Fatal flaws in the arguments of situational ethicists

There are, indeed, enduring global standards of "right and wrong" for PR people and everyone else.

Not long ago, I heard a prominent voice in the PR industry declare that the global practice of public relations is so drastically subject to local customs that a.) it's impossible to codify correct PR behaviors and b.) we should feel free to give payoffs to local authorities if that's the local custom. 

“If they do it, why shouldn't we?” As the theory goes, the idea of “public interest” is as prone to interpretation as a Jackson Pollack painting…all in the eye of the beholder. To fight this notion is to prove oneself to be puritanical and parochial – an ethical Luddite.

This is wretched thinking.

From a moral standpoint, there are, indeed, well-established standards of right and wrong. In examining organized religion, for example, which covers 90% of the world's population, there is some form of The 10 Commandments in every religion. Each of them says with great specificity that one should not lie, cheat, or steal, just to name a few basics of civil human behavior. Whether divinely or humanly inspired, these codes have been advanced and refined over centuries. Regardless of their source, they are so widely embraced as to underpin the very laws our governments are based upon. So church and state – and thus society – know the meaning of right and wrong.

But when too much power is concentrated in any one place, especially if it's a murky place where even today's irresistible force – transparency – cannot penetrate, and then corruption creeps in. The established laws and mores don't apply. They are suspended not because the definition of public interest has changed, but because the greedy self-interest of people in power has, at least temporarily, prevailed. Of course, you can't be a corruptee without an enabling corruptor. And that brings me back to my point.

Without a shadow of a doubt, it's true that corruption was and is a condition of many markets. In years past, many companies surrendered to the notion that life would always be that way. In some cases, they even knowingly and willfully violated the explicit anti-corruption laws of their own countries. Not every company, but many. In contrast, some courageous organizations stepped forward and stated their own rules – based on decency – and declared that they would not do business any other way. Some, if not most, were disadvantaged in the markets for some time. Many were criticized for the “cost” of their integrity.

Fast forward to today, when economies celebrated for their corruption have turned over a new leaf. China is “exhibit A.” As China's new president, Xi Jinping, a neo-Maoist, has consolidated his power, he has spawned sweeping anti-corruption reform. From an initial focus on foreign multi-nationals, he has now shifted his attention to state-owned enterprises and China's own elite young lions of commerce, as well as prominent public office holders. He has lived in a China with corruption, and foreseen one without corruption. He has chosen the latter. The message is clear: the rules have changed.

That's the fatal flaw in the argument of the situational ethicists. The rules do change. Truth and justice and other enduring values have the antiseptic power of the sun. They eventually win. And what happens? People go to jail – many of them good people. Massive fines are paid. Companies lose their privilege to operate. (For those who argue that there is no consequence for unethical behaviors in our profession, is that enough for you?)

In my next blog, I'll suggest what role we in our industry can do to help our clients and our companies embrace the more sustainable path, ethical business decision-making, and pursue a culture of character management.

Dave Senay is president and CEO of FleishmanHillard.

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