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How to face the moral challenges of organizations from the inside

When you enter your workplace on Monday morning, is it you who enters it, or is it someone else? A mask, a role you play in order to get through the workday? And does that matter? Many people would say it is a matter of choice, or perhaps of aesthetic sensibilities, whether or not you want to play a role in your job, or be true your own self. But arguably, there is more to it: it is not only exhausting and potentially psychologically damaging if employees have to pretend to be someone else for eight or more hours a day. There are also tricky moral questions: if, as a private individual, I am committed to certain values and principles, should I simply forget about them when I go to work?

For example, many of us would like to see our economic systems to shift onto a more sustainable, climate-friendly path, and see it as a moral duty to contribute to such a shift. But there is often a gap between this commitment and our behavior. This gap can occur in our private lives, for example in our consumption behavior, as when we are far more oblivious about the CO2 emissions of our travels than we know we should be. But often this gap is even greater in our jobs. For it is here that our energies, our skills, and our knowledge are being put to use – while our choices are often much more constrained.

Imagine a world in which all individuals in their work lives, from security guards to nurses to accountants to managers to politicians, would use their specific skills and local knowledge for contributing to the reduction of CO2 emissions. Instead of realizing such a world, we are entangled in a system in which many of us are complicit with practices that we do not morally endorse. But many of us feel we have to play along – because we depend on our jobs, and these jobs are part of this system. Employment takes place in complex organizations that cut out different roles and stitch them together by rules and hierarchies; often, they are driven by market pressures and market ideologies. Together, they form a system that seems beyond anyone’s control.

What does it mean to face the moral challenges of organizations from the inside? This area has been largely neglected by philosophers, because of the divide between moral philosophy – which looks at the ethical choices of single individuals – and political philosophy – which asks what the institutions of a just society would be. Considering how much this matters for our lives, this has received relatively little attention. In order to understand its specific challenges, I read empirical literature on organizations, but also interviewed practitioners about their experiences. Doing so proved a fruitful approach for grasping the nuances of these moral challenges – including the vexing question of how you can remain true to your moral self when acting from within an organizational role.

…how should organizations be embedded in the broader institutional framework of a society, such that the pressures on them do not make moral agency impossible?

Some of these issues can be addressed within organizations. Responsible leaders allow for an atmosphere of trust in which knowledge can be openly shared, criticisms can be raised, and debates lead to constructive solutions. Organizational rules, for example, do not have to be treated as an iron cage that employees are supposed to follow blindly – individuals can also be encouraged to use their own sense of judgment and to discuss critical cases with colleagues. The latter can be crucial for preventing the kinds of moral wrongs that can happen when a general rule is applied to an atypical case.

But in the end, organizations can only do so much when they are driven by market pressures and when the expectations of society do not support responsible organizational practices. Hence, questions of political philosophy arise: how should organizations be embedded in the broader institutional framework of a society, such that the pressures on them do not make moral agency impossible?

Democratic societies can take steps, through the legislative process, that either support or undermine moral agency within the system.

For example, what legal protection do employees enjoy? Who owns the information that one needs to make well-informed decisions about morally grey areas? Among the strategies I suggest for reclaiming the system, i.e. bringing organizational structures back into the scope defined by our shared moral norms, a key concern is the introduction of more participatory and democratic structures into organizations, which create counter-power and require accountability from those with organizational power. One way of doing so is to support – e.g. through tax reductions – cooperatives and other forms of companies in which employees have more rights. Such non-traditional companies are at the forefront of attempts to create a more just and more sustainable economic system.

For addressing urgent moral issues, such as the fight against global poverty, the reduction of carbon emissions, and not least for creating organizations that allow us to remain true to ourselves in our jobs, this might be our best bet!

 Featured image credit: Taller than the Trees by Sean Pollock. Public Domain via Unsplash.

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