7.1 The Birth of Conscience in the Moral Insight

Josiah Royce articulates the moral insight in a beautiful way—as if it were a discovery that changes the whole world of the person having the insight:

[T]he realization of one’s neighbor, in the full sense of the word realization; the resolution to treat him unselfishly.

Imagine if today we were to discover that there were intelligent beings on another planet in orbit around another star in another galaxy. I am reminded of the 1996 novel The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell. “We’re not alone!” the headline in the New York Times might read. Well, the same is true with the moral insight, only it begins with: “I’m not alone!” Of course, that is in many ways both the ethical good news and the ethical bad news. It is the good news because it means that one of the fundamental needs of my humanity—the need for companionship, love, fellowship, friendship—might possibly be met! It means that I am not doomed to solipsistic bondage despite my longing for something more. Yes, that is the ethical good news. But there is a curious downside to this discovery of my neighbor.

The ethical “bad news” is that the moment I discover there is another being (perhaps many) occupying moral space with me, I must find a way to treat them as they deserve to be treated. This complicates (and makes more difficult) my decision making, perhaps enormously! For now, I must not only consider my own good and my own dignity; I must consider the “goods” and “dignities” of all those affected by my behavior!

Notice too that the “complication” the moral insight introduces is twofold. The complication is at first numerical—not just my good/dignity but the good/dignity of others. The complication also calls for understanding what my good/dignity and others’ good/dignity really amounts to. There are various candidates, like satisfying wants, desires, and interests. What is the highest and best good for human beings? What lies behind the often-used phrase “human flourishing”? (See Sect. 7.3 below.)

So the moral insight presents us with an extraordinary moment: it is the birth of conscience within each of us and among all of us! It is no less than the creation of a new world! A shared world! There is now no longer just an “I” but a “we”! Our language changes—there is a first-, second-, and third-person plural now! Kant would say that now categorical imperatives are possible; now there is a kingdom of ends in terms of which our moral judgments can be measured. John Stuart Mill would say that now there is a greater number than I to whose happiness (“higher quality pleasure”) my actions can and must be dedicated.

In the field of ethics, then, the moral insight is the departure point for all normative and applied reflection.

7.2 Moral Projection, Leadership, and the Institutional Insight

The next step is crucial, however. A great deal of my work in the field of business and organizational ethics has turned on the analogical predication of moral attributes to organized groups or corporations—attributes like conscience and responsibility. Inspired by Plato’s methodology in the Republic, I first offered the Principle of Moral Projection:

It is appropriate not only to describe organizations and their characteristics by analogy with individuals, it is also appropriate normatively to look for and to foster moral attributes in organizations by analogy with those we look for and foster in individuals. (Goodpaster 1997)

I believe that this methodology fits well with what I call the institutional insight, which contrasts with Royce’s moral insight in that it applies not so much to the ordinary private lives of persons but to the mindsets of organizational leaders as they navigate their institutions through the cultural waters that they inhabit. The institutional insight is similar to the moral insight in the sense that, at its core, it is about the social importance of institutions—and it can be lost and regained, as well as supported or unsupported by “resolutions” on the part of senior leadership.

As with the moral insight, the institutional insight, from the point of view of institutional leadership, represents a discovery moment—a moment in which leadership can exclaim:

This organization is not alone! It is really an institution! It is part of a joint venture with other similar organizations now and over (past) time devoted to the dignity and common good of humankind. Yes, we must lead and govern this organization so that it survives its current competitive pressures—but we must also see it as one in a long line of organizations of its kind called to make contributions to the common good.

What kinds of contributions? Contributions to transportation; to the provision of energy; to financial services; to commerce and its supply chains; to housing; to healthcare; to family life; to executive, legislative, and judicial branches of government; to law enforcement; to education and the application of knowledge; and on and on.

Of course, institutions may fail at their callings or vocations—they may thereby “institutionalize” injustice (render it systemic) or unethical practices that perpetuate wrongdoing. In such cases, we call for reforming or rehabilitating institutions.

All of these contributions, at various levels, from families and schools to nation states and international alliances—and in various domains of human fulfillment, from work to learning to leisure to worship to the pursuit of justice—represent contributions to human dignity and the common good.

Thus, the discovery by leaders of the institutional insight is the discovery that their organizations have social callings, not just individual purposes, and that these social callings underwrite the moral expectations we have toward them, not unlike the way conscience in individuals underwrites individual moral expectations.

Corporations, through the lens of the institutional insight, can be said to have (or lack) consciences in a similar way that individuals, through the lens of the moral insight, can be said to have (or lack) consciences. And corporations, through the lens of the institutional insight, can make their social contributions at various levels and in various domains of human endeavor.

7.3 The Anthropological Insight—Seeking the Common Good

Both the moral insight and the institutional insight enlarge our minds and hearts dramatically by opening them up to a shared reality—by transforming a self-centered mindset into a social mindset. As noted above, however, there is another transformation that is essential to a well-grounded normative ethics for both individuals and organizations. What I/we want, wish, desire, have an interest in, seek at the moment—whatever this may be—could fall short, could fail to be good. Here we have an echo of G.E. Moore’s Open Question Argument: “This is something I want, wish, desire, have an interest in, seek at the moment, but is it good?” (Moore 1903).

Royce’s idea of “treating someone unselfishly” raises a question that is not self-answering: How do I truly serve and do good for human beings? This question introduces another dimension into the conscience of the individual and of the would-be leader: Is there such a thing as the nature of a human being and a shared idea of human fulfillment or human flourishing? The answer to this question requires what we call an anthropology. If ethics is supposed to serve human well-being, we need a minimally shared conception of what human well-being is!

The ideas of “human dignity” and the “common good” cannot be fully understood without a sufficiently shared anthropology that allows for “the good of the whole person and of all persons.” And for this to be possible, a perspective is needed that sees human persons as physical, emotional, social, and spiritual beings. I have referred to this as the anthropological insight:

the realization that a satisfactory normative account of business (or organizational) ethics requires a comprehensive view of the good for the human person and ultimately of the common good for the human community, an anthropology, without which appeals to the interests of shareholders or stakeholders have no content.

In a society or moral culture as fragmented as ours, can we hope to find consensus on an account of human dignity and the good for human beings? When the prospects for such a consensus seem dim, we must remember that any normative assertion of right or wrong, good or bad, virtue or vice, carries with it to some degree an implicit commitment to a picture of human flourishing—of what it is to be a human being deserving of respect and (at least) the pursuit of happiness. For without such an implicit commitment (appeal), normative judgments inevitably collapse into subjective exhortations on the part of those who utter them—exercises in self-will, perhaps, but not exercises in reason-based (or even faith-based) moral argument.

It is true, of course, as I discussed in Chap. 2, that there are different moral traditions with different emphases on the central aspects of human nature that should guide or govern conscience. What is striking, however, is not the multiplicity of these traditions and their contents, but their congruence.

Much more work remains to be done in this anthropological arena to clarify the elements of our human “moral inheritance”—work that inevitably includes questions about our origins and our destiny—but it is essential work if we are to develop a coherent notion of our common good.

Whether the ethical aspiration is a Kantian “kingdom of ends” or a utilitarian “greatest happiness of the greatest number,” either of which can be viewed as approximations to what Catholic Social Teaching calls the common good, the challenge will always be to find practical choices and corporate policies aimed at “goods that are truly good and services that truly serve.” (Goodpaster 2012)

Such goods and services contribute both to the well-being/dignity of each whole person and to the wellbeing/dignity of all persons without conventional utilitarian compromises and tradeoffs. A faith-based anthropology supports an arrangement of the world that allows all people’s interests to coincide—an ultimate resolution in the kingdom of heaven of the challenges to happiness and justice that we experience on earth.

As I indicated in Chap. 4, it matters greatly for a normative account of ethics whether one believes that there is a fundamental coordination of people’s interests by a higher power. Human flourishing “of each whole person and of all persons” may not be a realistic aspiration without such an ultimate reconciliation of interests. A secular worldview may inevitably have a distinct picture of the common good, a more limited “humanistic” approach to happiness, justice, and dignity. This depends, of course, on whether faith and reason can arrive at similar accounts of the right and the obligatory, of virtue and vice, of the good for humankind.

In sum, the anthropological insight aims to resolve two important challenges in applied ethics:

  1. 1.

    the challenge to avoid relativism regarding “the good” associated with both personal and institutional conscience; and

  2. 2.

    the challenge to conceptualize the common good in a way that avoids the stumbling block of utilitarian compromises (promoting one party’s wellbeing at the expense of another party’s wellbeing, and at the expense of justice when wrongdoing has been severe).

Conscience calls for more than an acknowledgement of our sociality—it calls also for a substantive insight into our humanity: Who am I and who is my neighbor? This is what lies behind a call for “goods that are truly good and services that truly serve.” Let us turn now to my fourth conviction.

7.4 The Socratic Insight: Dialogue, Discernment, and Finding Moral Common Ground

It is not an accident that the comprehensive picture of humankind discussed in connection with the anthropological insight should figure centrally in our decision making about not only how to treat others but also how to teach or educate others when it comes to applied normative ethics. This is the role of the Socratic insight, which is simply the application of the first three insights (above) to the perennial task in every generation of passing on the torch of a healthy conscience, sustaining a core set of values. Socrates understood, perhaps better than anyone, that it was the love of wisdom (philo-sophia) that needed to be cultivated and passed on if wisdom were to survive. And if “wisdom can’t be told” (as discussed in Chap. 5), then methods for somehow communicating wisdom across generations needed to be developed. And these methods needed to embody the three insights: the moral, the institutional, and the anthropological.

The influence of the case method in my journey as an educator has been substantial. I believe that the dialogical process, with a teacher properly managing respect for student participants, will lead the group closer to something resembling the truth than using any other method.

For this to happen, both the teacher and the student need to understand that the enterprise in which they are engaged when business ethics is the subject matter is not ordinary instruction, information sharing, historical criticism, or case analysis. It must include these things, to be sure, but it is, at its foundation, a different kind of enterprise: moral formation, the shaping of the professional consciences of students with an eye toward the common good.

The Socratic insight is the realization in the educational process of the moral insight in the general case of agents and recipients. It is the realization of the other (student, employee, executive) as one whose moral awareness can be elicited through respectful dialogue. Or to put it differently, it is to engage in professional moral formation using a method that practices the very virtues it seeks to inculcate: conscience, personal and institutional, in service of the common good.

The very first article I published in a refereed journal, “Morality and Dialogue” (1975), explored the meaning of “dialogue” as the source of ethical understanding. The Socratic insight seems to bring this book, and my career, full circle (Fig. 7.1).

Fig. 7.1
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Graphic overview of the four insights

7.5 Recent Directions in Business Decision Making—Ethics and Its Counterfeits

A recent New York Times article by David Gelles entitled “Red Brands and Blue Brands: Is Hyper-Partisanship Coming for Corporate America?” (2021) summed up many of my concerns about the field of business ethics—concerns that began during the run up to the 2016 election of Donald J. Trump as President of the United States. Gelles opines, alluding to the 2020 Trump re-election campaign, that

More likely is a world where chief executives and the companies they lead are more and more often affiliated with one party or the other. When Mr. Trump ran for re-election, news sites feverishly tracked which executives were supporting his campaign, and which had sided with Joe Biden. In the months since the Jan. 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol, research groups have tracked which companies are donating to Republicans who voted against certifying the Electoral College results.

In the years since my retirement in 2014–15, one of the more notable trends in the academy and in the business community has been the partisan polarization suggested by Gelles, a polarization that he seems to believe is likely to continue.

The 2021 presidential address at the Society for Business Ethics by Danielle E. Warren of Rutgers University entitled “‘Woke’ Corporations and the Stigmatization of Corporate Social Initiatives” (Warren 2022) also paid special notice to the politicization phenomenon, as well as C. Rhodes’s book Woke Capitalism: How Corporate Morality is Sabotaging Democracy (Rhodes 2021).

To someone, such as myself, whose life project has been articulating and helping to implement the ideal of a corporation being responsible (analogized with a responsible individual with a healthy conscience), the prospect of a corporate leadership team deliberately steering the organization in a partisan political direction is quite simply abhorrent. It represents an abandonment of the pursuit of ethical responsibility in favor of political partisanship.

Perhaps the setting aside of the moral point of view in business ethics in favor of a partisan political perspective is a temptation that regularly presents itself to leaders in power. After all, Royce did refer to a kind of “forgetting”—when “[o]ur neighbor becomes obscured. . . [h]e is once more a foreign power. . . [h]e is unreal. . . [w]e are again deluded and selfish.” (Royce 1885) At times during the past several years, in the name of “reds” and “blues,” it has seemed like companies were entering the fray as one foreign power against another, indeed against even those persons within their organizations who held contrary views. In my view, this has been a “forgetting” of the kind to which Royce alluded.

On more conservative (stockholder primacy) accounts of corporate governance, such partisanship could be viewed as property theft pure and simple. On more liberal (stakeholder primacy) accounts of corporate governance, partisan political allocation of corporate resources without a careful analysis of the implications for employee stakeholders, customers, suppliers, and local communities runs the risk of significant injustice, if not backlash from stakeholders whose political leanings are contrary to those of corporate leadership.

Partisanship, almost by definition, is a counterfeit for conscience in the sense that it represents an outsourcing of decision making values from the (private sector) company center to various power centers ultimately aimed at executive, legislative, and judicial (public sector) offices. (There are other counterfeits for corporate conscience, by the way, such as maximization of shareholder return, corporate compliance, and socialism, but these call for separate discussions.)

Returning to partisanship, however, there are two problems.

  1. 1.

    One is that joining forces with polarized social power centers and guiding corporate behavior (policy making, resource allocation, even human resource management) accordingly seems to derail the orienting, institutionalizing, and sustaining of core company values identified over time as constituting the moral identity of the organization. I wrote extensively about this topic in my 2007 book Conscience and Corporate Culture. The “derailing” consists in externalizing or alienating the conscience of the corporation in the direction of competing political ideologies (left or right) that are seeking allegiance.

  2. 2.

    The other problem is that the eventual cultural outcome of such outsourcing behavior over time blurs the lines between private sector and public sector institutions. The blurring of the sectors (public, private, moral/cultural) has always been an issue at their margins and intersections, but when the private sector jumps into the public sector (or for that matter vice versa) faults develop in the underlying structure of the social system itself. My concern is that if we are not circumspect, this can happen to the American social system.

Significant efforts are being made at this writing (and as indicated in Chap. 5), by organizations like Braver Angels, to depolarize the “culture of contempt” and to find common ground.

Where will these efforts lead in the face of the cultural forces that confront them—forces that would displace business ethics with business partisan politics and social fragmentation? It is difficult to say, impossible to predict. The answer surely lies in the minds and hearts of the next generation of business leadership—formed as they will be by the current generation of executives and business educators.

The painting by early impressionist François Millet entitled The Sower (1850) has for many years been an inspiration to me in my teaching and my research. So it seems appropriate at the end of these reflections on my career to share it with my readers. It shows the Sower casting his seed with energy to complete his task as evening approaches. As I said at the end of Chap. 6, these reflections on the field of applied ethics are “ending for me in a period of challenge with hopeful signs–but beginning for you to carry forward with these same hopeful signs.” I hope that my sowing of seeds will bear fruit in the work of those who might read these words.

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