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Imagine you are the Managing Director of a medium-sized firm, trying to win an important contract in developing country against considerable competition. Through conversation with an agent it becomes clear that you will only win this contract if you are prepared to pay the government minister who will decide who gets the contract a substantial sum of money. This sounds very much like an ‘inducement improperly influencing the performance of a function meant to be gratuitously exercised’ – the standard definition of a bribe.

What will you do? Well, it depends whether you’re called Derek, Chris or Victoria. (You’ll see the significance of my choice of names in due course!)


Derek the Deontologist

If you’re Derek, you will refuse to make such a payment. You believe simply that paying bribes is wrong. It would be a violation of your moral duty to fill the coffers (probably the Swiss bank account) of this grasping government minister. You must stick to the moral rules, even though you recognise there’s a cost involved. Your company almost certainly won’t win this particular contract. 

In terms of moral theory, Derek is a deontologist. I’ve called him Derek because I like alliteration. D for Derek, D for Duty and D for Deontology. The word ‘deontology’ is derived from the Greek for ‘necessary’ – what ought to be. 

The foremost exponent of the deontological approach was the German Enlightenment philosopher Immanuel Kant (1724-1804). Kant believed that we could work out our moral obligations as autonomous human beings by use of our reason. He talked of categorical imperativeswhich took the form of universalisability: we should act only in a way that we can consistently wish everyone else to behave. A situation where bribery is rampant is undesirable; it is socially destructive. The fundamental reason why bribery is wrong is that is distorts the decision-making process. Judgments that should be made on objective criteria (i.e. empirical evidence, ‘best value for money’, which company can offer the best product or service) are skewed by the prospect of personal gain. The advantage offered to the person accepting the bribe distorts his judgment or has the potential to do so. 

Kant believed that once one had decided a moral rule is universalisable it should never be broken. He thought this even about a lie told from benevolent motives to direct a would-be murderer down a wrong path. Kant is therefore an advocate of an absolutist approach to ethics – absolute rules which should never be broken.

Many inside and outside the church see Christian ethics as deontological. There is a strand of biblical teaching which has this feel: the prominence and feel of the ten commandments,  Old Testament stories where God appears intolerant od the slightest disobedience to his commands, or behaviour which is condemned as incompatible with the Kingdom of God in the New Testament. 

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Chris the Consequentialist

Let’s go back to the bribery dilemma. Chris is another Managing Director who takes a different attitude to Derek. He weighs the situation up, decides that a pragmatic approach is called for and pays the bribe. The government minister enjoys the benefit and Chris’s firm wins the contract.

In terms of moral theory, Chris is a consequentialist. He calculates the consequences – that’s why he’s called Chris. You could even say he’s culturally contextual. He’s sensitive to the particular context and culture in which he’s working. He feels he can only operate in that context by conforming to local customs. 

The foremost exponent of the consequentialist approach was the English Utilitarian philosopher Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832). Unlike Kant, he thought it neither realistic nor necessary for human beings to distance themselves from what they found pleasant. He moves rapidly from the starting-point that we all desire our own happiness to the premise that we should wish to see happiness distributed as widely as possible. Although consequentialists recognise a place for moral rules, they are reader to break or put aside rules when they seem to stand in the way of human happiness. Rules become relative.

Chris justifies paying the bribe to win the contract in terms of the benefits which follow – not just to himself, but for the future of his firm.  Being able to keep his employees in work helps them, their families and communities, as well as those who have invested in the company. 

Some have argued that Christian ethics is consequentialist. They point to Jesus’ summary of the law in terms of love, which seems much more flexible, to biblical stories where God seems to ‘bend’ the rules (e.g. viewing people who were ‘economical with the truth’ favourably) or to arguments sometimes used by Paul which have a more consequential character.

An Ethical Impasse

Personally, I think the debate between these tow ethical approaches is evenly balanced. Neither Kant’s nor Bentham’s approach is satisfactory. Both end up in uncomfortable extremes. Deontologists like Derek insist on purity of means , but ignore some horrific ends that can result from their readiness to stick to the rules whatever the cost. Consequentialists like Chris insist on the desirability of results, but ignore some horrific means used to arrive at them. The fact is that ends matter and means matter. That’s why moral dilemmas – including some business ones – can be horribly difficult.

In addition, there are some problems shared by both approaches. 

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  1. 1. Both seem rather abstract and divorced from the way most people actually function. Nether comes over as true to life. From both Kat and Bentham, you get the impression of a rather faceless person equiipped by theory to make choices that lack psychological cnnection with either the person’s past or future. In his influential book, After Virtue(1981), Alasdair MacIntyre protested at the domination of these approaches over 200 years of Western thought.
  2. 2. Though the arguments of both deontologists and consequentialists may be internally consistent, the problem comes with their starting-point, duty or happiness. Both seem rather arbitrary and not fully convincing.
  3. 3. Both approaches are highly individualist in the sense that people are pictured making moral decisions on their own. They see ethics as a task performed by morally autonomous individuals, whereas MacIntyre sees it as a task for the community within which individuals find themselves. Businesspeople often make key moral decisions in consultation with 4. colleagues and fellow directors.

Both approaches are overwhelmingly concerned with what individuals should do. The emphasis is on solving quandaries, on deciding between alternative courses of action. But that’s only part of what it means to live a moral life. There is insufficient attention to what we are and the sort of people we wish to become.

Virtue Ethics

The alternative approach which MacIntyre develops is an ethics based on virtue. He is concerned with the formation of individual character, nurtured by immersion in communities devoted to shared goals and ideals. This is not a new approach in ethics. It was one developed by the Greek philosophers Plato and Aristotle. It’s also an important strand in biblical ethics, which identifies certain qualities as fundamental to living in a way which is pleasing to God, e.g. Micah 6:8: ‘He has told you, o mortal, what is good, and what does the Lord require of you, but to do justice, and love kindness, and walk humbly with your God’.

In the New Testament there are several passages where these qualities or virtues are strung together in lists e.g. Col 3:12-15, 2 Peter 1:3-11, Gal 5:19-26. There is a recognisable Christian character. Acquiring this character is seen both as a gift and a task. The qualities are described as fruit of the Spirit, stressing that they come from God, yet we are also urged to ‘walkby the Spirit’ (Gal.5), to ‘clothe’ ourselves and to ‘make every effort’ (2 Peter 1). The New Testament also gives primacy to the virtue of love: in Jesus’ twofold commandment to love, as the climax of the list of virtues in 2 Peter and in Paul’s wonderful hymn to love, 1 Corinthians 13.

So when Christian theologians came to adopt the classical philosophers’ so-called cardinal virtues of justice, courage, temperance and prudence, they felt they couldn’t leave those virtues just as they found them. They added the three so-called theological virtues found in 1 Corinthians 13: love, faith and hope. They also tried to integrate all these different virtues together in a unified whole.

Victoria and Victor the Virtuosos

Let’s return to our original dilemma. Along with Derek the deontologist and Chris the consequentialist, we have a third Managing Director, Victoria, who is bidding for the contract. Victoria - as you would expect from a woman whose names begins with V! - is a woman brimming with virtue. But she isn’t working on her own. At her right-hand side is her Finance Director, Victor, a man whose virtues match her own. They represent a company with a distinctive ethos and that ethos shines through their every action.

So do this virtuous duo pay the bribe or not? Probably not. But their reasons for restraint will be different from Derek. It won’t be that they see paying bribes as a dereliction of duty. It simply doesn’t match the people they are. Bribing people is not part of their make-up. Whereas Derek deliberates long and hard and then decides not to do it, Victoria and Victor never give it serious consideration at all.

Does this nobility of character mean that Victoria and Victor are consigned to the role of losers, that they have no place in the tough world of business, and their company will rapidly go bust? Very possibly. But what people of virtue and character sometimes display is a capacity to think creatively ‘outside the box,’ so that they aren’t just limited to two stark choices, to pay or not to pay. What might thinking creatively mean in this instance? It might mean an unwillingness to operate through an agent and accept the choices he’s dictating to them. It might mean a determination to make direct contact with the government minister and convince him that theirs is the firm he should do business with. It might mean they create a company with such a reputation for outstanding quality products that governments are queuing up to do business with them. You never know: Victoria and Victor could end up being victorious after all!

Dr. Richard Higginson

Ridley Hall, Cambridge