Leadership for the Future: How to Approach Ethical Transparency
In my last "Leadership for the Future" post, I addressed ethics, leadership, and technology. And while we were able to identify three of the fundamental ethical issues emerging from the evolution of technology, we only scratched the surface. Aside from identifying ethical issues, organizations need to be prepared to address their role and their employees’ role in making morale decisions.
I do not believe that companies should or have an obligation to teach employees ethics. I am a firm believer that a business’s purpose is to deliver goods and services in an efficient and profitable way. In this respect, I side with Milton Friedman’s article “The Social Responsibility of Business is to Increase its Profits.” Leave moral and ethical education to the family, educational institutions, and religious and other belief-based organizations.
Yet we live in a technologically complex world where moral and ethical issues are quite complex and confusing. Ignoring them by closing our eyes is not the right choice. I believe that companies have the duty to acknowledge the moral and ethical concerns of employees. Employees also have the right and obligation to raise such concerns.
The juxtaposition of balancing a businesses’ obligation to efficiency and profitability and acknowledging workforce concerns has led me to conclude that establishing full ethical transparency in organizations is the best route forward. Financial transparency has produced miracles for organizations, leading to more accountability and better performance. Similarly, ethical transparency will help make choices that employees and organizations can proudly defend, thus alleviating everyone from the burden of moral dilemmas.
Let’s briefly examine two common ethical practices.
- Playing God
This type of choice is well known in ethics and involves someone making decisions about the life and death of other people, most frequently in exchange for some larger social benefit. These are typically known as utilitarian decisions. For example, imagine a programmer being tasked to develop the rules system for an autonomous car. Naturally, he or she will try to save as many lives as possible in the event of an accident. But, where this is not possible, how would the rule be constructed to choose between two individuals? What if the choice was between a man and a woman, or between a child and an adult? Another example: when decisions are made to eradicate species in nature. Imagine a bio engineer tasked to create a gene that eradicates all malaria-carrying mosquitos. How are such choices made? Both of these dilemmas are created by the advances in technology and thus have never been or, at least rarely, taught and examined by the institutions that have traditionally instilled ethics.
- Moral Blinding
Moral blinding poses a different issue. Technologies can be developed in a way that completely obfuscates their purpose and final use from employees. Companies may do so to protect trade secrets or because they know that the moral issues can be a deterrent to find employees or a distraction in the work process. Sooner or later, employees will discover the real issues and some of them may not be able to cope with moral burden.
The question then is should moral blinding be allowed? My position is that it should not. If an employee is developing an accident choice algorithm for autonomous cars, they should know so. They should not be told that they are building an algorithm for a video game. Or if they are, they should be told that the company may license the algorithm to autonomous car manufacturers. This will certainly affect how the algorithm is built.
Within the framework of ethical transparency, companies and employees have three key obligations:
- Disclose the potential ethical issues
- Investigate the research on the ethical issues
- Document their individual and mutual stand on ethical issues
These three rules provide a framework for discussion. Today, most of the ethical problems will be created in the companies that produce new technologies. Hence, the discussion needs to start there and then extend to engage society. Tech leaders have to step up and be ethical leaders, as they know best what their technologies can and cannot do.
I acknowledge that the industry is entering some unchartered waters and that ethical issues in the tech world are new. Some of the issues will test our human beliefs, but no progress has ever been made over the centuries without tackling hard issues. Open and structured dialog has to take place for tech ethics to evolve.