Dilemmas – Ethical role-playing

Dilemmas - Ethical role-playing

Since the May issue of Management Consultancy, press reports of a “re-interpretation” of the Koran have been sighted. I understand that it is now permissable to invest in western-style companies on our stock exchanges, and earn a return on that investment. Readers may recall the Islamic moral attitude to interest – it is prohibited! The reported change seems to have modified this interpretation.

Why am I drawing your attention to this? It’s quite simple really.

There are many people who believe that “if it’s legal, it’s alright!

Keep your ethics where they belong-away from business! Ethics and morals have nothing to do with business – it only matters if the law says so”.

To return to the Islamic view of investment, it is highly likely that the modified interpretation will have a significant impact on the non-Islamic world. Imagine the sums available to invest. I have seen sums as high as #60bn mentioned. But I would have thought this will not happen overnight – nor will it focus on one national market. Nevertheless, it would appear that it could have a significant impact on stock markets.

What’s the catch? Of course there has to be a catch! Companies engaged in activities which are regarded as unethical will be excluded from any portfolio inspired by Islamic ideals. I believe an Islamic ethical investment company has already been established to help focus on acceptable investments.

This is an example of ethics in action, having what is likely to be a major impact on business.

Changing the subject, the other day I came across two intriguing questions.

They were posed by Robert van Es, a scientific researcher in ethics at The Netherlands School of Business, in Business Ethics – A European Review (October 1993*). He asks: “What degree of involvement is acceptable for a consultant in business ethics?”

And from the client’s side of the table, he asks: “What can one expect from an ethical consultant, when one is trying to handle a moral dilemma in one’s company?”

Van Es responds to his own questions by suggesting these three approaches:

The consultant as an ethical engineer. This approach leads directly to the heart of the moral problem, concentrates on making an ethical decision and coming up with a prescription.

The consultant as an ethical playwright. The second approach circles around the problem, concentrates on ways to handle the problem and finally offers a description of those ways.

The consultant as an ethical interpreter. The third approach draws back from the problem, tries to identify the various suppositions involved and ends with an enlargement of the moral problem.

The difference between these approaches is small but crucial, because they differ on a fundamental point – how far and in what way the consultant should be involved in moral decision-making.

The stages of analysis are common to all three approaches. Namely, noticing the existence of a moral problem in the client company, and deciding whether or not to be actively involved in dealing with it. If one decides to take the problem on, there follows the analysis of the problem in terms of what is and who is involved, and how the moral issue can be formulated precisely and explicitly in its context. This is a prelude to drawing up the arguments which can be made for and against the moral issue, without making any judgement.

The task of the ethical consultant does not finish with the presentation of the arguments. The ethical engineer will go further and offer advice resulting directly from his or her own weighing of the arguments.

Sometimes the ethical engineer will not only offer advice, but will “co-decide” on the ethical issue with the client. Often he or she is the only specialist in ethics involved, and it could be considered irresponsible if the consultant failed to use their special insights to give, within constraints, the best possible advice. To avoid this advice being used as a defence, explicit conditions should be attached to its use. If the client misuses this advice, should the consultant have the right to go public?

In the case of the ethical playwright, after the arguments have been established, he or she enters into the vocabulary and culture of the client organisation. He or she tries to point out the strong and weak points of both vocabulary and culture, and how these can produce moral flaws in the organisation. The ethical playwright argues that a personal stand is not necessary, and would be better avoided since every piece of advice is influenced by one’s personal beliefs on rationality, logic, habits and values. There is the risk that the advice will serve as an alibi for management to do it their own way.

The right to go public is not really an option, since trustworthiness and commitment are at stake, and going public could do considerable damage to one’s reputation as an ethical consultant.

The ethical interpreter, on the other hand, will invite the client to to look at those questions and uncertainties which accompany the arguments.

He or she will try to arrive at a full understanding of all the moral concepts involved by pointing to the associated historical ideas and current problems. In the end, this does not lead to an answer to the original question, but to an enlargement of the moral problem and its scale and size. The ethical interpreter is not concerned with solutions – that is the task of the client. Often a client does not want to enlarge the problem.

A solution to the immediate problem is all that is being sought.

Van Es does not claim that these three roles are exclusive. He suggests, however, that it is difficult to switch from one role to the other during the consulting process, as this can create confusion about one’s position.

Adopting one role consistently helps to build a reputation and clients come to know what to expect.

Comments or views on the dilemmas featured in this column are welcome.

These can be made to the Editor by letter or via e-mail on CompuServe 100445.434

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