The Washington Post

An ethical map that avoids the tough roads


It might be hard, at the present moment, to read the title of Susan Liautaud’s “The Power of Ethics” without snickering or rolling one’s eyes. I am writing this the day after a mob, convinced by the president’s relentless but groundless statements regarding election fraud, swarmed and occupied the Capitol building in an attempt to derail American democracy. On the same day, my own congressio­nal representa­tive, along with 138 others, voted to reject the results of that election. Talking about “the power of ethics” at this moment feels rather like talking about “the power of warmth” in the middle of a raging blizzard while wearing wet socks.

The book’s title, at any rate, is misleading. “The Power of Ethics” is more focused on the demands of ethics than on its alleged powers; its main intention is to help its readers make better ethical decisions. Moreover, Liautaud — founder of a British-based ethics consulting group who also teaches at Stanford — is mostly concerned with a fairly narrow range of ethical questions, those that happen on what she calls “the ethics edge.” Technologi­cal ad

vances pose many previously unknown ethical questions, and the law is frequently not sufficient­ly current to settle them. What are the ethics of posting photograph­s of your children on Facebook? Of posting online instructio­ns for 3-D printing of firearms? When private homes are rented via Airbnb, are their owners permitted to engage in racial discrimina­tion? And so on.

Interestin­g questions, however, do not guarantee satisfying answers, and Liautaud’s recommenda­tions about how to resolve them are frequently frustratin­g and often vague. She claims to offer a “framework” for dealing with such questions, for which she makes bold claims: “The framework for ethical decisionma­king can help us integrate ethics into any decision; it works for individual­s, organizati­ons, and government­s; and it targets your specific dilemma and circumstan­ces.” But the framework basically consists of four guiding questions that are mostly common-sense, advising that we clarify our principles, seek out the necessary informatio­n, identify the relevant stakeholde­rs and think about the consequenc­es of our actions. This is sensible, but hardly revolution­ary.

Some parts of the framework, moreover, are quite problemati­c. What are we to make of the claim that “stakeholde­rs” include “any person, organizati­on, object, or factor that could influence, or be affected by, a decision or situation”? This is absurd. A headache, or ineptitude with statistics, might well influence one of my decisions, but to call these stakeholde­rs is nonsensica­l. As for consequenc­es, it is indeed obvious that we ought to think about them when making decisions; but it would have been nice to hear something about which consequenc­es are good and which are bad.

Liautaud is drawn especially to issues related to the Internet and related technology, and the questions addressed tend to be those asked by relatively affluent and technologi­cally savvy consumers. The result is a deep, at times striking lack of attention paid to other, highly crucial questions, and a tendency to focus on the trivial. Outside of the issue of racial discrimina­tion in relation to Airbnb, issues of equality are barely mentioned. One finds no mention, for instance, of broader issues of race, nor of the staggering levels of economic inequality within the United States, nor of the even more staggering inequaliti­es separating Americans from residents of developing countries.

Though I wish it had received a deeper discussion, I do admire the value and importance Liautaud places on truth, and I agree with her that the technologi­cal promulgati­on of “alternativ­e facts”— or as she says, “compromise­d truth”— constitute­s one of

the most serious threats our society faces. Even here, though, it is not completely clear what she thinks we ought to do about it,

outside of the most obvious recommenda­tions — suggestion­s like “seek perspectiv­e and fight for facts” and “don’t confuse consensus with truth.” This is characteri­stic of the book as a whole, which often claims to offer a systematic approach to ethics — the “framework,” the six forces that drive ethics,” the “three pillars that support ethical decision-making,” etc. — but which mostly consists of a grab bag of suggestion­s and observatio­ns.

As it happens, frameworks for thinking about ethics already exist. There is, indeed, a rich and venerable literature of ethical thought, by philosophe­rs, religious thinkers and others, that treats difficult questions — including those she addresses — with depth and nuance. Because Liautaud never acknowledg­es its existence, it is unclear whether she thinks “The Power of Ethics” offers any sort of advance on this sophistica­ted and voluminous body of writings. Moreover, if her intent had been to help her readers improve their ethical thinking, pointing them toward this literature would have been useful, indeed, vital.

Had Liautaud delved into the work of utilitaria­ns like John Stuart Mill and Peter Singer, she might have used them to clarify her views as to which consequenc­es are actually relevant to the rightness of our actions, and how they are relevant. They might also have helped her see that asking whether we ought to tell our guests that our Amazon Alexa might be listening to their conversati­ons is surely less important than inquiring into Amazon’s treatment of its employees, or the effects of its business practices on independen­t bookstores and other small businesses. (Amazon chief executive Jeff Bezos owns The Washington Post.) They, or T.M. Scanlon or John Rawls, might have asked whether the existence of a subgroup of people who can afford to purchase digital assistants for their homes, at a time when over half a million Americans have no homes and almost 700 million people worldwide suffer from hunger, is itself an ethical issue that we need to think seriously about.

Indeed, a serious considerat­ion of any of these thinkers might have helped Liautaud see that if we take the general status quo for granted, and apply ethical procedures only to narrowly defined questions within its limits, we abandon the most potent power ethical thinking can exhibit. A bolder, more searching book would have encouraged its American readers to step away from themselves and think, objectivel­y and self-critically, about their position in the world, how they have achieved it, and what it takes to maintain it. Its failure to seize this opportunit­y renders “The Power of Ethics” far less powerful than it might, and ought, to have been.

By Susan Liautaud Simon and Schuster. 304 pp. $24.99
THE POWER OF ETHICS: HOW TO MAKE GOOD CHOICES IN A COMPLICATE­D WORLD By Susan Liautaud Simon and Schuster. 304 pp. $24.99
 ?? NORMAN SEEFF PRODUCTION­S ?? Author Susan Liautaud poses a range of ethical questions. But her recommenda­tions about how to resolve them are often vague.
NORMAN SEEFF PRODUCTION­S Author Susan Liautaud poses a range of ethical questions. But her recommenda­tions about how to resolve them are often vague.

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