Academic research has shown that happiness makes employees more productive while conversely, lower happiness is systematically associated with lower productivity. Similarly, a growing body of research supports the connection between diversity in the workplace and higher profitability. As a result, well-managed organizations everywhere are now striving, in their own best interest, to foster a diverse workforce and to create the kind of work environment that keeps employees happy and engaged.
If you’re like me, this kind of enlightened corporate self-interest probably sounds really great to you: We’re making progress! But there is, of course, a flip-side to self-interest: What if – for any reason that you may care to imagine – it were no longer in an organization’s best interest to treat you and others of your community (or gender, or occupation) fairly and with respect? Such a reversal, after all, would not be unprecedented in history.
Asking such questions highlights the limitations of self-interest as a foundation on which to build an ethical corporation or a just society. Of course our laws, in a country like Canada (or France, or the United States, etc.), do not allow social actors – whether people or corporations – the unadulterated freedom to pursue what they perceive to be their own best interest. Nor do our laws endorse unbridled utilitarianism, which can easily degenerate into the oppression of the few for the sake of maximizing the happiness of the many.
Our laws, in fact, point to a collective belief that neither utilitarianism nor the pursuit of self-interest provide sufficient foundations on which to build a just society. So what might offer such a foundation?
An ethical system based on moral character, often referred to as Virtue Ethics.
While many good and reasonable people will beg to disagree, I personally believe, like Philosopher Michael J. Sandel, that there has to be more to a just society than maximizing utility or securing freedom of choice. As he explains in ‘Justice: What’s the Right Thing to Do?’, achieving just outcomes requires that we debate and arrive at conclusions on “the moral worth of the ends we pursue, the meaning and significance of the lives we lead, and the quality and character of the common life we share.”
Through those words, Sandel echoes an ethical system that goes back, in Western thought, to the Socratic philosophers of ancient Greece, well over two thousand years ago. The key concept is that our ability to perceive and pursue what is just is intimately tied to the soundness of our virtue or moral character. For this reason, “Following Plato and Aristotle, modern virtue ethics has always emphasized the importance of moral education, not as the inculcation of rules but as the training of character.” (my emphasis)
Virtue ethics is not the only ethical framework that can help us reflect and act on choices large and small. Certainly, the utilitarian ethic of the greatest happiness for the greatest number, as well as the libertarian ethic of freedom to pursue one’s best interest, both offer important insights. And like many people, I find myself drawing regularly from both as I consider potential courses of action. But I believe we need to pay more attention to virtue ethics.
Corporations, as important social actors and normative institutions, can play an important role in this. Through their actions, corporations are uniquely positioned to elevate or undermine the moral values that underpin the good or honourable life, to corrupt or elevate the moral character of employees-citizens.
Providing a fertile ground for moral education is clearly not the core purpose or telos of a corporation but it is certainly an important by-product or corporate life. And it is undoubtedly central to the role of any corporate leader. It is in fact, in my view, what sets leaders apart from managers: Whereas the manager is morally agnostic, the ethical leader helps to bring about an ethical culture within the organization. (Let us not even talk about all the damage that a morally corrupt leader can do.)
Getting back to my original examples, by taking a moral rather than a self-serving stand on diversity – by supporting diversity and inclusion in the workplace because it is simply right or just to do so – leaders and the organizations that they represent send a strong ethical message that inevitably helps to shape social discourse. Similarly, by taking a moral stand on respect in the workplace and beyond – by treating their employees and customers with fairness and respect because, well, it’s the right thing to do – leaders and the companies that they represent help shape the moral values that we live by, inside the organization and beyond.
Why should corporations care about any of this? Does it matter whether or not employees at all levels strive for and exhibit virtues such as courage, wisdom, self-control, integrity or respect? Why care about moral character, justice and the good life in commercial organizations?
Because it elevates us all.