Thinking outside the box on ethics

Finding ethical solutions to work issues requires thinking outside the box, particularly if the box is empty of ethical content.

Ethical dilemmas are often more complex in the real world than they are in theory, but using some imagination can provide the right resolutions.

To act ethically in practice is very different to solving ethical problems in theory. Our ethics in practice are affected by many influences from within ourselves, the contexts we are in, and the issues themselves.

A key capability to acting ethically in practice is being able to imagine options, possibilities and consequences. 

Finding ethical solutions to work issues requires thinking outside the box, particularly if the box is empty of ethical content. 

Even if our ethical values at work are strong and shared, we need to be able to understand the subtleties of each situation we face, so we can do the right thing.

How then should we develop and expand our ethical repertoire? How can we identify possibilities that go beyond our prior experiences and the way we have been doing things? How can we look at consequences that go beyond our individual or organisational interests and the short term? It takes imagination. 

"Our ethical imagination is malnourished when it comes to the workplace"
Ethical creativity is important so we can develop business solutions that are both ethical and profitable. This is not about being ethical because it is good for the bottom line. It’s about considering ethics as a prerequisite of how we make profits. 

We need to keep focusing on answering this question on every issue: I want to be ethical and profitable, what do I do? Unfortunately, our ethical imagination is malnourished when it comes to the workplace. We have not developed many ways of thinking that allow us to be ethically imaginative.

As an example, in a business that is about to go to the wall, most of us will consider only a limited number of options. For instance: should we be dishonest with a client to make a sale that will save the jobs of hundreds of employees?

Most of us will consider only a limited number of options. Yet there are potentially many ethical options that might be considered. However, to properly develop them they need attention, time and different lenses and perspectives to be applied. 

Professional Development: Professional ethics - a practical guide: gain an understanding, or refresher, of ethics and what it means in practical terms for day to day purposes.

Moral imagination is the ability to identify the ethical dimensions of a situation, then determine and evaluate a range of ethical options that go beyond the existing organisational scripts and take into account a broader group of affected parties and consequences.

Moral imagination requires a certain degree of stepping outside our narrow personal and organisational views and interests. 

It requires us to focus not only on the economic web of relationships but also on the ethical web, so that we imagine ethical possibilities and actions.

The focus should not be ‘how do we not do wrong’ but ‘how do we do what is right’ to achieve ethical excellence.

Moral imagination is not uninformed by our principles and sound reasoning, of course, but it is the medium that enables their practice in our life. 

Given that no ethics theory or model provides us with specific answers to all the ethical issues we face, we need to be able to create them ourselves. 

Read next: Prevent unethical behaviour taking root


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May 2017
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