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Global Ethics Day: To question the efficacy of campaigns is dangerously convenient

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Dr Schalk Engelbrecht is Chief Ethics Officer at KPMG South Africa.

We might conclude that campaigns on ethical issues don’t and won’t do much to address our big challenges. This is dangerously convenient. It encourages moral disengagement. We should maintain our moral efforts, first and foremost, because moral conduct is right and good regardless of the impact, even if you are the only person doing it.

The 20th of October was Global Ethics Day, an initiative started by the Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs. The purpose of this initiative is to spread the idea that “ethics matter”, and to inspire widespread ethical action. Individuals and organisations across the globe participate in this event – some host ethics discussions and plant trees; others clean up neighbourhoods or reduce the use of plastic.

Because this is such an admirable cause, should one feel guilty for questioning the value of the ragtag fleet of ethics campaigns launched on Global Ethics Day? Can it produce anything more than warm, fuzzy feelings, premature backpatting, and undeserved parole for guilty consciences? I believe it can, but is it worthwhile, if you consider the shortcomings of ethics?

There is good reason to question the efficacy of ethics. Ethics is the private attempt to live a good life. While we might admire the beautiful lives that have resulted from sustained moral effort, it is not clear that ethical actions or ethical lives “make a difference”, that is, that they effectively address the significant ethical challenges of our time.

Today, these challenges include a planetary climate crisis, the erosion of democracy, racial injustice, gender-based violence, pandemics, inequality, and the plight of refugees. In comparison to these terrifying existential threats, cleanliness campaigns and ethics talks seem quixotic.

The first reason to doubt whether ethics matters is that our attempts seem insignificant or inadequate. And it is quite possible that they are. If your family converted to “zero waste”, started cycling instead of propelling themselves with fossil fuels, stopped eating meat, and put up solar panels, it would still have a less than negligible effect on global warming. It also turns out that to a large extent our charitable donations to needy people fail to improve their lot. The waste associated with charitable giving has even led to the Effective Altruism movement that seeks to channel donations towards the NGOs and nonprofits that really do some good. The insignificance of individual moral action even leads David Wallace-Wells to claim that “…the effects of individual lifestyle choices are ultimately trivial compared with what politics can achieve”.

But there is a second reason to doubt the value of ethics. Some have argued that beyond its ineffectiveness, ethics may even be counterproductive, leading to distraction and apathy, rather than change. Recently Ronnie de Sousa, an emeritus professor in philosophy at the University of Toronto, argued that we should “forget morality”. According to him, moral philosophy, or the attempt to distinguish right from wrong, leads to idle theoretical debate producing systems of rules that could never be applied consistently. Instead of doing good things for good reasons, we endlessly debate right and wrong. Is it shameful to donate to animal causes while children starve? Is it always wrong to lie, even if a partial truth might save lives? Far from sparking action, these debates delay or replace action.

Worse still, those who profess moral knowledge, confidently explaining why their vegetarian, vegan, anti-capitalist, and zero-waste lifestyles are superior to ours, come across as self-righteous and awaken in us a resentful protest against change and moral action. Consider the popular backlash and often hateful and deplorable social media comments aimed at Greta Thunberg.

We might therefore conclude that Global Ethics Day campaigns, while nice and harmless, don’t and won’t do much to address our big challenges. If this is our conclusion, it is not only premature, but also dangerously convenient. It encourages finger-pointing and moral disengagement. If my actions make no difference, then why do anything at all?

Instead, we should maintain our moral efforts, first and foremost, because moral conduct is right and good regardless of the impact. Reducing one’s waste, for instance, is right because it is a more efficient and economical way to live in the world, and it is an admirable act that anyone could emulate. This would be true even if you were the only person doing it.      

Ethical acts are not only admirable and repeatable, but an increasing number of studies show that such virtuous actions strengthen us psychologically, while contributing to a meaningful life. Simply put, displaying gratitude or humility or temperance makes us happy. In this sense, ethics matters… it has personal utility.

But if this still sounds selfish and trivial, then consider that it also impacts other people. Take the story of solar panels. According to Dutch historian Rutger Bregman, author of Utopia for Realists and Humankind, the distribution of solar panels in suburban neighbourhoods is not arbitrary. They cluster. What this implies is that our virtuous behaviour is contagious. When I see my neighbour putting up solar panels, I am inspired to do the same. And as more people install solar panels, businesses providing them grow, and the adoption of green legislation becomes more probable. According to Bregman, then, “…before you know it, the personal becomes political”. Our personal ethical conduct has political and business significance.

It is therefore a cop-out to suggest that our personal moral effort is unimportant or insignificant. Naturally, we also need change on a structural level, but structural change and personal moral effort cannot be separated.

Ethics does matter… personally, from a business perspective and politically. And we would do well to identify urgent and worthy causes, and then to pursue them. We would do even better if we didn’t limit our efforts to the 20th of October. DM

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  • A very useful and reflective take on matters ethical. That element that is so lacking or in short supply amongst many politicians especially ! However … as an aside… I note that the author works for an organisation that was found to have been complicit in the VBS ‘scandal’ – how does he reconcile the ethics of continuing to do so ? Could be fascinating to say the least.

    • KPMG created the position of Chief Ethics Officer to improve ‘moral sensitivity and ethical reasoning within KPMG’. For that it should be given credit and Dr. Engelbrecht should be lauded for accepting the challenges associated with his appointment to the position. It would be great if he could be persuaded to also write a regular column for Daily Maverick answering reader’s ethical questions – along the lines of The Ethicist column in the New York Times.

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