The Danger in Not Trusting Our Moral Compass
Doubting our capacity to do good is suddenly all the rage.
Posted December 9, 2022 | Reviewed by Davia Sills
- Moral dilemmas are often undecidable, meaning we lack solid rational grounds for choosing between compelling courses of action.
- When we exhaust our capacity for calculation, we turn to our internal moral compass for guidance on how to proceed.
- There is growing pressure to reframe undecidable dilemmas as complex problems that can be solved using algorithmic tools like advanced AI.
- We need to reject the message encouraging us to doubt our natural capacities to do good and trust our cooperative intuitions.
Moral dilemmas are often undecidable. Which is to say, there are times when we lack solid rational grounds for choosing between two (or more) compelling courses of action. In those moments, after we’ve exhausted our capacity for ethical calculation, we turn to our internal moral compass for guidance on how to proceed.
Deciding the undecidable
Many dilemmas in business ethics are undecidable. Questions like “Should we defraud our customers?” or “How cruelly should we exploit our workers?” are not moral dilemmas. It is clear from both a legal and ethical perspective why fraud and exploitation are wrong. Companies that engage in those behaviors do so knowing full well that their actions are widely regarded as immoral. Further, they have a sense (perhaps imperfect) of what the legal, reputational, and economic costs will be should they get caught. But the decision-makers conclude by some morally problematic fiscal calculus that it is nonetheless worth their while not to do the right thing.
What actually constitutes moral dilemmas are questions like “Do we embrace carbon offsets, or do we change our manufacturing processes?” or “Do we produce our products locally if that forces us to charge our price-sensitive customers more?” In these instances, both options are morally (within certain frameworks) and legally (within certain jurisdictions) sound. There is no objectively superior universal choice. So, leaders turn to their moral compass, acting in a manner that is most consistent with their personal values, hoping that their actions will build solidarity and trust with their company’s diverse stakeholders while enhancing their corporate reputation and preventing future scandals.
The pressure to see complexity instead of undecidability
The premise for trusting our moral compass is that these moral dilemmas are undecidable. Yet increasingly, there is pressure to reframe undecidable dilemmas as complex problems that can be solved using algorithmic tools like advanced AI. It isn’t surprising that today’s ethical demands have spawned products and services from companies such as Ethisphere and RobecoSAM and major consultancies like Deloitte that use proprietary software to offer moral guidance.
It is also easy to see why well-meaning leaders looking at the myriad of variables behind environmental, social, and corporate governance (ESG) indexes, diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) commitments, and corporate social performance (CSP) metrics would throw up their hands and call in a consultant.
But outsourcing ethics is built on the belief that there exists a consultancy that has, if not all, at least most of the answers required to make corporate ethical pursuits easier. And this just isn’t the case. The experts don’t know much more about ethics than the rest of us, and it is unlikely that they will be able to foresee the source of the next corporate scandal better than regular people trusting their moral compass and trying their best to do the right thing.
We live in a strange political moment where corporate consultancies and activist thought leaders have aligned in pushing the message that average folks need to doubt their natural capacities to do good. Contemporary notions of “allyship” discourage all but the most virtuous from trying to help.
Advocates of allyship assume that the natural inclination of would-be helpers is to perpetuate systems of oppression. We are too fundamentally tainted to trust our moral compass. At the same time, the big consultancies tell us we need AI because we are too inherently stupid to effectively navigate moral dilemmas with our internal compass.
They are both wrong. Cutting-edge research demonstrates that our best cooperative behavior stems from intuition. Boosting reliance on intuition as opposed to calculation leads to increased cooperation. The real danger we face is not trusting our moral compass.
Weitzner, D. 2022. Three Ways Companies are Getting Ethics Wrong. MIT Sloan Management Review, Nov. 29, https://sloanreview.mit.edu/article/three-ways-companies-are-getting-et…
Weitzner, D. 2021. “Against ‘Allyship.’” Tablet Magazine, Nov. 4, https://www.tabletmag.com/sections/community/articles/against-allyship