What would _____ do?

A friend told me about a company (a stock trading firm, no less) that asks its employees to consider three things before acting:

  • Is it ethical?
  • Is it legal?
  • Does it look ethical?

I’ve heard people suggest, “A real utilitarian would be willing to rob banks to feed the poor.” By some standards, this might be an ethical action. Except this utilitarian would soon go to prison, the money would be seized and returned to the bank, and the headlines would read “Self-Styled Altruist Charged with Armed Robbery.” Not exactly the best way to further a cause. It fails the second and third criteria.

How about something that is ethical and legal but doesn’t look ethical? For example, I’ve heard people suggest schemes to take advantage of companies’ matching gift policies: Let’s say my company matches donations up to $5,000, but I’m only donating $3,000, so you give me $2,000, I donate it, and our favorite charity wins. No laws broken, though it probably violates company policy. And it makes us look sleazy. Please do not do things that make you look sleazy.

So you’re looking for options that are ethical, legal, and non-sleazy. They may still be unpopular. To some people, working for a stock trading company at all looks unethical, even if you donate your earnings. I’m willing to allow some wiggle room here and say that there’s always someone who would think your actions look unethical. But if most reasonable people would say your actions look sleazy, or if your actions would make for embarrassing headlines, you’ve got a problem.

Another model is to ask what some good person would do. The classic example is those WWJD? bracelets that were popular when I was 12. I tend to use old Quakers as my internal model for ethics.

Quakers often went into business back in the day when they couldn’t enter universities, government, or the military due to various moral compunctions. These sorts of principles translated into business principles as well. People trusted Quakers not to water the beer or put sawdust in the flour. And many Quakers did well – they started companies like Lloyds Bank and Cadbury Chocolate.

There are very few Quakers who still dress in traditional “plain” style – suspenders and collarless shirt for men, plain dresses and caps for women. Many of them didn’t grow up doing this but adopted it later in life, and I find it a little strange that anyone would decide to start dressing that way. But a plain-dressing friend once told me why he did it: it kept him honest. He visually declared his faith everywhere he went (although I imagine most people mistook him for Amish or Mennonite.)  It was a constant reminder to him that his actions were representing his beliefs, a reminder to live up to his own principles.

At one point I had a boss who encouraged me to break a company policy in a way that would increase my pay. The policy was only there to deprive employees of pay that we really ought to be getting, he argued. This was for my own good. He was authorizing me to do it. He was instructing me to do it. Standing there in his office, it was all very persuasive.

My internal model of “Is this okay?” was not functioning very well.  It seemed okay to obey instructions from my boss. But eventually I thought to ask myself, would a good Quaker do this?  The answer: Of course not. It’s dishonest.  And, more practically, You’ll get fired if the company finds out.  My boss was aggrieved when I told him I wouldn’t do it, but I kept my job and my dignity.

The “good Quaker” model works for things that aren’t ethics questions, too.  I used to wear a “War is not the answer” button from the Friends Committee on National Legislation on my purse.  It reminded me to smile at people on the subway, because that’s what a good Quaker would do: make the world a little nicer.

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