Whether we are top managers, shop-floor workers, parents or singles – we constantly face difficult decisions between our immediate self-interest and the benefits of a wider public. This wider public may consist of distant family members, our employees or strangers in far away countries whom we prefer only to know via television.
In Germany, we are accustomed to thinking of ourselves as deeply principled – a culture trained in ethical behavior – as opposed to the American sensibility, which we think of as ethically blind, driven by short term gains and naked self-interest.
So it has been hugely interesting to observe my German compatriots’ reactions to recent developments in our country – from the hundreds of thousands of refugees flocking to the motherland to corporate restructurings.
Today Deutsche Bank announced a reduction of their workforce by 26,000 employees. We use the term ”Abbau” to describe such reductions, which is oddly used for physical and mental atrophy or mining as well. Anglo Americans call them “cuts”, which lends itself to the image of cutting a limb in order to save the patient. Of course we find this infuriating: another company that sacrifices innocent lives of employees in favor of the dictatorship of shareholder value.
On a more local note, the morning radio reported on a lawsuit filed by angry citizens of a Hamburg suburb. One of the suburb’s departments failed to observe zoning designations when building a refugee home in an area reserved for cemeteries and a tree plantation.
We enjoy solving ethical dilemmas in the way we solve a crossword – carefully weighing the pros and cons to determine what the stakeholders are entitled to. Advice columns fill Sunday papers in both Germany and the US, where ‘authorities’ weigh in on ‘issues’ such as a ticketless train passenger who refuses an elderly lady his seat. We enjoy discussing remote issues and we feel entitled to judge… when we have no skin in the game.
Consider the following question that was asked of me in my first job interview: You are the young founder of a new company and you desperately need this contract. The purchasing person in front of you indicates that he is willing to give you the contract, but he expects a present for his son (the proverbial laptop fell off a truck, or in today’s world an iPhone 6S Plus).
You are faced with the decision to either go home and fire your employees or keep your employees and expose yourself to possible legal and moral liability. It is, of course, one of those intractable problems where you are stuck between a rock and a hard place. The lesson, as I was told, is to separate the ethical problem from the practical problem. Pondering the ethical issue will only lead you to categorical answers that inevitably lead to suffering one way or the other. Ironically there is no practical solution here either, but times were different then!
My religion teacher in high school used to say: “Ethical behavior is the one which enhances lives”. This is probably not practical guidance for the Deutsche Bank CEO, who made the difficult decision to cut an arm from Deutsche Bank. But, as outsiders, we are in no position to make judgments on whether this was the best possible way to contain long term damage to Deutsche Bank’s stakeholders. Most likely, he did not do this because he enjoys inflicting harm on other people. And incidentally, the already-suffering shareholders will not see dividends for the first time in 60 years.
I recommend putting yourself in other people’s shoes: Have you ever been significantly invested in stocks of a troubled company? Have you ever taken on a job which got you entangled in nasty decisions about streamlining an operation? Or are you even someone with a job in the mining industry?
Our perspective changes dramatically when personally affected by a crisis and when our ethical boundaries are pushed. We discover our instinctive self-interest, protectionist impulses toward our families, employees and people who are closer to our heart than others.
We have to deal with these conflicts and understand that sometimes our inherited principles don’t fit neatly to every dilemma.
In life, we must confront the difficult decisions that face us and realize that avoidance will cause much more harm than good.
Max Nussbaumer, Oct 2015