So Defining Moments, a short, readable entry from Harvard business school ethics professor Joseph L. Badaracco Jr., proves more than satisfying. Badaracco--with whom this reviewer once studied--applies to real-life dilemmas the teachings of history's great philosophers. The result is a surprisingly practical framework for confronting ethical problems.
Badaracco sees that ''defining moments''--those that shape the future of people and organizations -- often involve deciding between paths that are both right. A manager, typically, may have to pick between forgoing layoffs to protect workers or going ahead with them to win higher returns for shareholders. This is a ''dirty hands'' problem, according to Jean-Paul Sartre, who said that choosing either path requires abandoning one's moral innocence.
In such situations, managers who go with their gut feelings risk superficial solutions. A black investment banker, for example, is asked at the last minute to join a team pitching a prospective client--clearly, he sees, because the client is also black. Insulted by the implicitly racist affront, his instinct is to refuse. Yet, in Badaracco's paraphrase of Aristotle, ''a moral intuition, however clear and heartfelt,'' doesn't guarantee moral soundness. And ''grand principles'' such as those of John Stuart Mill, who advocated bringing the greatest good to the most people, can't address the complexities of particular cases.
Rather, it is Niccol Machiavelli, Badaracco says, whose teachings hit home. ''A man who wishes to act entirely up to his professions of virtue soon meets with what destroys him,'' the 16th century Italian wrote in The Prince. That is, sound decisions must be practical. Machiavelli describes what we might think of as a system of practical ethics: virtu, a ''moral code of public life'' that combines vigor, confidence, shrewdness, and self-discipline. Managers, Badaracco writes, operate in two worlds. In the first--a web of responsibilities, commitments, and ethical aspirations--the search for virtue is critical. ''The other world is an arena of intense, sometimes brutal competition. Here success demands virtu.''
Managers must find a path between the two. The black investment banker holds true both to his own sense of right and to his company's demands, Badaracco argues, by agreeing to help make the pitch--but stipulating that he take a substantive role in the final preparations. In a contrasting example, the marketing chief at a computer distributor fails in his ethical dilemma by ignoring virtu. Forced to decide whether to fire a subordinate, he misjudges the organizational politics that demand urgent action--and puts his own job at risk.
Alas, such wins and losses are best judged in hindsight. In the heat of the moment, Machiavelli provides guidance--but virtue and virtu, as Badaracco notes, are finally irreconcilable. The great moral philosophers notwithstanding, there are no easy answers.
BY KEITH H. HAMMONDS
Updated Oct. 2, 1997 by bwwebmaster
Copyright 1997, Bloomberg L.P.