Building and maintaining physical infrastructure requires a certain kind of know-how, which we call engineering. Maintaining our social infrastructure also requires know-how, because we must develop ground rules that make our social practices sustainable. The field that provides this kind of know-how is called ethics.
When organizations go astray ethically, it is usually due to a lack of ethical competence, not bad people. Naturally, there are plenty of scoundrels out there. The media loves to tell us about the Bernie Madoffs and Martin Shkrelis of the world. But most of us are basically good people who are unsure how to navigate the treacherous ethical waters of modern work life. Even when there are bad people around, we often lack the concepts and vocabulary to explain why they are wrong.
It is a relatively straightforward matter to hire staff with engineering competence. But how does one recognize ethical competence? How does one motivate staff to acquire this competence and apply it?
The first stage is heteronomy, in which people take their beliefs and values from others. In youth, norms are typically supplied by family and school, and in adulthood, by the organizations to which one belongs. The second stage is ideology, in which people begin to do their own thinking but buy into a thought system that claims to have an answer for everything. One often finds this perspective among teens and young adults, but it can persist into later years. The third stage is autonomy, in which people acknowledge the validity of different points of view but strive toward a rational consensus. It arrives in mature adulthood, if at all.
Training in ethical analysis can play a key role in developing ethical leadership. It gives those with autonomy the intellectual tools they need to make responsible decisions and build consensus around them. It can help nudge others toward ethical maturity.
An organization that takes ethics seriously, and develops ethical competence in its emerging leaders, is well on the way to building a sustainable social infrastructure.