Getting More vs. Getting Moral: the Struggle to Right Business Wrongs

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“All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.”—Edmund Burke (1729 – 1797)

Recruiter Morals

MORE VS. MORAL/Image: Michael Moffa

Last night, a close friend and CEO of a technology corporation sent me an email link to a short video. I am not going to tell you the title of the video or describe its contents in any detail. But what I will tell you is that after viewing this widely seen 11-minute and 50-second clip about the otherwise unimaginable horrors of factory farms, I immediately swore off eating factory-farm meat, dairy and eggs, forever, if I can keep my promise to myself, despite the extremely bad odds my dietary track record clearly suggests. Score one for my conscience (and maybe one for organic, small, free-range and compassionate farmers. Just maybe).

When Facts and Ethics Collide

Despite my overwhelming visceral response to what I saw, my professional instincts kicked in just as quickly, in the form of a question about recruitment, employment and business: How can anyone, as employer, supervisor, employee or shareholder, allow such harrowing things to be done and carried to such extremes in the name of more income, more growth and more efficiency?

This reflection quickly led to the next, more abstract, sanitized version of the question: What can and should you in the recruitment and employment chain do if you become aware of any immoral, illegal or utterly unconscionable business practice allowed, overlooked or undiscovered by a client—while bearing in mind that you have vested economic and professional interests in your company or the client company?

The conventional options, viz., become a whistle-blower—anonymous or otherwise, shut up and look down at your nose on the grindstone, review your client confidentiality clauses and dither, quit your job and become a crusader and the like are all obvious, but probably—for you—not feasible or helpful (anonymous whistle-blower appeal notwithstanding, since anonymity is hard to maintain these days).

The Triumph of Inertia and Distance

In a battle between doing well and doing good, i.e., between  your survival-and-success-oriented ego and conscience-oriented “super-ego”, the odds favor your ego, if only because the consequences of defeating your conscience are rarely as immediate, pervasive, obvious, costly and personally painful as losing your job or some profitable opportunities.

Getting more trumps getting moral.

Besides, given human nature, preserving the status quo–however horrible, rather than changing yourself, is always a greater and easier temptation than the counter-temptation to change it. With respect to consequences, facts and causes, morally, as well as romantically, it seems the farther out of sight, the farther out of mind (unless you are talking or texting on your hand-implanted cyborg iPhone). Score one for moral inertia and one more for physical, if not moral, distance.

Moral Salves, Legal Saves

Sure, you can salve your super-ego, a.k.a.conscience, by personally and privately swearing off the culprit company or client products and services you serve. But that will be at best a feeble and at worst a hypocritical response. Equally obviously, if the breach of law, ethics or conscience has not been discovered by the client or your company, you can gauge the effectiveness of letting the latter know, depending on how welcome or effective your disclosure to them will be, before dithering some more or endlessly.

As for illegal practices and as a minimum, you will have to check existing laws to see whether your silence about what you know can in any way make you complicit and culpable. With virtual certainty, in most jurisdictions, if you are questioned by the authorities about any reported or alleged illegality and withhold information, you can be charged with obstruction of justice, itself a criminal offense.

On the other hand and in general, if you fail to volunteer information prior to being questioned, it is not prima facie grounds for being charged with obstruction of justice. A 1999 Attorney General’s case report ( states, “It is not a crime for a person to fail to volunteer everything he or she knows about a crime or other incident if investigating officers do not ask a direct question, the 4th DCA said. The court said an individual’s refusal to volunteer information, thus allowing an officer to reach a wrong conclusion, cannot provide probable cause to support a charge of obstruction of justice.”

Making the Most of Your Moral Paragons and Principles

Wriggling out of a moral dilemma and challenge is unlikely to be so easy, even if facilitated by prior reflection on your part about who and what your moral exemplars and principles are. Call the invocation of moral icons and principles a “top-down moral approach”: Working downward from the lofty, often abstract moral pinnacles of ethical personalities and principles, you can try to frame and fit in a decision about what to do in the specific, concrete and troubling instance that you are facing, such as what to do about a client company or your own that’s dumping toxic waste behind a day-care center’s well.

Walking in Their Sandals

You may try to put yourself in the shoes—or, more likely, sandals—of the paragons of wisdom, if not virtue, whom you admire: Buddha, Christ, Socrates, Machiavelli, your mom and dad, or, if you are inclined to elevate success-through-selfishness to the heights of moral virtue, Ayn Rand and Adam Smith. You may also grapple with principles—ethical, metaphysical or marketing, in order to find your way: “the greatest goods for the greatest number”, “marketing might makes right”,  “help the helpless and speak for the voiceless”, “what is, is justified”, “this is the beast of all possible worlds” (yes, “beast”), “looking out for the numberless ones” or “whatever works for me and my family” (which is useless without some thought about what “works” should mean).

This exercise can help exercise (in both relevant sense of that verb) your conscience and show you the path to doing the right thing, however you define it.

Splitting the Moral Scene

However, being forgivably human—as opposed to unforgivably inhuman, you will probably split hairs, your soul and your decision about what to do when life and limb are not at stake (or at least when human lives and limbs in your neighborhood are not). Result: more dithering, which, over time, becomes denial—denial of the stakes, of the facts, of responsibility, of your power to make a difference, and, most importantly, of your nagging awareness of a grievous wrong.

As for me and my harrowing awakening, to make things at least better, if not right, I will now do what you will, in any case and every day, continue to do : recruit others.

Read more in Business Ethics

Michael Moffa, writer for, is a former editor and writer with China Daily News, Hong Kong edition and Editor-in-chief, Business Insight Japan Magazine, Tokyo; he has also been a columnist with one of Japan’s national newspapers, The Daily Yomiuri, and a university lecturer (critical thinking and philosophy).