Ethics in quality

I received today my monthly issue of Quality Progress, a publication of the American Society for Quality. The magazine’s theme, this time, is an exploration as to whether a culture of quality can contribute to a stronger compliance regime.

To be honest, it is an interesting question — the answer to which, at least in ASQ’s apparent view, is that there is a necessary connection between “quality” as a concept and “all things good” as an outcome. If only there was more and better big-Q quality, then the world would be a much improved place.

Never mind that “quality,” in the hands of irresponsible or uninformed practitioners, can be devastating. But that’s OK; ASQ’s hidden premise is granted, for the sake of argument. I was willing to bite.

Until, that is, I hit one of the feature articles: “Advancing from Compliance to Performance,” by the MBA-certified principal of an ethics and quality consultancy.

For a group that prides itself on “quality,” I am disheartened that ASQ didn’t seem to put the ethics article to even a basic scrutiny for philosophical rigor. The author made numerous suspect claims that even a half-competent undergrad could have spotted. Among the more egregious:

  • “If organizations would practice ethics as the logic-based discipline and quality problem it is, they would achieve higher levels of accuracy, repeatability and performance. This, in turn, would result in better moral and economic outcomes for all involved, including themselves.”
  • The author identifies something he calls “Ethics Quality,” which rests on two conditions: “Sound ethical reasoning (right thinking, or ensuring supporting arguments are fallacy free) is applied as controllable process inputs. The outputs result in intents, means and ends that are good for all involved,” and that “this process of right inputs and good outputs becomes repeatable and is integrated throughout the organization.”
  • “Ethics may seem like one of those soft disciplines that has no scientific backbone, but this could not be further from the truth. The field of philosophy regards ethics as a normative science.”
  • “All scientific disciplines follow a sequence of reasoning steps related to the scientific method, and so must ethics … (1) identifying the moral issues, (2) transforming wrong thinking to right thinking, (3) refining viable alternatives, (4) validating and following through, and (5) renorming.”
  • “Refining of viable alternatives: This step requires agents to logically balance duty and consequential ethical theories and to use universal ethical principles to find the best possible alternative.”

Most of the rest of the article, which went on for some length, either repeated bland business-speak about improving value to the organization through ethical leadership, or dazzled the readers with multiple blinding flashes of the obvious.

Here’s the problem. “Ethics” is one of those things that everyone thinks they understand but which few grasp in the details. People who have had absolutely no exposure to moral philosophy seem to think themselves competent to speak authoritatively about what “ethics” entails.

I know not what the author’s philosophy background includes. I do know that many of his assertions would be greeted with bemusement, or befuddlement, by people who have some understanding of academic moral philosophy. The ludicrous claim that “the field of philosophy regards ethics as a normative science” is one case in point; actually, ethics — with aesthetics — falls under the broad division of “theories of value” and are “normative” only insofar as ethical judgments are intended to shape behavior. The writer, who seems so impassioned by “right thinking” (i.e., an avoidance of fallacy) nevertheless falls for one of the oldest fallacies in the book — equivocation — with regard to the “normative” value of ethics. And ethics as science? Please. At heart, ethics is no more and no less than the process by which people make value-laden choices. Science, it ain’t.

The casual manner by which the writer glosses over and makes harmonious the centuries-old warfare between the deontologists and the consequentialists is also astonishing. His solution to ethical problems seems to require doing one’s duty to the greatest good. But this is like claiming that the solution to religious violence is syncretism.

The article in Quality Progress is irritating, but it is hardly unique. The proliferation of self-appointed applied-ethics experts who lack a serious formation in moral philosophy does no one any good. It is telling, I think, that without anything more than a brief abstract, I was accepted to deliver a 90-minute concurrent session, titled “Ethics as a contributor to a culture of quality” at this fall’s annual education conference for the National Association of Heathcare Quality.

Yes, I have a background in ethics; I have a bachelor’s degree in the subject and a fair amount of graduate-level coursework in the field. Am I a national expert? Hardly. But judging by those outside of the academy who do act as experts … scary.

The cause of ethics in the business world is not advanced by the blind leading the stupid.

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