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  • Bill Holmes

Ethics – What Guides You?



“The question I should have asked is not what is the rule, but what is the principle.” Andrew Fastow

“Nothing good happens in a bar after midnight.” Uncredited

What a fantastic quote that gets to the heart of why we study ethics! Who is normally in a bar? People who want to drink. Who is still there after midnight? People who have been drinking all night! People who have been drinking all night tend to make bad choices which can lead to real problems!

But aren’t there sober people in a bar after midnight? Maybe, but they will still have to interact with people who have been drinking. And that can create problems for them!

There is nothing unethical about going to a bar after midnight, but keeping yourself out of situations where an ethical lapse may occur is a good practice!

Just watch the news....

So what is “ethical” behavior? Let’s look at take a quick look at the three-recognized areas of study within Ethics today:

Meta-ethics – this is a very rich field of study with many different theories, but they all seek to define foundational questions like “what is bad”? Is the definition of “bad” universal or relative to the culture you grew up in? Very interesting, but not overly helpful for day to day decision making!

Normative Ethics – this field of study attempts to determine which character traits or actions are right or wrong, and has several theories that bring a different perspective to analysis of a specific situation. It attempts to identify moral norms of behavior that moral people will follow. “Thou shalt not steal” is an example of a moral norm. It is interesting to note that the focus is both on the act and the character of the person committing the act. By helping understand moral norms and the behavior of virtuous people we can begin to understand what is ethical (permitted) in a specific situation.

Applied Ethics – this field focuses on ethical questions about a specific profession or practical field and is highly collaborative in nature. Some of the subsets of this field include medical ethics, business ethics, legal ethics and environmental ethics. The PMI Code of Ethics and Professional Conduct further refinement this for the Project Management community of practice.

Without going into the main theories, Applied Ethics attempts to reconcile conflicts inherent in applying them to a specific situation. If you believe that every human has natural rights that must be protected at all costs, how do you justify sacrificing individuals for the “greater good”? On the other hand, if there are rules that define ethical behavior (thou shalt not steal), can it be ethical to break the rule if the right facts present themselves?

You can see the impact of these ethical discussions in the headlines of the day. Is it ethical to genetically modify food? If you say “no”, how do you justify a trip to the grocery store for almost any common fruit or vegetable? They have all been genetically modified from their wild ancestors. Or is the ethical issue the process used to modify food? Would you feel differently if the modification produced a plant that would feed starving children? Is this an ethical issue at all?

These are tough questions!

Luckily most of use aren’t involved in those choices, we are running projects! And I’ll focus on that next.

Coda

With Christmas preparation having begun, it occurred to me just how much technology has dramatically changed things. My Christmas Card was done quickly and easily on my laptop, and the completed product arrived at my home in just a couple of days. My kids shared their Christmas list across several platforms including text, email and social media, and I was able to coordinate the shopping very easily. The actual purchase was nothing more than clicking a link and making the purchase. Magically boxes started showing up and I was quickly done. While it was easy, it took some of the fun out of Christmas shopping. We are going to stick with tradition when we shop for our Christmas Tree. I’m sure the kids will complain, but when they are older they will miss those times!

#Normativeethics #appliedethics #metaethics #projectmanagementethics