I once worked as an office assistant at bank. Amongst other things, the office handled investments for clients. This business is fraught with ethical issues. In one situation, there was an employee - a stock broker -- who was pedaling to his clients a company in which he had an interest. This is considered to be unethical, because people who advise on investments are supposed to have a duty of care towards the customer. They are supposed to give advice that is impartial, among other things. Clearly, the advice to invest in this company was impartial. I was curious about this more than anything else, being very junior, so I asked my supervisor about the situation. I was essentially told in no uncertain terms to ignore the practice because "that's just how he works." I referred to industry sources and realized that the actions were in fact unethical, and the person in question was in violation.
An ethical dilemma is best understood as a conflict between two or more actions where there is an unclear right and wrong (McConnell, 2010). The lack of ethical clarity makes it more difficult to make a decision -- this is the source of the dilemma. The ethical view of any situation is framed by the person viewing the situation. Each person has his or her own ethical code, in addition to those provided by society. As a result, each person will have an individual view of the dilemma. In my situation, the dilemma is not as one-sided as it appears. In fact, my situation is characteristic of many ethical dilemmas in that it contrasts a broader societal view of right and wrong vs. one that is focused on the individual. It could be said that I was obligated to report this incident and my company's response to the relevant regulatory authorities. However, doing so would effectively end my career in the business. And for what -- I had no actual proof and was not really in a position where I could gather such proof.
In philosophy, there are a number of frameworks that have been developed over the centuries to help people resolve their ethical dilemmas. The two basic forms of framework are the deontological and the consequentialist framework. Many situations become ethical dilemmas because these two perspectives yield vastly different results in their analysis of the situation. My situation can be analyzed through these two perspectives to determine what course of action would have been best.
The simplest way to understand deontological ethics is that the ethics of a situation are governed by a sort of a universal ethical standard. There are many ways to interpret this. A simple way is to understand that the laws of our society are a direct reflection of our ethical standards. Any act that contravenes the law is an act that contravenes the prevailing ethical standards of our land and time. A broader interpretation would see the ethics of the situation in terms of social norms. In business, these could be industry norms, social interaction norms or the norms of society in general. If the U.S. is taken to be a society based on Christian norms, for example, then those norms could conceivably provide the basis for deontological assessment. Deontological ethics can be complicated to interpret. One complicating concept is that of moral duty, which reflects a personal ethic that goes beyond the basic societal ethics. Most people are faced with situations where an act may not be technically illegal, but where it contradicts either society's ethics or their own personal ethics. The concept of moral indifference must be addressed as well. If an act has either not been interpreted by society or is subject to a fairly neutral view from society such that one can be indifferent, then the dilemma may be minor but it still remains unresolved.
In my situation, the law and the codes of conduct for the industry provide a clear categorical imperative -- the prevailing standard against which the ethics of the situation should be weighed. From a deontological perspective, the appropriate course of action is clear. I should have reported the incident to the relevant authorities, even without proof, and allowed them to conduct their own investigation. The authorities are vested with investigative powers, more so than myself, so it would have been reasonable to turn to them even without evidence.
Standing in contrast to deontological ethics, consequentialism weighs the ethics of a situation against the consequences. There is no room for ambiguity in this system -- an act is either ethical or unethical (Alexander & Moore, 2007). Naturally, the consequences are to be weighed by the perceiver. Each consequence will need to be considered, and given weight, in order to perform the final ethical calculus needed to determine the best course of action. The utilitarian concept of "greatest good for the greatest" number is a consequentialist theory that is consequentialist in nature (Driver, 2009). Another view would be that a person would give greater weight to the outcomes that will occur to them, with lesser weights to outcomes to other stakeholders.
Thus, the determination of the best course of action in an ethical dilemma, when using the consequentialist perspective, is still open to significant interpretation. Moreover, the final determination of the ethics of a decision may not be realized until the full set of outcomes becomes known. In this situation, the outcomes to myself would surely have been negative; the outcomes to the company and the advisor in question also negative. The clients, saved from being sold a security that may not have been in their best interests, could potentially benefit. They could, however, not benefit. There is no way for me to know that point in time whether that security was going to prove a good investment or not.
Analysis of the Ethical Dilemma
The deontological ethics are clear -- that I needed to report the incident to the regulators. The consequentialist ethics are less clear, primarily because the outcomes of inaction are unknown. This is one of the reasons why the dilemma exists -- the known outcomes of reporting the incident are negative while there are few known outcomes associated with not reporting it. To further understand, the rationale behind the deontological case needs to be examined. The categorical imperative is predominantly a stand against dishonesty and abusing a position of trust. The law and code of conduct are required because many past cases similar to this one had negative outcomes for the investors. While the negative outcome will not always happen, the odds of a negative outcome are significant. Moreover, the negative outcomes can be catastrophic in nature -- people losing their entire life savings and things like that. So the existence of a deontological prohibition against this action is based on an assessment of the consequences associated with this action. This insight into the consequences allows one to make a better determination of the consequentialist ethics of the dilemma.
Actions and Evaluation
Ultimately, I left the firm and ensured that the firm's compliance officer was aware of the situation. While this could be viewed as passing the buck on the ethical dilemma rather than resolving it, that is not the case. True, there was no direct resolution that I implemented. I neither stopped the activity nor did I support it going onward. This was a demonstration of moral indifference on my part, at least to some degree. The system has its own mechanisms for addressing situations like this. The first point of contact is supposed to be the compliance officer. This individual does have enforcement power over the firm, and is intended to handle matters before they become an issue for the regulator to address. This system is standard in the banking industry, so fits with the deontological ethics of the situation. As I had no direct power either for investigation or for sanction, the best I could do was to pass along my information to somebody who did have those powers.
The consequentialist may argue that I needed to take ownership of the situation and ensure that it met with resolution. This would still depend on the actual outcomes, rather than the assumed negative outcomes. Such a view is not uncommon in banking -- it's a good idea until somebody gets hurt. Choosing another course of action, such as directly contacting the regulator, would likely have caused even more harm. The entire company could have been harmed, rather than just the one person committing the unethical act. I also weighed the damage done to me. The industry's overall lack of ethics was something I wanted to step back from so I could re-evaluate my position in the industry. But certainly my decision to leave the company harmed me. For all I know that was the most harm that came to anybody. However, I primarily-based my decision on the deontological ethics of the situation.