Skip to content

Doing what's right


To my mind, aiming to do the right thing is one of the most prominent features of our lives that unites us as mutual human beings. We do it according to our own terms, attitudes, beliefs, and presumptions, but in the end, doing what's right is what we're commonly striving for. We want to be right, we want to be good, even though we aren't always capable of it.

Who gets to define what's right?

Our intentions and actions don't always align with those of others. We justify our means through the lens of our subjectivity. Combining these subjective paths of thought and action means ethics doesn't always come out as a collective pursuit, when each individual seeks to exhibit their own definition of right. Moral life is built for conflicts and argumentation, of doubting others and the self. I believe this course of conflict can align our actions for better mutual benefit and expand our collective consciousness of what we deem right, if we approach it in an improving, optimistic, loving and truthful tone.

Much of what we hold right is reflected from the institutions that make up our culture, whether that'd be a good or a bad thing. Morality is tightly united with our sense of reality, and when our reality changes, the way we view existing moral codes also changes. On the verge of an ever-changing world, many organizations and individuals alike aim to express new ideas of morality, some being more successful than others. Who should we listen to? What sort of voices are heard, and should be heard? Who gets—or has gotten—to define what is right?

Can business (ever) be ethical?

Business and ethics aren't usually seen as a possible joint effort. Making money and doing good can even be seen to exclude one another, and they are often separated into different courses of action: we have nonprofit and for-profit organizations to distinguish the good and the bad guys. When creating and maintaining a business, the zeitgeist seems to ask: "at what cost?" The overwhelming dissatisfaction with wasting or destroying resources creates resentment towards the biggest economy makers, but at the same time declining wealth punishes the poor. Making sustainable business may seem an impossible task to do, at least on a worldwide scale. Does it have to be this way?

There is a noticeable rise in the interest of ethics in business. It might be due to the way social media has transformed the way we hold brands under new, much tighter moral scrutiny. Part of ethics, packaged into corporate responsibility, has become a commodity to sell and increase the value of the brand, or at least aim to diminish the negative consequences a bad image on the internet might have for the brand. Companies have started to craft and express their ethical standpoints, which can appear as noble causes on the paper, but could possibly be used in an exploitative way, as we many have noted with greenwashing. Ethics isn't always an end in itself, when it can be done as an instrumental value for gains in PR strategy.

Can a company be ethical? What does that even mean, exactly? When pondering this side of the company's nature, my thoughts often turn towards the individuals it is made out of. Since a company is not a living, feeling, or a self-aware organism making decisions on its own, its ethics are woven into the actions of its people – actions that are directed either inwards, affecting the company's own well-being, or outwards, spreading goodness in harmony with its operations. The moral unit of the company is the living, feeling, and self-aware individual aiming to do the right thing – something we all can be.

Am I for the job?

When it comes to ethics in a workplace, the subject takes a couple twists that are not perhaps so prevalent in our lives outside of the workplace. The relationship between the work persona and the person that brings that to the workplace is often severed. We might hold different morals at home than in the workplace – but why? I find this to be a great weakness, but can probably understand why it is the way it is.

There's some weird intrinsic seriousness when I think of working culture overall. As if we're supposed to leave certain parts of our being at the door, not to let them mess up the fragile clockwork machine of processes and well established practices. We like to base our actions on facts, data, logic, and cold reasoning, as if they're the holy messengers of the truth, revealing our naive fallacies of reality and how things ought to be done. However, while bringing only the rational parts of ourselves into the center of the work persona might bring clarity, security, and efficiency in some situations, most often it restricts our way of being into a tiny subpart of the potential we could be, denies the full blossom of our personalities, creates harmful misinterpretations of our own irrational nature, and ultimately separates our doing from our being.

We don't often stop to realize how much of our thoughts and actions are based on things that are unconscious and irrational. Having clear headed rational argumentation skills based on facts is a must-have rhetoric ability, if any sort of persuasion is one's goal, but the foundation of what we have chosen to argue and fight about is not rational at all. Diving into one's values and inquiring what we hold right deep down needs a completely different approach than to be able to connect perceived reality with written facts. Throughout human history, the relation between facts and morality hasn't been straightforward, as Hume brought up in the 1700s with his notorious guillotine: just because something is, doesn't mean it is ought to be. Figuring out what ought to be done requires contextual, holistic, sensitive, and self-aware feeling features of the self: it's the human instrument, the mystical intuitive conscience that does the job in the end. If you're open to that, moral problems start to reveal themselves to you.

Who leads corporate ethics?

Because ethics is not really held as a concrete goal to aim towards in workplaces, it is not clear who is responsible for maintaining and developing it. Since I don't have an academic background on ethics or philosophy myself, this question has also been bugging me for a while: is my moral reasoning and judgment on things valid? On what premises can I base the things I believe in, and is striving towards those justified?

It's not clear who in the workplace has the competence and qualification to make moral judgements and decisions. Who can define moral guidance; is it the supervisors, the CEO, shareholders, or the stockholders? The moment you jump from descriptive to prescriptive ethics, you're suddenly faced with responsibility for your words and proceeding with it starts to require leadership instead of mere observation and speculation. It's a tough game to take on, and unfortunately not everyone has the courage for that.

I have chosen to believe each one of us can—and ultimately should—join in the discussion on what kind of ethics we want to form and follow, because that's the only way we keep the discussion open to diversity of thought and personalities. I think we should be braver in raising our voices when needed. Ethical awareness builds bottom-up: we can't just wait for someone to ask from us what we think of things, we need to be saying them out loud. Too much is left unsaid, resulting in resentment, bitterness, and superficial discussions that don't result in needed change. You should say what you need to say – there's nothing to lose in that.

Influential communication is the key

If you ever plan to create change in the values that define our action, people and their beliefs is what you're up against. You need to be ready to clash with your ideas, to be able to hold on to what you believe in – or to be humble enough to modify or let go of that if necessary. You need to be ready to bear the rising, possibly fierce emotions that underlie those beliefs, and come out of that with a pure heart. You need to have embodied a way with words that can strike to the core issues of the problems. How you write and speak are your greatest weapons.

To me, in the heart of ethics is dialogue, which is a state of discussion that could be described as the flow of shared meaning or understanding (logos, λόγος) through (dia, διά) the participants of the discussion. It's a form of active listening and sincere information exchanging, which has the possibility to leave the participants to a higher state of understanding they didn't have the ability to do by themselves. In my ongoing lecture series about Moral Design, I've emphasized two values to support dialogue, Love and Truth, but in the scope of this text, I need to leave expanding those to future parts.

I’ve noticed that in some circles, there is still a misconception that we make decisions based on facts. We don't. We might make decisions based on someone justifying and clarifying their wanted way of working with facts, but facts in themselves don't direct any sort of action. Facts are observations of reality, but they don't include any moral direction within them. There needs to be a person to give those facts a meaningful story, to glue it to the bigger whole for it to be adopted and acted upon. There needs to be a motivational synthesis for us to move, a wider narrative to align our way of action. It's crucial to understand that on a more abstract level of action, such as the operations in a workplace, we are moved by beliefs and rhetorics, and not by particular circumstances in our environment. Be careful whose story you are listening to.

This is to say that if you are willing to take on the task of shaping a more ethical future, you do that by influencing people. You influence people with great rhetorics, meaning that you will get to the point you want by speaking up with words that have power in them. If you're not proceeding the way you want, perhaps your words aren't sharp enough and you have to align them in a new way. Make such a powerful story that people want to ride along with you to see that future come alive.

Being what's right

To conclude this text, I wanted to give light to this one issue I had in mind. I titled the text as "doing what's right" because what we do, meaning our visible and measurable actions in the world, are often those we can perceive, conceptualize, and possibly replicate if they are something of value. It is easy to conclude something being right, if it can be measured to have had a positive effect.

The problem is that this type of need for measuring things can lead to a misconception where something doesn't even exist if it can't be measured. I think this is also another factor in reducing our being to doing: that we only exist in the way we do things. It may become harmful if we start to judge people around us only based on what they do, instead of seeing the intrinsic value in their way of being. It's harmful if we do that to ourselves. I would argue that we want to be able to do the right things to be good, so the end state of our actions is to influence our being.

Think of it: what kind of person is good in their workplace? How do they speak? How do they look around them – what kind of expression do they have on their face? How do they notice their colleagues? How do they influence their environment on levels that can't be measured straight out of their official work related results? Instead of constantly doing good, can one just be good?

We all have to experience situations where things that we don’t want to happen will happen, and most often they are due to forces we have no control over. We can feel we have only a tiny possible effect in front of age-old customs, complex organizational bureaucracies, or emotionally heated discussions, leaving us feeling fed up or giving up on the change we want to see. But I believe including ethics in one’s life is partly accepting that and partly still keeping up the fight. Who knows how big of a person one could grow in the pursuit of what’s right.

What if you started doing what's right, today? What if you started being right? What do you think would come out if it? I wholeheartedly encourage you all to try it out.