This paper is a rework of a talk presented in May this year to Sydney’s philosophy café ( ) under the title The failure of moral philosophy. It updates the original talk with lessons that emerged during the ensuing café discussion. It sets out seven practices, not normally encompassed under the topic of moral philosophy, which will, it is argued, strengthen ethical behaviour.

The concepts outlined in the following paragraphs are primarily institutionally based. Although some of the subsequent discussions raised the belief that moral transgressions are individual actions, an issue also raised in a later paragraph, most unethical action takes place in a group or institutional setting, and is best forestalled in such a setting.

The practices are, in many cases, drawn from an examination of ethical behaviours across fourteen different disciplines, in an about-to-be-published AAPAE book, Applied Ethics. Some are full chapters in the book; others however, are only support to the main arguments. The final section, the implications of the findings, however, is a separate issue – an attempt to examine what are the implications of these practices.

There are seven practices in all:

  1. Strengthening our ability to recognise when we ourselves have been unethical;
  2. Steps to encourage us to speak out against wrongdoing;
  3. Developments in codes of ethics that make them effective;
  4. Policies adopted by private sector organisations to institutionalise ethical behaviour;
  5. New programs for ensuring greater honesty in government;
  6. Building action on empirical findings, not argument.(vii) Teaching these practices

Several moral philosophers actively decry these developments, despite their benefits, a concern further discussed below. But let us first describe the practices. The first is an analysis of why we adopt practices that result in us not seeing wrongdoing, or in ignoring it when we do see it.

I. Why we fail to do what is right

Max Bazerman and Ann Tenbrunsel (Blind Spots, 2011) are professors of business ethics whose research tells us we often do not recognise that our decisions have ethical implications. If we do, we need to sort our way through many competing ethical theories. Even if we reach that decision, however, we do not necessarily implement it. There are many reasons why we do not act - a willingness to conform to accepted thinking (group think); our tendency to reduce dissonance when rejecting a suspected unethicality, our tendency to think short term and focus on the immediate outcome, and finally a nearcomplete failure to recognise many decisions as having unethical implications. They term their analyses “behavioural ethics”, claiming that it has grown “exponentially” in recent years. Their examples include the Challenger disaster and the Ford Pinto case, arguing that the decision-makers in these cases did not recognise the ethical overtones of the choices that they made.

This writer believes that adoption of the institutional practices suggested in this paper will help ensure that an ethical issue is recognised; and that the ethically desirable action is implemented.

II. Speaking out against wrongdoing

People in close contact with an organisation will be the first to identify a wrongdoing. Several major research studies, world-wide, have confirmed that blowing the whistle on illegal or unethical action is the most effective way to stop it (Association of Certified Fraud Examiners, 2006, 2010; Durant, A, 2004, Dyck, Morse, and Zingales,. 2007; Brown, 2008, Transparency International, 2009).

But to speak out is a dangerous practice. Whistleblowers are crucified (Alford, 2001). Legislation that encourages and protects those that speak out has now been introduced in most countries. Stock exchange listings have been expanded to require a whistleblowing facility. Even national standards now encourage it. These practices and their multiple problems should be taught to students of moral philosophy. Examine, however, the course outline for any degree in moral philosophy anywhere in the world. Blowing the whistle on wrongdoing will not be included.

III. Adopting codes of ethics that are effective

There is a wide cynicism about codes of ethics – that they are public relations documents written by senior management to give the impression that the organisation is honest. Alternatively they are designed to stop employees misappropriating the organisation’s funds or equipment. Research in recent years, however, documented by AAPAE, has determined that codes aimed at countering the actual ethical issues faced by staff, identified and managed by those who confront these issues, are likely to be effective. Making sure that codes are effective, however, is not a topic of interest to moral philosophers, including those writing on ethics. Our particular target is the claimed Ethics Toolkit (Baggini and Fosl, 2007), which has nothing on codes (or any other ethics tools). Codes can in fact be effective - the underlying evidence for this comes from the behavioural sciences and development economics.

IV. Policies adopted by private organisations to strengthen ethical practices

Probably bought on by the multitude of unethical business practices that have surfaced in recent years, including the GFC, these practices include:

Growth in Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR). Michael Porter, perhaps the foremost academic in business strategy, notes the link between corporate strategy and corporate social responsibility: “CSR has emerged as an inescapable priority for business leaders in every country,” he tells us.

An ethics role for professional societies. These institutions are codifying ethical practices for the disciplines they cover. The majority are merely exhortations to be good, and as such, are somewhat useless. A few, however, tackle actual ethical issues facing that discipline.

Trade Practices and antitrust. Moves to reach agreements with members of cartels to provide evidence in return for easier treatment have become near universal in recent years.

Legislation governing business dealings. Typical are the Sarbanes Oxley and the Dodd Frank Acts in the US, the strengthened Corporations Act in Australia and the Bribery Act in the UK. Some of this legislation is aimed at combating one of the ethical blinkers noted by Bazerman and Tenbrunsel – motivated blindness – an inability to recognise an unethical act when it is to your advantage. They note that Enron was Arthur Andersen’s second largest client – whose consulting fees were greater than auditing fees.

Securities exchanges principles. Again there has been increased emphasis on ethical behaviour exercised through the share markets. The growth in ethical investments, listings requiring ethical corporate governance, and the development of codes of ethics for exchange staff, are the most prominent.

V. Ensuring honest government

Another growth field, described by some as “exponential”, is Integrity Agencies. This term is specifically Australian, although it does include anti-corruption agencies (as they are termed elsewhere). All are aimed at strengthening ethical behaviour in the public sector. They cover illegal along with un-ethical activity. The list of wrongs that one anti-corruption agency prohibits, for instance, are actions that “could adversely affect, either directly or indirectly, the honest or impartial exercise of official functions”. Other prohibited actions involve a breach of public trust, or the misuse of information or material. These actions are not necessarily illegal.

Integrity agencies range from Crime Commissions to Ombudsman Offices. The latter have expanded from their traditional role of hearing complaints about public administrators to agencies responsible for public sector ethics. Some Ombudsman Offices manage whistleblower issues. Integrity and anti-corruption agencies work in a variety of ways towards strengthening ethical practices - by education, providing ethics consulting services, advice and training, by accepting complaints on misbehaviour, and by encouraging and protecting whistleblowers.

VI. Adoption of empirical findings

The learning processes in philosophy are based on argument. John Lachs condemns this approach. I quote from Philosophy Now, in an article that questions whether philosophy can still produce public intellectuals (September/October, 2009).

“Young philosophers (in the US) are taught that argument is king …that knowledge of facts is superfluous”

Another example is Louis Pojman and Vauhn Lewis in a widely-used text, Philosophy. The Quest for Truth:

“The major task (of philosophy) is to analyse and construct arguments”; and again:

“The hallmark of philosophy is centered in the argument”

Pojman makes the statement in the 6th edition: “I have striven to present opposing views on virtually every topic. “ It is a strange statement to make in a book questing for truth, for it is indeed rare that truth has two sides. Argument will be taught to you as the critical analytical tool in an undergraduate philosophy degree. If you have an ethics class in your children’s school, they will be taught to argue – not to investigate, gather facts and analyse.

Argument is an enjoyable process when we are simply speculating. It is totally inadequate for critical analytical thinking. The inadequacy of argument is reflected in the criticism of anti-corruption and integrity agencies as instruments for bringing about greater ethical behaviour in the public sector. Some moral philosophers decry these developments. Jeff Malpas, for instance, at a recent AAPAE conference, argued that the language of ethics:

“seems increasingly to have been appropriated by bureaucratised systems of political and managerial control based around notions of risk management, audit, accountability and assurance.” He complained that it presages “the demise in ethics.”

His contention pits argument against the techniques of empirical research – surveys, fact finding, and evaluation methodology. I can personally quote other examples. Two professors of philosophy argued with me that blowing the whistle on wrongdoing did not work. They were employing theoretical argument against the clear findings of empirical research.

VII. Teaching a capability to implement these findings

It has long been argued that people cannot be taught to be ethical. However, in my recent chapter on teaching ethics, with Vanya Smythe, we argue that “we can provide those who wish to work within an ethical environment with the knowledge and capabilities to bring about that environment.” We build this statement on research that has found: (i) the human race has evolved with at least cooperative instincts, and possibly ethical instincts; and, (ii) that people do desire to work in an ethical environment. An ethics course, built on the assertions of this paper, would to a large extent satisfy those desires.


I turn finally to the ethical significance of these paragraphs. The immediate losers, of course, are those young people who want to work in applied ethics and who take a philosophy degree to do so. Most of them want their work to matter, to have an impact. But they have an inadequate education in ethics with which to make this impact. They are given neither the knowledge of these current practices nor the skills with which to further develop the practices. I could even claim that their teaching gives them an intellectual handicap with which to face the world. For they are given analytical approaches that are completely inadequate for decision-making in the 21st century.

The bigger loser however, is society at large. Research into ways that society can strengthen ethical practices is left to other disciplines. And ethics is not a main-stream component of those other disciplines. The dominant discipline for ethics is philosophy. The research, the developments and strengthening of ethical behaviour should come from that discipline. Currently it does not. And until the discipline changes, it will not.

There are other losers, however - those moral philosophers who enjoy arguing. Or who wish to advance themselves in departments of philosophy. They will also lose the joy of arguing through the philosophical thoughts of history. Those that wish to make a difference in applied ethics will also not have much fun, for they will need to learn a much wider range of analytical skills and practices - sampling techniques, evaluation research, and statistical analysis for a start.

They might in the process, however, make the world a more ethical place in which to live. So the issue raised a question for our philosophy café. And other cafes philo around the world. What path should we follow?