Those of us in the corporate responsibility profession often assume that definitions of “good” and “bad” are easily defined. The vocation is full of binary assumptions and pseudo-scientific rankings: Reach the top of this index, adhere to that code, apply this new standard. This is the stuff upon which the profession is made.

There are many good reasons why this is the case. Environmental limits are scientifically defined. Human rights are clearly set out in declarations and covenants on which near-universal international consensus exists. Development that lifts people up from poverty is undeniably a good thing.

But I feel uneasy by this sense of certainty. Something is niggling inside of me—is our thinking too lazy?

There are many times when “good” and “bad” are not easily defined. Consider each of these scenarios, where wise and responsible people could reach very different conclusions on what the “right” course of action should be.

  • Plenty of countries have poor human rights records and inadequate governance. Is it “right” for companies to stay clean by not entering those markets, or is it “right” for companies to invest in and engage with them to improve human rights protections?
  • The entertainment industry has come under criticism for the portrayal of torture and human rights abuses in film, TV, and games. Are films that portray torture promoting torture or exposing it?
  • Governments have a duty to enforce laws that protect the rights of their citizens. But how do we balance surveillance activities without violating the right to privacy? When is it right for a company to collaborate with law-enforcement agencies?
  • The printing of 3D objects has the potential to offer huge social and environmental benefits. But what should companies do to make sure that the software and hardware making 3D printing available isn’t misused for nefarious applications?
  • And my favorite one: Is it “right” to design ever more sophisticated weapons systems that are more likely to hit their target?

While we can always refer to universal standards and international codes, they often leave significant room for maneuver in how to achieve them. Indeed, different schools of thought in ethics will lead us to different courses of action: A utilitarian focused on the greatest happiness of the greatest number would reach a different conclusion than someone taking a rights-based approach. For some, intent matters more than outcomes, and for others, outcomes matter more than intent.

When Business and Ethics Collide

Business, as the root word “busy” suggests, is something that we do, and when business and ethics collide, it is applied ethics—real-life situations in which ethical questions of right and wrong, and of good and bad, are tested in actual business scenarios.

As the examples above demonstrate, companies frequently find themselves in situations where different perspectives exist on what the most responsible option should be. 

So, what should a responsible company do when faced with this kind of ethical dilemma?

The “traditional” corporate responsibility approach is to “respond to concerns raised by stakeholders.” But this feels like a bit of a cop-out to me. Companies often know much more about their products, services, and technologies than stakeholders do, so who’s to say stakeholders would raise the most relevant ethical issues?

Rather than waiting for concerns to be raised by others, companies should be proactive and transparent about the available options, potential decisions, and ethical dilemmas.

Companies can much more proactively set out their thinking on the ethical questions at stake and spark the debate. This could take many different forms—white papers, opinion pieces commissioned from informed experts, or direct engagement with stakeholders—but my point is that companies can start discussions and inform them, not just respond to them.

That said, while companies can spark the debate, they also need to be wise to the perspectives of stakeholders and comfortable with the notion that external perspectives will inform decision-making. Ultimately, it is still society as a whole, not individual companies alone, that should make decisions with a moral and ethical dimension.

For example, various initiatives underway in the information and communications technology industry—such as the Global Network Initiative and Telecommunications Industry Dialogue—have been shaped by wide-ranging debates around what the “right” approach should be for a company addressing privacy and freedom of expression issues.

One of my reasons for writing this blog is to encourage readers to look up from the rankings, codes, and standards and ask some important questions: Are we blindly pursuing notions of right and wrong that don’t stand up to scrutiny? Are we taking one version of good for granted, and not considering the alternatives? On what ethical basis are our judgments based? Do we know enough about the issues at stake to make a value judgment?

In the real world, notions of right and wrong are nuanced, hard to define, and subject to different perspectives, world views, and interpretations. We would all benefit from unpacking the ethical questions before making what we assume is the “right” decision.