pharmaceutical Medicine, which is the science of drug development, I encounter many ethical issues. In fact, Ethics is a key component of the programme and this link will show you an online preparatory lesson before the intense presential workshops begin: http://mphar.hiberniacollege.net/mphar/demo/IMI_ethics/player.html  However when students ask me for definitive answers to ethical dilemmas, before we can even frame the question we quickly fall down the rabbit hole that tries to define the meaning of words. And so, I realised a word such as ‘ethics’ is not necessarily understood even using ostensive definitions when another person takes the definition to be other than what I wish and the definition depends on the circumstances under which the word is given and depends on the person I give the word to and how he “takes” the definition which will only be known if I see the use he puts it to, optimally when I’m not there to observe and so interfere. Because of this verbal convolution I began to wonder whether ethics can be taught at all.
I also became dissatisfied with the current crop of philosophers who seem to believe that rules are descriptive of what we ought to do. I would think where rules show up; they are a description of what we actually do. That is, we are not regulated by rules, when we think ‘rationally’; we are the ones who regulate them. When we assume the former we are following rules by conformity, not reason, and this may have been one of the mistakes the Enlightenment made: rules, being relative, cannot form the basis, the grounding, for our behaviour: because our finite minds can never know all the rules that pertain to a given action or practice and any attempt to that part of reason we call logic will always lead to a regression, because there must always be an inference (which must always be subjective, relative, and therefore not a universal rule). Defeating the purpose of the enquiry.
Paraphrasing Nietzsche, we need an ideal or a ‘good’ that is self revealing and self realizing through a process of becoming … which I presume is teleology. By ‘good’ I use N’s meaning: if something is good, it is necessary, a basis for existence and something that is not a good is destructive. If C, then believe P. If the antecedent is satisfied I may believe P and as a result I believe P. Therefore, If C, then believe P is an inference for which there can always be different conclusions, therefore rational judgement is impossible. Hence the shrill tone in most ethical debates, because people form an opinion first and then speak.
Perhaps no matter what question we are considering from a philosophical perspective, whether it’s ethics, epistemology, aesthetics, politics or whatever, we should look at the action (the practice) being done, and ask does it achieves a good internal to that practice? We should then consider how it contributes to the actors good (does this mean its telos?) And we should only begin to construe a ‘rule’ where there is evidence this action generates some good for a general population in relation to an ongoing tradition?
But then one night, in a pub and discussing these issues with other half drunk amateur philosophers, of which Ireland has many, I learned there might be a third way: applied ontology, which, if I understand it correctly describes an action in relation to a general concept that is the same across all areas or domains being studied and therefore removes issues of personal motivation or cultural differences. This might be able to increase our knowledge of the action or domain, such as ethics, being studied. If so, we might be able to begin to make rational judgements within that domain at least. How we observe and validate these results and actions, opens up a whole different can or worms, one where action research might be able to help. But even if this is done, what’s the point? Can it be of practical use?
For many people, Enron, Arthur Anderson and the lending by Irish banks which caused our current financial crisis shows capitalism without checks and balances can create great short term wealth but in the longer term fails to sustain businesses, organisations and ultimately has a detrimental effect on society in general. Some now see socialism as the political system to reign in the excesses of commerce. Capitalism and socialism are two sides of the same coin, both are bureaucratic systems with similar structural weaknesses and whereas capitalism can blow up in our face, socialism can cause commerce and society to whither and stagnate.
I believe that an ability to critically assess our actions from an ethical perspective is probably the most effective way to balance the ambitions of the individual with the needs of the state. The creation of an environment that encourages critical questioning and focuses on moral action is probably the only sustainable modus operandum for the state and the organisations, whether public service or private who operate in it. I believe if it does nothing else, government should be creating the environment conducive to thinking this way.
Rousseau said it better: “There can be no patriotism without liberty, no liberty without virtue, no virtue without citizens; create citizens and you have everything you need, without them you will have debased slaves from the rulers of the state downward”.
In certain areas better regulation may help deal with specific issues, however, “We learn better in a free spirit of curiosity then under fear and compulsion” and according to Aristotle if we want a person to behave ethically he must have a good nature, morals must be inculcated from habit and we must appeal to his right reason. Without writing a recent history of Enron et al it is reasonable to claim these organisations failures were due to unethical behaviour and if reason is in anyway related to our survival instinct (and for it to be of any use, if must be) we ought therefore try to reduce the risk of these debacles happening again. Regarding good nature: our success as a species (at least to this point) suggests that most people (certainly enough to offer herd immunisation) have a good nature, even if only because an individual’s experience shows he too benefit’s when most of us behave morally towards one another, and allowing for the recalcitrant outliers and the criminal insane, most people who behave unethically do so because they fail to understand the effect their actions have on themselves as well as others, and by being detrimental to others, ultimately will have negative consequences for themselves: reaping what one sows.
So how can government, organisations and individuals within them learn to behave ethically so their careers, the organisation and society remain sustainable and does not explode after another bout of unfettered commercial exuberance or stagnate under socialist totalitarianism?
Thanks to Wittgenstein I have little hope understanding the meaning of ‘ethics’ and its basic terms and then express them in a way that others would also agree and understand. And if the best minds over 3,000 years cannot agree on these issues, I’m probably not going to do so either. However, as I mentioned previously, there may be hope:
- If rules are intrinsic to practices, and so are discovered in the process of trying to perfect one’s practice, (whether this is towards a telos for the practice is open to discussion) could we use applied ontology to create a practical ethical framework?
- If rational insight depends on the kind of reason employed is reason, in terms of a practice like ethics based on prudential judgment (what one ought to do in a particular situation)? If so, and if we don’t ignore our speculative and empirical reason and the tradition the practice takes place in that causes my reasoning to be different to yours, can we create a system or framework that strips away everything and leaves prudential judgment to engage with the practioners rational insight in a way that enables both of us to review the same information the same way: and even if we come to different conclusions at least we understood what “+” meant whilst discussing it?
As an engineer and scientist I suspect if we want people to behave ethically, one way to consider the issue is to look upon it as an information management system (computers do not worry what “+” means, they don’t even know what it is yet use it consistently in innumerably different calculations). Therefore, approaching the issue this way may help us remove ambiguities of meaning, context, language and culture and allow us to identify the rules intrinsic to the practice, which we might hope others would use to improve the practice, depending on whether you are an Aristotelian or Nietzschian :)
Ensuring that an ethical focus is encouraged is, as Nietzsche said, a process. A process within a practice (public representation, medical, business etc). There is a beginning, an ideal end and a method of increasingly improved practice to get towards that ideal.
Because it is a process, it can be regarded as knowledge management which may be refined into categories and the relationship between each category defined. That is, the practice of ethical behaviour is analogous to processing information, which is closely related to applied ontology and decision engineering both of which look at the relationship between a person’s world and that persons actions with decision engineering asking if the actions were the optimal ones and when used with action research it can become an iterative process.
If it is a process, there can be tools that can help implement and improve it. And as with all engineering methods (like most subjects in that they are not is not strictly scientific) perhaps we could develop a creative toolkit that identifies what ethical framework is suitable for different situations?
Perhaps we could use digital and social media to crowd source thousands of participants to resolve different ethical dilemmas and use algorithms similar to Google translate to identify the most effective ethical frameworks for dealing with particular issues. How to measure their veracity would be a challenge, but in an age where ethicists cannot even agree on the meaning of the terms they use, perhaps ethics, just like the political protests fuelled by social media in Egypt and Google translate, should become democratic and the great opportunity is that we now have the means to help it become so.