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Ethics from Conscience and Example, not Ph.Ds

Interview with Gordon Marino, St. Olaf’s College

Gordon Marino Gordon Marino

Matthew Hennessey Matthew Hennessey

Carnegie Council's Matthew Hennessey interviews Gordon Marino, Director of the Hong Kierkegaard Library and Professor of Philosophy at St. Olaf's College in Northfield, Minnesota.

MATTHEW HENNESSEY: You've been fairly critical of the so-called "ethics industry" of consultants and ethics auditors.

Is there a better way for organizations such as private corporations or academic institutions to approach ethical questions that arise from the conduct of their businesses?

GORDON MARINO: The idea that ethics is an area of specialization like physics or comparative literature I think is questionable. I think there's been an over-use of experts in this country. To pretend as though you can send questions down to the "ethics office" as though you can split off ethics in the same way that you might the accounting department is not a healthy idea.

MATTHEW HENNESSEY: So are business ethics a waste of time?

GORDON MARINO: No. I do think there is too much time spent on mission statements and that sort of thing. I don't think it's entirely a waste of time, but I've seen ethics board games, ethics puzzles and ethics workshops. I just don't think we learn like that. Those kinds of things can present a kind of patina, or the appearance of morality when in fact there's not much there. There's also a pretense of rationality.

One of the problems I have with philosophical ethics is that the people who are involved in it sometimes speak as if they were the voice of pure reason. There's an affectation of objectivity that I think is questionable.

In terms of the philosophical tradition, I am much more of what you'd call a virtue ethicist. I often say if you want to learn to be ethical then you need to be around moral people and model them in some way. So I'm an Aristotelian, probably, in that sense. I don't need to see someone who's been doing a Ph.D and sitting in some graduate department for eight years. Just let me see somebody who's virtuous.

MATTHEW HENNESSEY: Is it fair to say that you see business ethics as little more than public relations?

GORDON MARINO: Yes. They're worried about the appearance of impropriety. But I'm not saying that there shouldn't be business ethics, or that it's a fraud, but there has been an abuse. It's become a fetish. I think people rely on it too much and make too much of the idea of expertise in that area. And there is the belief that it can be separated off from the rest of the business, when in fact we all have a conscience.

MATTHEW HENNESSEY: Is there any industry that has a better record on ethics?

GORDON MARINO: I don't do a lot of applied ethics. Mostly I work in existentialism. But I know for example there has been all kinds of problems with the ethics industry in medicine. They've made it almost impossible to do research. Fifteen page consent forms for people to sign for the slightest little thing, and they can't even understand the consent form. The levels of bureaucracy have become much more intense. It betrays a certain lack of trust in people.

I think there should be more emphasis on building a world, a community. For example, so many people live in situations that make it very hard to be moral. I don't think we take enough responsibility for making sure that people grow up in an environment that is conducive to caring people.

The tendency to turn everything into an area of expertise undermines people's own judgments in those areas. We are encouraging people to fall out of touch with their own views on things. We all have a conscience. But I think the ethics experts undercut our confidence to make our own moral judgments.

MATTHEW HENNESSEY: How do you approach talking about ethics in the classroom?

GORDON MARINO: I think that many transgressions in our moral life are the result of self-deceptions. This is an issue that is seldom addressed in ethics classes or workshops. So I encourage students to be honest with themselves and I use concrete examples.

Students find it refreshing to hear someone be honest about their own foibles. It helps them to do the same. There's a certain amount of modeling that goes on there. I think it's very important to cultivate self-honesty. That's the contribution I'd like to make to ethics education.

MATTHEW HENNESSEY: Do you think there's enough ethics being taught at the university level?

GORDON MARINO: Yes. I know there's a push to see more of it. But how do you cultivate empathy, or concern for other people? I don't think a person can be ethical without that. But I don't see that as coming out most ethics courses.

I've taught medical ethics, too, and I think that in order to be moral in a medical setting a doctor has to try to understand the psychology of the patient. What's going on with them? How vulnerable do they feel? Psychological factors like the power differential and things like that.

So I focus my classes more on what's called moral phenomenology—that is, what it's like to try to be moral from the inside out. I think there's too little of that. That's why I use literature like Camus and Dostoyevsky.

Again, I think the great transgressions of life are not the result of a lack of knowledge, but the result of self-deception. We talk ourselves out of the truth because it's too painful.

Read More: Education, Business, Ethics

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