Philosophy for Business

ETHICAL DILEMMAS

a primer for decision makers

 

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Review by Pablo Ayala Enríquez

translated from Spanish

To my students in Lima:

Looking for a digital edition of Thus Spake Zarathustra, I came across a gold nugget that I could not let roll alone by the river: Ethical Dilemmas. A primer for decision makers, by Geoffrey Klempner. I loved the text because, without renouncing the philosophical discussion that accompanies any ethical decision, in a very practical way Klempner goes into the core that underlies all ethical dilemmas: "The difficulty arises from the very nature of the situation with which we are faced rather than our mere lack of wisdom or ethical knowledge."

The point made by Klempner is as clear and true as affirming that corruption pervades and eats the foundations of many institutions, especially business. I explain. In the business world, it is usual to make complex decisions, without having all the required information, and without having the time you would like to be able to decide calmly. There are decisions that can not wait, and must be taken with what is at hand, assuming there will be some consequences that will not be easy to handle.

Undoubtedly, businessmen and managers, on a daily basis are faced with the need to decide, which is not something simple; the added complexity comes when the decision is intended to be ethically correct, because as Geoffrey Klempner points out, "good will is not enough, if you lack the wisdom to see and understand what is to be done... A difficult ethical decision is not necessarily the same as a decision that is difficult to make"

In general, managers are perfectly clear about what is ethically correct and what should be done in each case, however, when doing the right thing puts the viability of the company at risk, goodwill is stung by demands and influence of self-interest. As Klempner says, "the problem, bluntly, is one of weakness of will. You know what you should do, but are reluctant to bite the bullet... There is no philosophical solution to weakness of will, because you already know what you should do. You don't need a business ethicist to tell you that this particular action would be unethical."

The problem of lack of will is compounded by the difficulty of making a decision where you do not know what should be done. In this case, the decision maker may have the best will in the world, but he really does not know what he should do. For someone interested in making ethical decisions, a little knowledge of the subject could help them get out of the quagmire, however, as Klempner points out, having developed certain competences in making ethical decisions is not enough, because "sometimes we face ethical decisions which are difficult, not because of something we lack — the required knowledge or expertise — but rather because the nature of the situation which we are dealing with is such that no amount of expertise would be sufficient to determine the one and only 'correct' answer. This is the characteristic feature of a true ethical dilemma", and where knowing the moral principles perfectly is not enough to face them and solve them with justice.

By its configuration, says Geoffrey Klempner, "in ordinary speech, we are inclined to use the term 'dilemma' for any decision where we are uncertain which of two alternatives we should choose; in other words, as synonymous for a 'difficult decision'." Etymologically, dilemma comes from "di", which means "two", and "lemma" which means "proof". In this sense, Klempner continues, "a dilemma is two proofs, or reasoned arguments, which entail logically inconsistent courses of action. In the ideal example of a dilemma, there is an irresistable case for doing A, and also an irresistable case for doing B. But it is logically impossible to do both A and B."

Certainly, as this author says, in most cases where moral reasoning must be applied, the dilemmas are not presented exactly according to this formula, since business life is so fast moving that it is enough to have more information about either of the two alternatives to be able to opt for it, or reject it. The manager will not spend a month going around the tension between A and B; one must decide, and fast. The question is how to decide with the greatest possible justice. A couple of Klempner's examples will help me clarify this last point better.

Imagine that you are the director of a company, which at the time had had a clean sheet in accidents at work. An extraordinary technical failure caused an explosion that resulted in the death of a worker. After an exhaustive investigation, it is concluded that a similar mishap would not happen again if a series of changes were made in the production process. The problem is that the changes will be so costly that they could put at risk the permanence in the company's market. Would you make the investment to prevent someone from dying or putting your life at risk?

Now think about this other situation. Imagine that you are the production manager of a plant that assembles computers. One morning like any other you receive a request from the quality area where they ask you to dismiss Don Jose Ramos, only two years away from retirement, because this year his productivity has practically dropped by half. Reading the mail where you are asked to dismiss Don Jose, you remember document you signed which said that your main duty was to look after the interests of the company. Would you run when you know that you only have two years left?

It is not my concern to give a correct answer for both dilemmas. What I was interested in making clear is that the decisions that hold ethical dilemmas are much more difficult to take than those that do not, because, at the end of the day, who will decide, of course, does not know exactly what is what must be done so that the decision is ethically correct.

Here, as over 200 years ago Kant observed, "wisdom and skill in moral judgment can not be reduced to a rule book, because good judgment is required to apply them."

Pablo Ayala Enríquez
Specialist in Humanities
Monterrey Institute of Technology and Higher Education (ITESM)
PhD in Ethics and Democracy, University of Valencia

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International Society for Philosophers