The promise of “Ethical Systems” for C&E professionals — and others

An article in Saturday’s New York Times and a blog post in yesterday’s Washington Post announced the launch of the Ethical Systems web site.   “Eth Sys” is headed by Jonathan Haidt of NYU’s business school and involves many other leading social scientists – click on the “Researchers” tab to learn more about them.   (Disclosure for those who don’t click there:  though not a social scientist, I’m part of it too.)

As described on the site, “Ethical systems design is based on the principal that human behavior, whether good or bad, usually results from the interactions of multiple factors. This is particularly true in business; leaders, managers, and employees face conflicting incentives, messages, and pressures from multiple stakeholders. So if you want to improve ethical behavior within your organization you have to think about many moving parts, and take many different perspectives.”  I.e., Eth Sys takes a broad cultural approach to business ethics.

While that isn’t novel, of course, capturing the vast range of relevant knowledge to the extent that this site aims to do is, I believe, new and noteworthy. Click on the Research tab for a preliminary list of topics covered and to be covered by Eth Sys.

Much of that knowledge is related to the field of behavioral ethics and, to a lesser extent, moral intuitionism.  In the COI Blog,  I have discussed various specific ways in which these relatively new schools of thought hold promise for helping to upgrade C&E programs – e.g., in such areas as risk assessment and training. C&E programs are, after all, the principal form of “ethical system” found in many if not most business organizations, even if they are not always as effective as they should be.   But these posts are only a start, and my hope is that  through the Eth Sys platform social science researchers and C&E professionals can exchange ideas and information on promoting ethical behavior in business organizations to an extent that has never been done before.

For the latter group the benefits of such an exchange can mean not only enhancing specific aspects of C&E programs but using the overarching behavioral ethics findings – that we are not as ethical as we think; and that in any given situation, context counts more than character in determining whether people act ethically – to convince business leaders of the need for stronger C&E measures.  And for the former group, Eth Sys could offer an unprecedented point of entry into business organizations to see what their “field” experiences – much of which is reflected in data that has yet to be mined by researchers – teaches about ethical conduct in organizations.  This may all sound obvious, but to a very large degree it hasn’t yet happened – as the worlds of business ethics research and C&E programs have existed largely (and peculiarly) independent of each other.

Many years ago, those great students of human behavior – Rodgers and Hammerstein – argued that “[t]he farmer and the cowman should be friends.”  So should the researcher and the C&E professional … and Eth Sys could be just what’s needed to finally bring that about.


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