Saturday, December 13, 2008

Can Ethics Be Taught?

The conversations between professors have a bizarre and curious sound to our conceited ears. On our ongoing course on Ethics, we, we being two professors and the class, discussed some of the worlds problems - Nigeria, Saudi Arabia and even Iraq. Starting at Is Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) beneficial for society?, we somehow reached the sublime ideas of the economics of kleptocracies and the examined the fundamental ideas behind why Nigeria, a shining example of a progressive third world country in the 1950s (It had a far greater economic development as compared to India at that time), has turned into a failed state doused in ethnic violence in the short span of half a lifetime - It has to do with the politics of rents, which I may explain later.

The very idea of a course on Ethics seems peculiar. As we concluded in the very first session of this course 4 sessions ago, Ethics cannot be taught. And yet we have a course on it, which gives an appearance that the whole bit is just an exercise in futility, a whim perhaps of our lofty faculty. Why do we have this course?

I should explain that the whole Nigeria part of the last session is remarkably interesting. I cannot vouch for its correctness - surely I cannot argue for or against such an abstract idea (economic rents leads to corruption, economic production does not). I can merely state that the correct or not, the idea had me hooked. After pondering about the idea, I do not think I can put it down in words. Perhaps we can discuss it over coffee someday.

The conclusion though, I can state confidently: Big Oil, or in general, giant corporations, are largely responsible for Nigeria's state. Trying to buy peace for themselves (and their employees) from local factions has led to the factions being armed, being better armed, and eventually leading to bloodshed of unparalleled magnitude and the corrupt kleptocracy that we see now.

And here is where it connected with CSR! What is CSR? Essentially corporations buying peace for themselves by helping the local populace! Which companies carry out the most CSR activities? Those who operate in urban areas? No! It it those very companies who operate in rural areas, where the law is less enforced, where there is some form of local goonda or landlord that [the companies] spend trainloads of money on this great idea called CSR - so that the locals will leave them to carry out their business. Doing this is just one step removed to directly paying the local mafias money to allow business and perhaps a second cousin to paying hafta to do business.

Would you be part of such a corporation? Often, what choice will you have? Will you be a whistle-blower if you see something wrong? The first idea that that we are told as we enter the hallowed portals of multibillion-dollar companies is this:

1. You are merely a cog in the wheel.
2. Be a team player. What they actually mean is suspend your own thougts and do what you are told.
3. The most important one: If you blow the whistle on something we are doing that is ethically or morally wrong, be prepared to watch your career suffer, both inside the firm and with other firms.

Now obviously they sugarcoat these ideas in sweet words and motivational speeches. But the idea remains the same, even if it is masked by a thick veil of "gratitude towards workplace and society".

And now the objective of this course seems clear: To warn us about the future, so that we are alert about this, for we are the next generation of corporate managers. Also, I guess they hope that some of us will take heed to the words and not remain silent spectators to ethically corrupt practises. It is just this hope, in my opinion, that brings some of our best professors to class to talk to us about philosophy in a non-credit course. Yes, lets be honest - this is no course on Ethics. It is a course on philosphy. And I think it is one of the most intellectually stimulating and important courses we have.

Rounding up the CSR bit - What is the alternative to CSR? Instead of spending the money directly, the company should pay it out as a dividend and let the individual indulge in socially constructive work. Firstly, it is not the place of a company to put money at tasks other than its mandate. Bill Gates is a philanthropost but he doesn't spend Microsoft's money on it - he uses his own. Ditto for Azim Premji.

Before today, I unquestioningly believed that CSR was great for society. Philosophy class is an eye-opener.


Anirudh Patil said...

nice post sd.. just a few thoughts:

1) I know that ethics cannot be taught.. but that does not make the course futile.. the whole point of having these courses is to get perspectives on dilemmas such as the one you discussed in this post..

2) I have always found the idea of CSR quite fraud.. mcdonalds donates towels to hospitals where people go after eating junk food.. companies have certain objectives and they should work towards satisfying those.. social development is the responsibility of the state and of people.. so individuals in the corporations should of course help in social development.. but organizations should just be concerned with doing their business

3) If an organization does want to contribute to society it should be through changes of it's core functioning such as reducing emissions or reducing paper usage in the company.. donating money to NGOs does not really reflect social responsibility of the organization..

Ess Dee said...

Hi Baccha! :-D

1) I raised the question so that I could answer it later :-)

2) Yes exactly the point

3) Ah yeah I should have mentioned that. Glad that you did.. yes exactly... improving carbon footprint is a much better than CSR.

Rathna said...

Its an eye-openeing post.Yea! its very true, ethics cannot be taught and its known that gratitude towards workplace and society will let the individual indulge in social constructive work.Thank you.

Karthik Shekhar said...

Nice post :-)