by Bob Lewis

Development team ethics, Part I – The Abyss

Jun 07, 20115 mins
IT Leadership

Before calling anyone unethical, make sure you understand the subject.

Before calling anyone unethical, make sure you understand the subject.

The less people know, the stronger their opinion. It’s a fine American tradition, and it’s nowhere more in evidence than when people get on their high horses about other peoples’ ethics.

I was reminded of this (again!) when long-time correspondent Mark Eisenberg forwarded an article with this shocking headline: “Survey Shows Unethical Behavior Rampant Inside IT Development Teams” (Scott W. Ambler, Dr. Dobb’s Journal, 5/3/2011).

We’ll dive into the cesspool that is, apparently, IT development team behavior next week. Before that we first have to cover a few regrettably didactic essentials if we’re to avoid the argument-by-assertion pitfall that tends to dominate most exercises in ethical high-horsemanship.


Deontologism vs Consequentialism

Ethicists fall into two camps. Deontologists gauge the ethics of an action from the nature of the behavior itself … in other words, based on whether it adheres to or violates a set of rules. If you consider the ten commandments or the seven deadly sins to be your ethical guideposts, you’re a deontologist.

Consequentialists gauge the ethics of an action based on its outcomes, considering the “rules” to be more rules of thumb than inviolable prescriptions … formulations that more often than not do lead to positive outcomes, but which shouldn’t be blindly followed without regard for their actual results.

Deontologists tend to use phrases like “the ends don’t justify the means.” Consequentialists prefer phrases like, “the road to hell is paved with good intentions.”

You know you’re a deontologist if, when you’re a guest at someone’s party, the host serves an awful-tasting hors d’oeuvre and asks how you like it, you consider the ethical course of action to be an honest answer: “This tastes like something that went bad in your refrigerator several weeks ago.”

You know you’re a consequentialist if, in the same situation, you answer, “I’m sorry … I’m mildly allergic to [some ingredient you’re sure is in the recipe but that’s unlikely to get you into trouble later]. I’d better not have any more.”

For the record: I ascribe to consequentialism. If you’re a deontologist and consider consequentialism to be a horrible approach to ethical matters, please read Operation Mincemeat (Ben Macintyre, 2010). It tells the true story of a disinformation campaign conducted by British intelligence during WWII whose goal was to mislead the Nazis regarding where the Allies were going to invade southern Europe.

If you’re a deontologist, a disinformation campaign … deliberate deception … is unethical.

If, like me, you’re a consequentialist, Operation Mincemeat was outstandingly ethical. (It’s also a terrific read no matter what your ethical formulation … well worth your time just for the sheer enjoyment.)

Corporations as Moral Entities

They aren’t. Acting according to a moral code is a species-specific characteristic of Homo sapiens. As pointed out in this space quite a few years back, we consider human cannibals to be both morally reprehensible and icky. When seagulls do the same thing it’s just something seagulls do … we don’t assess other species according to human moral standards.

Human beings are presumptively moral. When we run across someone who deliberately hurts others without qualm, we figure we’re dealing with an unfortunate exception.

Corporations … publicly held ones, that is … aren’t just like people only bigger. If they were, maximizing shareholder value could hardly be represented as their highest virtue and sole ethical yardstick because really … according to what human system of values is making people wealthier an ethical matter?

Privately held corporations are, by the way, a different matter. They are extensions of their owners, who rarely separate their personal ethics from how they run their companies.

So from here on in, the discussion is about publicly held corporations, which are presumptively amoral … not immoral, but amoral. We expect nothing of them beyond their attempts to maximize profit and the value of their stock.

Employee Ethics

As employees we operate at two levels. We interact with other employees interpersonally. When we do we’re guided by our personal moral codes.

And we interact with the corporation as its agent — ethically a very different matter.

As the corporation’s agent we’re expected to subordinate our personal moral code to what it requires of us. Example: The company understaffs IT, expecting employees to work more hours for no more pay. Personally, you find this immoral. As a manager in IT you enforce it anyway.

But if, as an employee, the corporation’s requirements supersede your moral code, they supersede it whenever you’re acting as an employee.

That includes your interactions with your employer.

With that we’re ready to decide whether IT development teams are rampantly unethical. So saddle up your high horse. Next week we ride!


For this week’s ManagementSpeak, click here.


Bob Lewis is author of Outsourcing Debunked and eight other books on business, information technology, and where they intersect. He is president of IT Catalysts, Inc., a consultancy specializing in these and related areas.