New Orleans I was interested in visiting with Dr. Steven Mintz, emeritus professor of philosophy from California Poly at San Luis Obispo, California, on Wade’s World when I saw he was an expert on workplace ethics. These days, is that even a thing given the daily reports of exactly the opposite way in which corporations operate?
The heart of Mintz’s argument when it comes to corporations was straightforward. Since corporations have won from the courts the privilege of being dealt with legally as a person, then they should have to practice the ethics expected of people as well. In his book, Beyond Happiness and Meaning: Transforming Your Life Through Ethical Behavior, he has trouble finding a lot of evidence of ethical corporate behavior. He starts by taking on economist Milton Friedman, the idol of neo-cons and neoliberals, and his dictum that the business of companies is profit, pure and simple, by underlining the limits that even Friedman conceded to his license to robber barons.
Mintz had some difficulty avoiding all of the examples of unethical behavior from companies. Wells Fargo has become an example of a bank as a criminal enterprise from its creation of fake accounts in recent years to the latest story of its computer system continuing to pile up overdrafts after customers have closed their accounts. VW’s attempts to trick the EPA and others on its pollution controls is another case in point. Looking at the old Ford Pinto case, it was shocking to talk about the cold blooded cost-benefit calculations that rationalized not spending $11 to fix the problems that would cause gas tank explosions and save the lives of hundreds, because they felt it was cheaper to pay a little piece of money for the loss of a human life than a measly couple of bucks on a fix. Same for Takata’s air bags. The litany of horror at how these corporate “people” act defies any notion of ethics it would seem.
When it got to the personal side of ethics in the workplace, #MeToo, was front and center. Mintz had written about the “bystander” rationale exercised by victims in some cases and many who knew of the abuse but didn’t speak up, because they hoped someone else would stand up or were afraid of repercussions to themselves. In these days of anonymous trolls on the internet, it would seem like anyone could create a new Gmail account and send a message to the powers-that-be about abuse from some coffeeshop, but what do I know.
When it comes to whistleblowing, Mintz had no qualms. It is always worth the risks and living with the consequences, because that is the ethical thing to do. He applied this rule whether it was sexual abuse or state secrets. Interestingly in dissecting the Edward Snowden case, he was not a fan of Snowden not going the last mile through internal channels, but his final verdict was simple: Snowden did the right thing the wrong way but for the right and good results.
Even white lies meant to not offend end up creating a web that only truth can resolve, leading Mintz to advocate “gentle” honesty. Workplaces could use more ethical practice and gentleness as well, both for workers and their customers, and that is absolutely the truth.