Travelling North

Article – A Bridge is a Bridge

A bridge is a bridge

Sometimes I write something just because I want to explore an idea.  This particular contribution was driven by thinking about the idea that business was a moral endeavour!

There were two communities, on either side of a deep and dangerous ravine.  Every so often someone would try to cross from one side to the other.  It was almost impossible to climb down safely, and most died in the attempt.  Even if someone did get to the bottom, there was a swirling, fast moving river, which it was impossible to cross.  No one had managed to go from one community to the other.

Then a bridge was built, and the two communities were linked.  The results were amazing.  Goods flowed from one side to the other, and as this increased the market for these goods, so the benefits of increased productivity and reduced costs were realised.  Innovative ideas that were developed on one side become available to the other, and improved the quality of life.  People found partners in the opposite community, married and had children:  as the genetic pool had been increased, the risk of many diseases declined, and many were happier as a result.  Because no one was trying to climb down and across the ravine, there were fewer deaths of young people (who were the majority of climbers), and the average life span of people in the two communities increased.  In ways anticipated and unanticipated, the bridge had changed the lives of both communities, and they were better off in many respects.

Was the bridge good?  In one sense it was:  as a bridge, it was well constructed, vibration free, strong, able to carry all sorts of loads.  But it also enabled innovation, lengthened peoples’ lives, increased the goods they could buy.  Wasn’t that good, also?  Yes, but it wasn’t because the bridge was good in a human sense.  It didn’t have good intentions.  It didn’t choose what sorts of activities to allow based on their moral worth.  It was used.

A bridge is just a bridge, and insensate collection of iron, steel, concrete, tarmac and paint.

Did I forget to mention that bad things happened, too?  Now a gang of thieves based in one of the communities could cross over and steal from homes that had never known such crime before.  A group of young men from one side lured young women across the bridge with promises about the fun they would have, and then raped them.  A snake oil salesman on one side of the ravine now had some more gullible shoppers from the other side to part from their money.  In ways anticipated and unanticipated, the bridge had changed the lives of both communities, and they were worse off in many respects.

A team from the government came to study the bridge and its consequences.  Interdepartmental committees and task forces looked at the economic and social effects of the bridge.  As governments do, it concluded there was a need for supervision.  Bridge usage policies were developed.  Trade across the bridge was subject to government approval.  A code of legal requirements for bridge transfers was developed.  The bridge was policed.  Through the involvement of government, in ways anticipated and unanticipated the bridge had changed the lives of both communities, and they were better off in some respects, and worse off in other respects.

A group of academics came to study the bridge and its consequences.  Many saw the good things that had arisen as a result of the bridge.  The wiser among them focussed on the people using the bridge, and explained the importance of the virtues that were required if positive outcomes were to be achieved.  If the bridge was going to enable good outcomes, it had to be because the bridge users were moral, principled, seeking to do the right thing, even seeking their own and possibly others happiness.  Many of the academics concluded that the bridge had enabled progress, insofar as the users of the bridge strove to do things that were better, that were valuable to others.

However, some confused the users with the bridge itself.  One observed “the bridge is inherently moral because it privileges creativity and innovation”.  Another suggested, “the moral endeavour of the bridge is to diffuse knowledge”.

Yet others confused means with ends.  While they realised that the bridge merely provided a basis for the actions of people to be implemented, actions that led to the outcomes they observed, they forgot Adam Smith’s observation: “It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker, that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest. We address ourselves, not to their humanity but to their self-love, and never talk to them of our own necessities but of their advantages.”

Instead, they confused outcomes with means.  They talked about the creation of wealth being achieved by creating wealth for others; they suggested that business people were concerned with “making the world a better place” rather than running a successful business and making profits.  The fact that many used the bridge to grow their businesses and their wealth, and some even for selling snake oil and the like was glossed over, let alone that it was also provided a means for some to rob or to rape.  Bridge users could be moral, and yet self-interested; being good did not prevent people from becoming wealthy; being wealthy did not require immoral actions, however, nor did it preclude being good.

Fortunately, this group of analysts were academics.  Despite the energy they put into their research and the papers and books they wrote, they had no impact on the ways anticipated and unanticipated that the bridge had changed the lives of both communities.

A bridge is just a bridge.  It can do nothing of itself, but it can be used.  If people use it, it can be used for good or bad purposes, for moral or immoral activities.  But it is people who do things using the bridge, and it is people whose actions we can judge as good or bad, moral or immoral.  There is no way in which the bridge as a bridge can act in a way that is good or bad.  It is a means, used by people for various ends.  Some of those ends were good from the outset – like bringing technologies from one community to the other.  Some were bad from the outset – like robbery.  Some turned out to have good outcomes – like the consequences of an enlarged gene pool.

We could have asked the question:  so, did the bridge have a good impact?  Let us suppose, on balance it did?  Did the bridge do that?  Of course not:  it was the actions of people using the bridge that had an impact, an impact judged on balance to be seen as good (perhaps more people did good things than did bad things; or perhaps it was just that good actions outweighed bad actions).

What about the systems that were introduced to manage transactions across the bridge?  We could imagine that a clever computer system was developed that analysed each business proposal that was made, and assessed the likely outcome in terms of benefits to the community.  Perhaps this system used some kind of utilitarian metric, assessing each proposal and choosing those that gave the greatest benefit to the greatest number of people on both sides.  Now we have a system that is making moral choices, don’t we?

Not quite.  Computer systems, like bridges, are not moral agents in themselves.  Of course a person can write a program that makes choices based on some kind of moral framework (just as the bridge allowed all sorts of good practices to occur).  However, a computer system is not moral, it is merely mechanically following a set of directives that a person has devised, directives that the systems programmer saw as ‘good’.

I could have chosen something far more complex than a bridge.  Perhaps I could have chosen business.  Or I could have chosen the free market capitalist economy.  The point would have been the same.  The only moral agents are people.  People can make choices, and in doing so may follow or go against established moral principles, values generally supported in the community that are judged to be ‘good’ or ‘bad’.

Bridges, businesses and the economic system cannot make moral choices, only the people using them can.  Neither a bridge, a business nor an economic system is a moral agent of itself.  The consequences of actions taken by people using a bridge, a business or an economic system, these can be judged as moral or immoral, good or bad.

Of course, I could have chosen government.  The same analysis applies.

In summary, the point I am making is quite simple:  systems are not and cannot be moral, only those people working within those systems can make choices that are good or bad.  If we want the actions of business to be moral, then we have to look to the people who work in businesses.

If we want to enhance the likelihood that people in business act morally, then we have a really important role for business schools.  Since the task of business is to make things and to deliver services, we might want to examine our priorities as to how we develop the skills and capabilities of business students.  We might want to moderate the extent to which we emphasise learning the instrumental skills of achieving business success by also placing emphasis on how to achieve goals morally, through ethical behaviour, thereby constraining mechanical practice within a framework of shared social and moral or ethical values.  By doing this we would be developing good businesspeople, and that seems to me to be a really important goal.  Building a business is a worthwhile endeavour; developing moral businesspeople should be an essential endeavour.

August 2015

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