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Speaking of Ethics

Bill Ballard and David Schmaltz will convene a conversation about the unspeakable: Ethics.

The Silver Spring PMI meeting pre-show, Wednesday, 11/9, 5:30pm, Blair Mansion Restaurant at 7711 Eastern Avenue, Silver Spring, MD 20912

Act always so as to increase the number of choices.
The Ethical Imperative, Heintz von Foerster

The philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein claimed that one cannot speak of ethics. They are too personal, too situational, too fuzzy. Yet we are exhorted to perform ethically. What does that mean in practice?

In practice, we might not feel very much like philosophers, yet ethics has for centuries been the meat and potatoes of philosophy.

Ethics might best be thought of as choices that matter. How should one choose?

Whatever one chooses, one should notice unanticipated choice points when they appear, because ethical dilemmas often arrive unbidden, completely unexpected. And if you don’t notice a choice point appearing, you’re unlikely to choose. And ethics might be all about choice.

Ethical shortcomings seem to start as inadvertent, insignificant events. As a general rule, you might make a point to never lie, but you blunder into a little white lie of omission—you left out the unsettling details—then started down an inevitably degrading decline, offering annoying opportunities to choose, then choose again, then choose yet again.

It’s often a slippery slope, offering little traction after the first misstep. Then what do you do?

Well, what do you do? Ethics aren’t very amenable to checklist templates. Every ethical professional is only too aware of their own missteps, though perhaps no one else ever caught their infractions.

There are ethical crimes and ethical misdemeanors. Not one of us survive completely guilt-free.

The PMBOK, perhaps wisely, classifies ethics into aspirational and mandatory standards. Even the mandatory standards require some choice. For instance, mandatory ethical standard 3.3.2, claims that “we do not exercise the power of our expertise or position to influence decisions or actions of others in order to benefit personally at their expense.” Except when we do, and in a competitive environment, we might be fools not to, sometimes. What should we choose? The wrong question. ‘What will I choose?’ might better serve you and your organization.

Before we know it, once we start thinking about ethics, we start thinking like the philosophers we’d never insist we are. We might not be trained philosophers, but we wrestle with the same difficult choices.

We don’t often, as professionals, engage in conversations about our personal ethical compasses. It’s not polite cocktail conversation, and might qualify as rude to ask anyone about their ethicals. Makes you seem like a detective and anyone else feel like a prime suspect.

So this once, we’ll set aside an hour before supper, to consider ethics. We’ll tell our stories and see what meaning we might make from these sometimes sorry stories. I’ll confess my trespasses and forgive yours. In the process, we might discover our wisdom as well as our clay feet.

Perhaps we’ll find reassurances. Maybe permission. We’re likely to discover that we have been making choices, even great choices, and understand that everyone else is wrestling with the very same dilemmas.


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