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Proponents of discourse ethicsThe method of resolving ethical dilemmas by gathering involved parties and asking them to discuss the matter reasonably until a consensual and peaceful solution is found. reverse the order in which we normally address ethical uncertainties. Instead of starting with one theory or another and then taking it out into the world to solve problems, they start with a problem and try to create a moral structure to solve it. Ethical solutions become ad hoc, custom generated to resolve specific conflicts. It doesn’t matter so much, therefore, that people come to an issue like bribery from divergent moral terrains because that difference is erased by the key element of discourse ethics: a foundational decision to cut away from old ideas and make new ones.
When a dilemma is faced, those involved gather and try to talk it out. The discussion is constrained by two basic limits: conversation must be reasonable and civil, and the goal is a peaceful and consensual resolution. As long as these ideals control what we say, we can call the result ethically respectable.
Take the dilemma of international bribery: you’ve left your home office in New Jersey and gone to Somalia seeking to win construction business on a new airport. As the recent Transparency International Corruption Perception Index shows,“Corruption Perceptions Index 2009,” Transparency International, accessed May 12, 2011, http://www.transparency.org/policy_research/surveys_indices/cpi/2009/cpi_2009_table. you’re going to discover that it’s customary to pass some cash to a prospective client before he’ll be willing to do serious business. Company policy, however, prohibits bribes.
What do you do? If you’re playing by hometown, American rules, your responsibility to company policy and to broad honesty and fairness requires you to walk away. But if you’re playing Somali rules where greasing a palm seems fair and acceptable, your obligation to win contracts for the company that’s paying your salary requires you to pass some cash. Discourse ethics comes in here with this: instead of trying to impose one side’s convictions on the other, the effort will be to overcome the divide by constructing a new and encompassing moral framework through common agreement. American rules and Somali rules are both thrown out, and new ones get sought. Here are steps on the way:
If this—or any—solution is reached, then discourse ethics will have done what it promised: open a way for concerned parties to reach agreements alleviating conflicts. Whatever the agreement is, it’s an ethically recommendable solution because the definition of what’s ethically recommendable is just agreements reached through discussion.
The main advantage of discourse ethics is that the search for solutions opens the door all the way. Everything’s on the table. That gives those involved just about the best hope possible for a resolution benefitting everyone joined in the discussion.
There are two main drawbacks to discourse ethics. The first is that everything’s on the table. If what’s morally acceptable can be as broad as anything a group agrees to, there’s the potential for ugly solutions. On the face of it, the international bribery resolution—hand some money over because it’s not really a bribe and it’s more like tipping a waiter—seems pretty harmless. But it doesn’t take much to see a slippery slope developing. If this kind of gifting is OK in Somalia where salaries are low, then why not in the United States too if it happens that a particular client has a low salary relative to others in that line of work? Or why not every client because, really, pay in that line of work is substandard? This can go on and on, and before you know it, the entire economy is corrupted. Obviously, that won’t necessarily happen, but it could, and this is one of the reasons so many insist that any serious attempt to do ethics must begin with some basic defining of inbounds and out-of-bounds, some dividing of right from wrong. Discourse ethics doesn’t do that.
The second drawback to discourse ethics is that for every ethical dilemma faced, you have to start over. Since the entire idea is to clear the deck and make a new solution, anyone facing a significant number of ethical dilemmas in their line of work is going to be constantly clearing the deck and beginning anew. Of course there may be some components of past discussions that could be carried forward—what you learned on the trip to Somalia may be helpful in Uzbekistan—but that doesn’t change the fact that the ethical recommendation to start from zero and talk problems out is going to lead to a lot of talking.