A Look at Institutional Ethics

An executive from General Electric once told Barbara Toffler, a partner in Arthur Andersen & Company who has worked in business ethics for 20 years, that he didn't understand what philosophers wrote about, and didn't think philosophers had any idea what he did. That dichotomy, she points out, has led to a huge gap between companies' mission statements and their day-to-day practices. "I haven't yet seen a company value statement that doesn't include honesty," she says. "I have never seen a corporate budget process that is honest."

Toffler--along with other speakers from business, law, health care, and academe--was a participant in an April conference marking the tenth anniversary of Harvard's Program in Ethics and the Professions (PEP). She raised questions that lie at the core of the Harvard program. What can a philosopher teach a business executive? What can a business executive teach a philosopher?

Given the ethical dilemmas that can arise in the workplace and in society, professionals need the insights of philosophers and ethicists, says Whitehead professor Dennis Thompson, Ph.D. '68, director of the program. But the professionals and philosophers often speak different languages. If they are to learn from each other, Thompson suggests they need to learn more about each other.

PEP was the first of Harvard's five interfaculty initiatives, which are designed to bring together faculty from different parts of the University to work collaboratively. That approach is crucial in ethics, Thompson says. Society now is so interconnected that lawyers, physicians, and business executives may all be involved in the same ethical issue, like health care for the terminally ill patient, and share common concerns, like confidentiality. Each group can learn from the others' insights--which Thompson considers a promising environment for new work in institutional ethics.

Many people, he explains, think ethics involves either personal matters of conscience, or the big questions, like what is good for society. That leaves a large middle ground that needs to be explored. People spend most of their lives in corporations, schools, and nonprofit organizations, and need to develop ways to make ethical decisions within these institutions. For example, discussions about physician-assisted suicide have involved either the narrow issue of doctor-patient relationships or global issues of justice as a whole. But Thompson points out the institutional context. Hospitals need to devise policies about physician-assisted suicide because, the law aside, many physicians and nurses believe it is warranted in some cases, and some physicians already participate in the process covertly. What should a hospital's institutional policy be? How should the views of those who disagree be addressed?

More than a hundred Harvard faculty members and graduate students have already grappled with issues like these during year-long fellowships that form the cornerstone of the program. As fellows, participants sharpen their competency in ethics and philosophy, and also engage in conversations with practitioners from the legal, medical, and business worlds. Fellows have gone on to teach at Harvard and at other universities, where some have established ethics programs of their own.

Harvard president emeritus Derek Bok, who founded PEP, took part in the conference celebrating its anniversary. Institutions like Harvard, he said, must show that they take ethics seriously by the way they conduct business, whether the issue is athletics, admissions, or investments. Some universities, he noted, divested their investments in companies operating in South Africa during apartheid, but have had no qualms about owning tobacco stocks. "If the teaching of ethics in the classroom is not accompanied by attention to ethical issues in the university," Bok warned, "then students will see it as hypocritical and not worthy of attention."

One way of narrowing such gaps is by returning ethics to the curriculum. Thanks to grants from the American Express Company's charitable foundation, faculty members throughout the University have created or revised some 50 courses to integrate discussions of ethical issues; among the fields involved are biology, the environment, politics, property, and literature. Thompson also hopes to build on PEP's existing efforts to bring together scholar-fellows and outside professionals. If resources permit, he plans an executive program in which leading doctors, lawyers, and business executives can come to Harvard and work on some of these issues. But he acknowledges that ethics will always be a difficult sell. Ethics "challenges the dominant views in public and private life," he says. "It asks hard questions and makes people feel uncomfortable."

Read more articles by: Susan G. Parker

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