While many are wondering whether we should revise the past by taking down statues, is anyone thinking of the future?

Who is truly thinking of the distant future? And, in this distant future, what will your business’s ethics look like?

Throughout the fall, my Reflections on Ethics will offer a different outlook on ethics; ways to see that are needed for a kind of planning that goes beyond just around the corner. At the dawn of artificial intelligence, which will probably cause the greatest societal upheaval in history, planning three or five years ahead is not planning.

Because naming is saying something with meaning, this first essay poses an underestimated yet fundamental question: in your company, are ethics the subject of planning and, if so, is this planning tactical or strategic?

In order to properly answer this question, it is important to define these concepts to ensure solid understanding and thus be able to make the choices that are necessary to ethics for tomorrow. 

If we forget what is said and focus is on what is done, you will agree that most in management confuse ethics with a code of conduct, or they don’t make the effort to see the difference between the two. Even if they regularly use the word ethics, they actually just mean deontology. We call deontology ethics and we control behaviours. This practice is an administrative variant of command & control.

However, deontology, which is about rules and controlling behaviours, has little to do with far-reaching business objectives. Executives don’t consult codes of conduct for strategic planning. After all, German automobile manufacturers’ codes of conduct were silent about cheating on diesel engine tests. This is where ethics comes in. Ethics should enlighten those in management so they can make decisions that will move their businesses forward and allow them look ahead and to endure, rather than just thinking in the short term.

Executives will then be compelled to define their target horizons and determine whether ethics should be tactical or strategic within their organization.

Tactics, in the military sense, is the art of manoeuvring forces and deciding what will be the means to an end. Of course, this choice is irrelevant if the end is not known.

Deontology falls under a company’s tactical choices; it aims to prevent “wrongdoing” and makes it possible to sanction wrongful behaviour when necessary. It is easy to understand that the application of a code of conduct is only useful in the present and does little or nothing for the future of a business. That means you need to look up in order to see the big picture.

Strategy, again in the military sense, governs the overall conduct of a war; it is the art of engendering an army’s progress in an operational theatre that is by definition ever-changing. Any strategy necessarily requires an understanding of the goal.

The world is changing at an unprecedented rate and, consequently, the number of fundamental ethical choices that businesses will have to make over the next five years is set to increase.

In order to grow rather than perish, businesses of tomorrow must lay out their ethical strategies today.

Where should your business be in terms of ethics in five years? In ten years? In fifteen years?

What is your business’s ethical strategy in the face of Big Data and artificial intelligence that will eliminate millions of jobs over the next ten years? Beyond its own operations, what will your company do with the unemployed victims of progress?

These emerging questions cannot be avoided.

We must stop thinking of ethics in terms of surveillance and punishment or as useful for controlling behaviours. On the road to the future, ethics cannot be static; it must evolve and go beyond simple codes of conduct. Ethics is now a strategic issue for those who want their businesses to survive.

Are you ready?