First I need to make something clear.
Lately you hear the words Ethical leadership, ethical business, ethical products, ethical investing etc. a lot. The word ethics is becoming increasingly popular, especially in the context of sustainability. You would think that it is already known that ethics is important for sustainability.
But the way ethics is used in these examples is incorrect and undesirable.
Ethical says absolutely nothing in these examples. Let me explain what ethics is.
Ethics is the branch of philosophy that examines what the right thing to do is in a given situation. There are different views how to judge what is right or wrong. Morality is the interpretation of what the right thing to do. It is the package of norms and values that a person or organization has and uses so they know what to do. This interpretation depends on the selected view.
In the previous examples, I suspect that ‘ethical’ is meant that the leader, product or investment is following certain norms and values. But I don’t know what values! I have to guess.
The use of the word ethical here creates unclarity. The interpretation of what is right to do, is to the reader to decide. Unclarity creates miscommunication and disagreements, something you don’t want if you want to make progress in your sustainability plans.
So how and why is ethics important for sustainability?
Sustainable plans often face dilemmas where you have to decide what the right thing to do. You have to make a difficult choice. There is always someone or something that is not completely satisfied with the path you’ve chosen, because their interests are harmed. A plan has always consequences for others, and that involves individuals, organizations, animals or ecosystems.
If you use ethical analysis in the right way you create clarity. You examine what the different values and interests are. Is nature more important than man, honesty more important than health, justice more important than safety? If you have studied all this, then you clearly know where the pain points and differences are, but also where the similarities lie. It makes discussions easier and more effective if you have this clarity. Furthermore, ethics gives you tools to weigh out the conflicting values and interests at stake.
In this era of new developments in technology and globalization and with increasingly responsible and conscious citizens, we are increasingly confronted with dilemmas. These dilemmas are becoming more complex and are more sensitive, because there are more uncertainties and interests at stake. Assuming that we know the right way is not possible in this complex world. All the more reason to keep things clear.
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