IT Consulting Ethics – Part 1 – Ethical Dimensions Of Consulting Decisions

So my current pair programmer at my client and I were talking about the IT consulting ethics that are currently abundant in the industry today, not just limiting it to SharePoint. So, after we got all heady on the subject I decided to write a small mini-series that details my stance on it! So, enjoy!

Ethical dimensions of IT consulting decision making were not much discussed prior to the late twentieth century, perhaps because discussion of them might betray the existence of problems. There are now both management textbooks and management courses with titles containing the term “ethics.” Of course, there really is no such thing as a particular variety of ethics peculiar to the IT consulting decision setting. The discussion should be about ethics in the generic sense, but as applied to IT consulting decision settings.

IT consulting decision making involves complex interactions between producers and consumers, employers and employees, managers and owners, business executives and members of the communities in which their firms operate. While these relationships are essentially economic in nature, they also have ethical dimensions. Some of these dimensions include the work environment, the effects of pollution and depletion of natural resources, and the safety of consumers.

IT consulting decision making, whether in the profit, not-for-profit, or public sectors, must be based upon moral foundations if relationships are to be reliable and predictable. Nonetheless, we hear and read of a variety of practices in both public and private sectors which most people would judge to be unethical, among them bribery, embezzlement, breaking contracts, price fixing, collusion, deceptive advertising, falsification of expense accounts, underreporting of income or padding of expenses on tax reports, use of substandard materials, producing and selling products which fail to function as advertised, failing to divulge to consumers possible product dangers, and so on. Any of these behaviors may erode the moral foundation of commerce and make business activity both unreliable and unpredictable.

In the private sector, the pursuit of profit has traditionally been viewed as the chief motivation to engage in productive activity. The pursuit of profit cannot be regarded as a morally neutral activity because the receipt of profit income may lead to inequality in the distribution of income between those who are entrepreneurially successful and those who are not or who do not choose to behave in an entrepreneurial fashion.

A challenge to the legitimacy and authority of privately owned and managed business enterprise has emerged in the United States during the second half of the twentieth century. The challenge focuses upon the legitimacy of business, its right to exist, and the right of people to own and use business property to their own private benefit. Statistical evidence in support of this contention is implicit in numerous surveys and polls which indicate that many Americans believe that the ethical standards of business are lower than those of American society as a whole.

In order to provide a framework for thinking about ethics in IT consulting  decision contexts, it will be convenient to employ a classification scheme provided by W. Michael Hoffman and Jennifer Mills Moore in Business Ethics: Readings and Cases in Corporate Morality (McGraw-Hill, Inc., New York, 1990).

In simplest terms, morality may be defined as what is good or right for human beings. Ethics involves choices in regard to moral precepts. A choice may be ethical or unethical depending upon whether behavioral rules are obeyed, or whether the choice yields good or right outcomes for those who are parties to the decision, and perhaps also for “innocent third parties.” Hoffman and Moore identify three ethical orientations which cover most of the positions which can be taken by business decision makers.

Ethical relativism is the position that there is no one universal standard or set of standards by which to judge the morality of an action. An ethical relativist may hold the same act to be morally right for one society, but morally wrong for another. A similar distinction may be applied to two individuals within the same society. An act which is taken to be moral in one set of circumstances may be regarded as immoral in another (situational ethics). A problem of ethical relativism is that each person’s ethics are specific to the person; no comparative moral judgments are possible. An ethical relativist may base morality upon social customs and conventions. Students of international business often are urged to adopt a polycentric world view (tolerance and appreciation for cultures alien to one’s own) incorporating ethical relativism. “When in Rome, do as the Romans do,” even if it involves engaging in acts that would be unacceptable at home (like paying bribes).

At the opposite end of the ethical spectrum from ethical relativism is Ethical Absolutism. Ethical absolutists believe in the existence of universal standards of ethical behavior. For Immanuel Kant (1724-1804), ethical criteria were “categorical imperatives” in the sense that they are absolute and unconditional, irrespective of the consequences. Examples of Judeo-Christian scriptural dictums which may serve as categorical imperatives include those found in the Ten Commandments (e.g., prohibitions against stealing and lying), scriptures relating to oppression (see the accompanying essay on “Exploitation”), the Golden Rule (“Do unto others as you would have them do unto you”), and Jesus’ command to love one’s neighbor as oneself (Matthew 19:19, 22:39; Mark 12:31, 33; Luke 10:27). Religious fundamentalists of the late twentieth century, whether Moslem, Jew, or Christian, would perhaps be most comfortable with categorical imperatives in the form of scriptural dictums to guide their behavior.

The intermediate range of the ethical spectrum is occupied by a variety of positions which focus upon the outcomes of behavior. Consequentialism is the belief that the consequences of an action are the sole bases for judging whether an action is right or wrong. For a consequentiality there is no universal standard of ethical behavior; any action which yields a desirable outcome can be rationalized as ethical. For consequentiality the end justifies the means as ethical, or if it is an undesirable end, the end indicts the means as unethical.

Consequentialism dichotomizes into ethical egoism and utilitarianism. Ethical egoism is the belief that every person ought always to act so as to promote the greatest possible balance of good over evil for himself. Therefore, an act contrary to one’s self interest is an unethical act. Ethical egoists can argue that others’ interests should be respected because treating others well also promotes their own self interest in the long run. The Golden Rule is not incompatible with ethical egoism.

In contrast to ethical egoism, utilitarianism holds that people ought to act so as to promote the greatest total balance of good over evil, or the greatest good for the greatest number. A rule utilitarian would obey those rules which experience has shown generally promote social welfare, even when doing so does not always lead to good consequences. An act utilitarian may hold that one ought to act so as to maximize total good even if doing so violates rules which usually promote social welfare.

Milton Friedman in Essays in Positive Economics (The University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1953) raises an interesting question in regard to means and ends: If the end does not justify the means, then what does? He goes on to suggest that if a person is serious in raising this question, for him the means are actually a more important end than the end which had been contemplated. We may infer that such a person is less likely to be an act utilitarian than a rule utilitarian or a categorical imperativist.

We may infer that some variety of consequentialism must underlie the rationale of any dictator who assumes absolute political authority. A society which finds itself with a dictator can only hope him or her to be a benevolent act utilitarian rather than an autocrat who is an ethical egoist. Likewise, societies with democratic policies should attempt to elect act utilitarians rather than ethical egoists. Act utilitarianism is perhaps the ethical orientation most consistent with the pragmatism of late-twentieth century American social and political liberalism. Late twentieth-century Christians who are religious liberals might tend toward rule utilitarianism, whereas Christian fundamentalists are more likely to be categorical imperativists.

While numerous scriptural references imply care for other members of society, there do not appear to be any explicit scriptural dictums which are congruent with act utilitarianism. Although Cain’s question in Genesis 4:9 (“Am I my brother’s keeper?”) went unanswered, an affirmative answer often is adduced to it. A liberal translation of “brother” to refer to all of humanity would seem to suggest an act utilitarian orientation. In Luke 10:29, a lawyer asks Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?” Jesus replies with the story of the Good Samaritan which concludes that the neighbor is the one who showed mercy to the injured man. Although never stated explicitly, the implication is that “neighbor” refers to anyone encountered, and in the limit all of humanity. The latter interpretation implies an act utilitarian ethical orientation.

In 1776, Adam Smith (who trained as a moral philosopher) tied ethical egoism and utilitarianism together when he asserted (in The Wealth of Nations) that pursuit of self-interest by each member of society may contribute more to the common weal (welfare) than the individual either knows or intends.