Notes on the ethical foundations

I’d like to start by stating how impressed I am with the initiative behind, and the work already carried out by, Ethical Reading. It’s clear that meeting the serious challenges we face (as individuals, as local communities, and on a global scale) is going to require moving towards embodying the ethos and aims of the ethical city articulated and demonstrated so well by Ethical Reading.

That said, as a philosopher, I do have a few questions about the statement of ethical foundations. So I wanted to raise these in a spirit of constructive and collaborative discussion.

1) A fundamental claim in the blog is that change begins with the self. Indeed, the circular illustration of the model depicts the self as the atomic heart of the spheres of influence, with change emanating out from this core element. The blog notes that movement between each sphere is ‘not linear’, but there’s no more said about what the alternative to linear influence looks like.

While I would agree that individual agency is hugely important here, and recognise that even small changes to one’s own behaviour can help to create and drive change, I do think it is also important to recognise fully the social nature of decision making. For people’s behaviour is constrained in a range of ways by the society they live in. Some of these constraints are overt, such as the strict control of the rule of law or people’s access to the information and education they need to make informed choices.

However there are also less obvious constraints, such as those arising from social and behavioural norms (consider, as an example, the convention in English of asking for something in the form of an indirect question – it’s commonly held to be polite to say ‘Can you pass the salt?’ instead of ‘Pass the salt’, so most people’s linguistic behaviour is subtly constrained by this norm). Indeed, as the literature on ‘nudge’ reveals (see Thaler & Sunstein 2008), many of our decisions are influenced by features we may be simply oblivious to: choosing a healthy or an unhealthy snack can depend simply on which kind of snacks are placed at eye level in a shop, rates of organ donation will depend on what the default position is (do people have to opt in to donate or opt out to stop donation?), and so on. And some of these unconscious influences may be less than benign – a person’s capacity for ethical decision making at work may be impaired by what her company is incentivising for its workers, what it requires of its employees in order for them to keep their jobs, or the amount of time it allows people to reflect and work through the decisions they are making.

It seems then that while we need to recognise the individual as an agent of change, we also need to appreciate fully that an individual’s actions are often the result of a complex network of influences and they may be constrained by (potentially unrecognised) systems which enable or promote unethical behaviour. For individuals to change, then, it may also be necessary to create environments where change is possible.

2) The stress on the individual as the foundation for change also comes out in the idea that a tendency for ethical behaviour is innate in individuals (‘no one is born unethical’), but this is something that could also be questioned. Developmental evidence shows that very small children display strong ‘in group’ tendencies that can impair ethical decision making. The good news is that even babies as young as nine months old show a preference for individuals that behave in an ethical manner. For instance, if a child sees a puppet show where one puppet behaves well (e.g. helping another puppet to recover their toy) and one puppet behaves badly (stopping a puppet recovering their toy), the child is much more likely to choose to play with the ‘good’ puppet over the ‘bad’ one (see ).

The less good news is that this preference for morally good agents can be easily overturned if the child sees the bad puppet as a member of its own group (so if the bad puppet has previously been seen eating a cereal that the child likes, while the good puppet eats a different kind of cereal, the child’s preference for playmate is likely to shift to the bad puppet). And experiments like the Harvard Implicit Association Test seem to show that we all have a range of implicit biases that need to be overcome in order to make good ethical decisions (although it is also worth noting that the debate about implicit bias and the extent to which it affects behaviour remains a very live topic in academia).

So again, while individual choice is key, we do need to be aware that our choices may be subject to evolutionary influences that are hard both to identify and to correct.

3) Finally, and perhaps most importantly, something we worry about in philosophy is what we call ‘normative force’ – we think people ought to do the right thing, but where does this ‘ought’ come from? What is it that compels us to behave well?

The ethical foundations as stated seem premised on the idea that we want to behave well but, while this might be right on an individual basis, it’s not so obvious that it holds for businesses in general. Of course, some employers see the need for their company to be ethically robust, but what do we say to those who think (following the economist Milton Friedman) that free markets are sovereign and business should have no constraints beyond the need to make a profit for shareholders?

If Ethical Reading is to be truly successful it needs to have a message it can take to the converted and to the non-converted, but I think the latter case may need strengthening.

What I would like to add, then, to the ethical foundations, is a notion of the social licence that underpins all business activity – the recognition that in order to do business companies depend on a range of social goods (including – but far from limited to – a well-functioning legal system, a properly maintained physical infrastructure of roads and rail, and a well-educated set of citizens who can act as employees), together with certain social protections (such as limited liability status or legal recognition as a corporation). Yet access to these social goods should come at a cost: the requirement that businesses make appropriate contributions to the societies that underpin them.

The social licence businesses enjoy makes demands on them and we should do more to clarify these requirements, for instance in areas like payment of appropriate tax (versus engagement in aggressive tax avoidance), exploitation of workers or supply chains, and environmental impact. The move away from family owned corporations to huge, impersonal multinationals has widened the gap between business and society in a way which has allowed businesses to neglect the demands of their social license. No company flourishes in a vacuum and the cost of doing business must be meeting the just demands of the societies businesses serve.

I’d love to hear the views of others on these or other points to do with the ethical foundations statement of Ethical Reading, so please feel free to get in touch with me directly at

[email protected] or comment below.


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