Friday, May 10, 2013

Organization at the age of individualism

Charles Taylor
I recently finished reading Charles Taylor's The Ethics of Authenticity. It is a wonderful book, providing a review of recent debates around individualism together with a very interesting argument concerning the basis of modern ethics and related political implications -- all in 121 pages. Despite broad interest in philosophy, I have previously steered clear of ethics as a subfield that I did not find particularly interesting. I used to joke that "I am not particularly into ethics" when discussion turned to the topic. After reading Taylor's book I think I will need to reconsider.

In this blog post I will briefly comment on the relationship of reasoning and ethics in organizations and then proceed to discuss some of the potential implications that individualism and 'ethics of authenticity' have on leadership and management in organizations.

Ethics and reasoning

The field of ethics concerns a subset of questions that humans reason about. Ethical reasoning represent the application of principles and moral norms on passing judgment on past actions and future choices. The orthodox view among organizational scholars seems to be that most accounts of ethical reasoning are post-hoc rationalizations of intuitive judgments. When we observe an action that we judge to be moral or immoral, we pass judgment well before we consider explicit reasons for morality or immorality. Explicit and conscious reasoning rarely changes our intuitive moral judgments (this has been discussed e.g. by Sonenshein).

Sonenshein contrasts intuition with reasoning. I think he is mistaken. Intuitive reasoning is reasoning. Vaisey has shown quite convincingly that even when individuals cannot articulate why they make the moral judgments they make (i.e. rely on 'intuition'), the judgments tend to be aligned with the broader ethical system they are committed to. We reason about the goodness and appropriateness of actions and choices based on the broader knowledge and values we hold even if we are not consciously aware of it. Vaisey's results are exactly what one would expect if one approaches ethical reasoning as, well, reasoning more generally! Of course there are some evolutionary and some societal regularities in reasoning that pertain particularly to ethical or moral topics. In this vein, quite a bit of interesting research has been done in experimental philosophy. There is even more specifically a society for empirical ethics. These approaches will provide plenty more research opportunities in the domain of organizations and leadership.

While some seek to establish a distinction between ethical reasoning and reasoning in general within organizations, I would posit that such distinction is difficult if not impossible to make. To quote a rather poetic passage of G.H Mead's:
The order of the universe we live in is the moral order. It has become the moral order by becoming the self-conscious method of the members of a human society. We are not pilgrims and strangers. We are at home in our own world, but it is not ours by inheritance but by conquest. The world that comes to us from the past possesses and controls us. We possess and control the world that we discover and invent. And this is the world of the moral order. It is a splendid adventure if we can rise to it.
Organizations are ethical in many ways. Even efficiency is a norm, and for many a highly ethical norm. It can be a moral imperative to be productive. I am currently sitting in a hiring committee and the choice (conscious or not) to follow the bureaucratic rules to the letter is a moral choice. To create a sharp divide between instrumental rationality and moral reasoning seems a cop-out. Everything individuals do in organizations can be judged as acceptable or unacceptance and as valuable or worthless according to a broad range of norms (i.e. evaluation criteria). To decide which norms should be called "moral" or "ethical" is itself a moral question, leading me to conclude that we might as well accept all norms as somehow ethical.

Ethics of Authenticity

Taylor argues we have transformed from the days of traditional society where ethical rules were forced upon the individual by history, peer pressure, or religion to a modern era of individualism. Taylor begins by drawing on cultural criticism of individualism, and the rather uncontroversial suggestion that (p. 4):
[...] the dark side of individualism is the centering on the self, which both flattens and narrows our lives, makes them poorer in meaning, and less concerned with other or society.  
His great insight is to reject the dichotomy individualism and morality (although I have not read enough to judge the novelty of his proposition). He suggests that the individualism itself is built on the moral principle of authenticity. On page 16:
What we need to understand here is the moral force behind notions like self-filfilment. [...] What we need to explain is what is peculiar to our time. It is not just that people sacrifice their love relationships, and the care of their children, to pursue their careers. Something like this has perhaps always existed. The point is that today many people feel called to do this, feel they ought to do this, feel their lives would be somehow wasted or unfulfilled if they didn't do it.
According to my interpretation of Taylor, a modern (individualistic) environmentalist does not want to save the environment (just) because of moral norms given to him by his social group. The modern environmentalist needs to try save the environment because that is the person she is. Because only by doing so she can be the person she can and ought to be. Page 26:
[Authenticity as a principle emerges from 18th century view that] Morality has, in a sense, a voice within. The notion of authenticity develops out of a displacement of the moral accent in this idea. On the original view, the inner voice is important because it tells us what is the right thing to do. Being in touch with our moral feelings would matter here, as a means to the end of acting rightly. What I'm calling the displacement of the moral accent comes about when being in touch takes on independent and crucial moral significance. It comes to be something we have to attain to be true and full human beings.
People no longer act out moral codes that are external to them, as (we may assume) they did at the golden age of religious and traditional conformity and hierarchy. People act ethically as individuals because of themselves, because they are and what to be whatever they conceive themselves to be and want others to recognize them as. Individualism is not amoral, but the basis of morality. Yet, in modernity individuals strive to be unique and seldom accommodate externally imposed 'identities' or 'social roles' (an old-fashioned idea that many organizational sociologists still seem to cling to). Life and identity are 'projects' that we fashion in interaction with others and in relationship to books, stories, ideologies, and available social roles (say Giddens and Rorty).

Authenticity and Organizations

To return to the topic of the blog, it seems to me that under the modern era of individualism, ethics and morality in an organization is crucially shaped by the conceptions of the self (identities) that the organization nurtures in its members. An organization that recognizes individuals only for the profits their department bring in or sales they can make facilitates conceptions of self that are focused on such goals. It is easy to see how organizations select and nurture identities for which "realizing one's full potential" means to sell more.

We are social animals and the era of individualism does not need to be an era of social atomism. As Taylor also points out (page 49):
On the intimate level, we can see how much an original identity needs and is vulnerable to the recognition given or withheld by significant others. It is not surprising that in the culture of authenticity, relationships are seen as the key loci of self-discovery and self-confirmation. Love relationships are not important just because of the general emphasis in modern culture on the fulfilments of ordinary life. They are also crucial because they are the crucibles of inwardly generated identity.
Organizational discourse and relationships across individuals generate shared beliefs concerning the range of identities individuals may fashion. Leadership in the age of individualism is not to impose shared norms upon people but to enable individuals to fashion authentic views of themselves as ethical actors. While a manager may force subordinates to conform to 'green values', Taylor's book suggests that it is fundamentally more realistic in this era of authenticity to direct the individual to pursue a conception of the self that cares about the nature.

The recent crises in banking make it a soft target for discussing ethics and morality. Did the large banks foster among their key employees conceptions of self as responsible professionals who provide valuable services to their customers and the society? I doubt it. Some email evidence surfaced of bankers calling their customers "suckers". When employees set their personal goal to be to make the most money out of the "suckers" by any means necessary, we shouldn't necessarily say that they have no ethics or lament that they no longer follow the commonly accepted societal norms. Taylor suggests, I believe, that we should rather posit them to have undesirable morals, the kind of ethics of self-fulfilment that we as a society should not accept.

I think it will make little sense to try and impose normative conformity on modern individualistic employees. When unethical behavior cannot be controlled by laws (as was the case largely in the events leading to the banking crisis), external control is difficult. To be ethical, organizations must facilitate identity projects and conceptions of self that make employees intrinsically want to be the kind of unique individual persons that we as a society can approve of.

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