In reading texts, even written by well-intentioned people, I get the feeling that ethics is generally confined to a very limited space It is as if ethics were simply about avoiding doing wrong and nothing more.  Once we rest assured that we are not doing anything “bad,” we can move on to take care of other matters.  Viewed this way, ethics would therefore have the sole function of establishing boundaries that should not be overrun.  But that would be the end of it. Ethics would then be a border guard; a sour grapes old man scolding you for misbehavior or encroaching upon certain limits.  This approach to ethics is bound to inspire no one. 

Boundaries, by Kreg Steppe
Boundaries, by Kreg Steppe

In academia, the classic Milton Friedman article, “The Social Responsibility of Business is to Increase its Profits” published in The New York Times in September 1970 (perhaps the most widely read article of any Sunday paper) embodies this vision. Friedman concludes his article citing his book Capitalism and Freedom:

“There is one and only one social responsibility of business–to use its resources and engage in activities designed to increase its profits so long as it stays within the rules of the game, which is to say, engages in open and free competition without deception or fraud.”

Friedman was quite clear in the article that business should act within the boundaries of the law and customs of the times and society in which it exists.  It is not about getting rich at all costs; there are limits that are not to be tread upon: no cheating, no fraud, etc.

Acting according to these norms is already a great step forward.  If everyone were to comply with these minimal ethical standards and abstain from lying, cheating and committing fraud – all done to land contracts, generate sales and value – the world would certainly be a better place.  But is that it?  Is ethics really only about this?

According to Friedman and followers of his philosophy, ethics has no role at all beyond these minimal ethical standards.  It is as if businesses were to respond, “OK, we heard you and have been well-behaved.  Now leave us alone.  We have many more important things to worry about.”  For them, ethics is a mere footnote or disclaimer to protect themselves against accusations and liability suits.

Yet ethics is much more than that.  At the heart of ethics lies the principle of doing good. Avoiding acting badly is a consequence  of this basic principle.   So in fact the important thing is actually to do good, not to avoid doing wrong.

Ethics then is not a policeman controlling our activity, but rather a personal trainer that encourages us to strive towards doing better each time.  Ethics is not interested in discussing what is right and wrong (although this is what most people are drawn to), but rather between what is good and what can be done better.

Viewing ethics in this way, its beauty and significance are much more apparent, not to mention its practical relevance.  For ethics is not a footnote or afterthought; it is not a disclaimer, but instead is at the center of discourse, anchoring our reasoning.  Ethics therefore does not constrain action, but promotes creativity , prompting us to ask ourselves, “What else can we do instead that is better or that will help us improve?”

Recently Alain de Botton published an article in the Financial Times in which he proposes the idea of philosophers taking a seat on the board of directors of companies, using similar arguments as the above.  The philosophical question about what makes a life a good one is not so far from asking how to satisfy people’s needs.  Ethics, understood from this positive point of view, helps to focus problems using a new perspective:

“With a proper philosophical perspective on the needs of customers, businesses can start to see new market opportunities, rather than being left to fiddle with margins, wages and logistics.”

Now that a new year begins, let’s set the bar higher.  Let’s not settle for fulfilling minimal goals.  Let’s not limit our struggle to what is right and wrong, what is legal or illegal.  Let’s make these minimum standards a given and dedicate our energy to striving to do things better and above all, to doing better things.