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Ethics vs. morality

In one of the most bizarre misunderstandings of the code of ethics I proposed the other day, a reader suggested that by adopting a professional code of ethics, a consultant or technical coach was somehow trying to impose Western morality on people in remote parts of the world. Because this is such a strange reaction, it’s difficult to know how to respond. Yet, if the code of ethics as currently written can result in such an extreme misunderstanding, then I feel I must try. The comments in question were:

…we need to keep in mind that what is acceptable for one culture isn’t necessarily for another. I’ve seen too many do-gooders mess up existing problems simply because they did not bother to think about the unintended secondary consequences of their statements and actions. A few years ago there was a hue and cry about child labor in the carpet industry in Bangladesh. And, rightly so as we don’t like kids being treated in the manner they were. So we decided to penalize Bangladesh and stopped importing and purchasing carpets made there. We accomplished what we set out to but also drove hundreds to women into prostitution so that their families could put food on the table. […] I used the word “we” to denote people in the west trying to impose their morality on others.

That’s all well and good, but it has no connection with professional ethics for consultants, trainers, and coaches. A code of ethics is intended to guide us in our own work. It isn’t a mechanism to “impose” anything on others. It limits what we can do; it says nothing about the choices others might make. Furthermore, there is no way a voluntary code of ethics that is used by a relatively small set of independent workers can have far-reaching effects on whole countries on the far side of the world, such as “driving” hundreds of women into prostitution. The comment just doesn’t make sense to me; at least, not in the specific context of professional ethics for consulting.

Although the writer did not specify which statement in the code of ethics prompted his comment, I suspect it must have been #13, which reads:

We will not work on behalf of a government, company, or other organization that supports or enables activities contrary to fundamental human rights.

Whose definition of “human rights” did I have in mind when I wrote that? I take my guidance about human rights from two written sources: The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, promulgated by the United Nations in 1948, and the “Bill of Rights,” which comprises the first 10 amendments to the Constitution of the United States of America, which were originally intended to protect individual rights from the power of the central government. Except that the Constitution is binding on one nation-state, these documents are not binding on anyone. They are only statements of rights that thoughtful people considered fundamental to humans. Thus, they do not “impose” or “force” anything whatsoever.

The reason I wanted to include an explicit statement about human rights in my own code of ethics is that I want to be able to look myself in the mirror in the morning without shame. That means, in part, that I must not contribute to violations of human rights, even indirectly. Note that the restriction is on me, not on Bangladeshi carpet factories or any other bizarre out-of-scope example one might conjure up. The restriction would apply only to those individuals who voluntarily adopted this or a a similar code of ethics for themselves. There is neither an intent, nor indeed any possibility, of imposing Western morality on others.

I don’t accept the idea that by declining a consulting opportunity in a country that practices child labor, I would be “forcing” anyone in that country to do anything whatsoever. I categorically reject the charge that I am trying to impose my morality on others when, for example, I refuse to support Iran, where the government hangs people publicly from construction cranes as a way to ensure the population has no doubt about who wields power; or China, where the government practices forced organ harvesting on members of undesirable ethnic groups like the Uighur and the Tibetans, and on followers of philosophies not approved by the Party, such as Falun Gong; or Saudi Arabia, where people (especially women) are summarily stoned to death, flogged, or caned in the streets. You say these are “cultural values” that “Western do-gooders” should respect. Well, they aren’t cultural values that I want to support through my work. That isn’t about imposing my morality on others; it’s strictly for the health of my own soul. If you think I should apologize for following that principle, then think again; and if your morality allows you to look the other way and collect consulting fees from such sources, then this code of ethics is not for you. Maybe your code of ethics should read, simply, “anything for a buck.”