How Much Agreement Is Enough?

Excerpt from “Make an Ethical Difference: Tools for Better Action” By Mark Pastin, Ph.D. (Berrett-Koehler, 2013).

There are many excuses for not acting on ethical issues. Most organizations have trouble going much beyond platitudes in their codes of conduct and ethics training. This, of course, reinforces the idea that ethics is not being taken seriously. One of the common excuses for not taking action on ethics issues is that it’s hard to reach agreement on just what is the right course of action.

How much agreement about ethical issues should we seek? How much agreement about an ethical issue is enough?

One of the problems with ethical issues is that people sometimes think we should reach 100 percent agreement before taking a position and acting on it. In other words, they believe that it must be possible to explain our actions so that anyone would agree with them. And they take the absence of such universal agreement to preclude ethical action.

Universalists believe that paying a bribe to obtain business in a foreign country is either right or wrong. Allowing police officers to use drugs while working undercover is either right or wrong. Allowing a teenager who has become pregnant by her boyfriend to have an abortion is either right or wrong. Universalists assume that there must a right and wrong for everyone, even though it is hard to reach agreement among even a small group of individuals. Since we are not good at getting 100 percent agreement on these things, we often conclude that either we do not have the ability to see what's right or, if we do, that it’s not strong enough to guide us to ethical action.

People who are sincere about ethical change sometimes become discouraged just because reaching 100 percent agreement seems an impossible goal. When individuals committed to ethical change realize that it’s nearly impossible to change some minds, they may give up on ethical change in favor of politics, law, or regulation. You don’t need complete agreement to get a law passed or a regulation implemented. These seem like more likely ways to stop people from doing unethical things than trying to change enough minds. Unfortunately, we have tried the politics-law-regulation approach, and it has a produced a society choking on rules with little to show by way of ethical improvement. In fact, we rely so much on laws and regulations that we have forgotten that laws and regulations intended to produce ethical improvement must be based on some idea of what ethical improvement is.

Why do we require such complete agreement on ethics before we are willing to take a stand and act on it? Why is the idea that there are things on which people may never agree so troubling when it comes to ethics?

There are analogies between ethics and aesthetics. To begin with, we have to admit that disagreements about ethics are more important than disagreements about aesthetics. Unlike ethics, little in aesthetics is a matter of life and death. Despite this difference, there are important analogies between art and ethics.

In aesthetics, we often reach some level of consensus by first agreeing that there are somewhat reliable judges of aesthetic merit, such as museum curators, scholars of art, and established artists. When these individuals reach consensus that a work of art has artistic merit, we are somewhat inclined to go along with them. If agreement among these experts lasts centuries, we are even more inclined to concur in their judgment. But even if there is wide consensus, some of us may still disagree. I see Bach as more of an engineer than a composer, no matter what the experts say. This does not mean Bach is not a great composer.

Even in science, complete agreement is rare. Mathematicians still do not agree about what Kurt Godel proved (the famous “Impossibility Theorem”) or whether it matters. Einstein’s theory of relativity has stood the test of time only in the broadest terms. We still do not know if the basic components of matter are particles, waves, strings, or some undreamed of sort of entity. And there are still cultures that don’t accept what we call science as true. None of this keeps us from using scientific conclusions to build things.

That is why it is paradoxical that we set the bar so high on agreement for ethics. If the agreement we achieve in science is sufficient for action, why hold out for even more agreement in ethics?

While there are many excuses for not taking ethical action, the fact that we cannot overcome disagreements is not one of the good ones. If you commit to using a reasonable process for reaching ethical agreement, you will find as much agreement on ethics as on any other complex facet of life. It is time to work on finding ethical agreement as opposed to using disagreement as an excuse.

Excerpt from “Make an Ethical Difference: Tools for Better Action” By Mark Pastin, Ph.D. (Berrett-Koehler, 2013).

Mark Pastin, Ph.D., is president of the Council of Ethical Organizations in Alexandria, Virginia, an organization that specializes in ethics training. He is the author of the new book, Make an Ethical Difference: Tools for Better Action (Berrett-Koehler, 2013), which outlines simple steps for pursuing ethical agreement in organizations.


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