Facebook Twitter

The ethicist

David W. Miller weighs right and wrong, creativity and courage

compasscale.jpg

Zoë Petersen, Deseret News

In a time when what’s right and wrong seem to depend on who’s asking, ethics is still a field where people look for timeless answers to what matters over time. David W. Miller, director of Princeton University’s Faith & Work Initiative and an ordained Presbyterian minister, argues that personal faith — in any form — can help us to figure that out. That’s why he takes his own spirituality to work, where he conducts research, lectures on business ethics and social responsibility, and consults with corporate clients.

An atypical academic, Miller spent 16 years in the business world, usually as an executive. He jokes that this makes him “bilingual,” since he loves both worlds. “I have a heart for the real world of business and the wider marketplace, as well as the theoretical world that comes with academia,” he says. He’s also literally bilingual, having spent his senior high school year in West Germany. He still keeps in touch with his German host family. He also spent eight years in London with his wife, who’s an attorney and law professor, before they came home so he could study theology, earning a master of divinity degree and a doctorate in ethics. 

Now he teaches college students considering careers to ponder their own ethics and values. He asks them to imagine what they’ll do if their values don’t line up with those of future bosses, or if they face a choice about whether to stand up or stay silent in a scenario where speaking out could put jobs at risk. Students find such questions intriguing and unsettling, but it probably helps that he laughs easily and often during conversations.

He spoke to Deseret about the state of ethics in 2023.


Deseret Magazine: Are “ethical” and “moral” the same?

David W. Miller: If you ask others in this space, you might get different answers. The school of thought I adhere to describes ethics as a branch of philosophy that attempts to be objective, impartial — a systematic way of thinking about concepts of right and wrong behavior. It’s an intellectual exercise and something you must act on. Morality is related, of course, but tends to be more a set of principles and standards derived from a particular context, whether religious or cultural. The morals of a community in Bahrain might be different from the morals of a community in Boston. With different standards, some would view certain behaviors as problematic and immoral, while others could view them as completely moral, amoral or somewhat neutral. My personal definition of ethics is the “art and discipline of discerning the right, the good and the fitting action to take and having the creativity and courage to do it.”

DM: Creativity and courage?

DWM: It can take courage to stand up or to be the outlier when everyone in the department or the company says, “This is great.” Well, no, I’m a little concerned; I don’t think it’s so great. And how do you have the creativity to say that without sounding know-it-all or preachy? 

DM: Are we more careful or careless about ethics than in the past?

DWM: It depends on who “we” are. Empirical data suggests high school students now express more openness to and evidence of cheating. That’s concerning to me. I asked my niece about that when she was that age. She paused and said, “Maybe we are, but maybe we’re just more honest in filling out surveys than you all were.” Baby boomers like me tend to think we were more ethical than we really were, but there’s also more ethical relativity now. I teach an elective course called Succeeding Without Selling Your Soul. We look at professional conduct, responsibility. The students are fine young men and women, but there’s reluctance to have boundaries, to say, “No, that’s just always wrong. You just don’t do that.” Cheating is so easy today with digital technologies. No longer are we writing answers on the palm of our hand or sneaking a piece of paper into a pocket. The sophistication of cheating today is just mind-boggling. Someone who might normally not be inclined to cheat could very easily be thrown into it.

I’m of the belief that over time, doing the right thing pays in most contexts — but there are parts of the world where the system is so broken, so corrupt, that won’t happen.

DM: We know kids are anxious. Does that make them more likely to take shortcuts?

DWM: I think it’s more so now, that capacity to rationalize behavior that at some level you know is wrong, but you choose to do it on a utilitarian basis where the ends justify the means: I’m not hurting anybody and it’s important to me. There was a cheating scandal in an elite boarding school a few years ago. One of the top students was very STEM-oriented and as part of getting a well-rounded education, all were required to take a foreign language. She knowingly, willingly and with zero remorse, cheated to get an A. She said, “Look, I want to go to med school, and I don’t need to know French or Spanish or German for that.” That sort of thinking has always been present, but I think students are bolder to act on that utilitarian logic, rationalizing something you know is wrong.

DM: What are today’s students like?

DWM: I see a yearning to have robust, honest conversations about the very things we’re talking about. They don’t want to be lectured or preached at; they’re interested in ethical ideas and concepts and how they apply to them. In the world of work there’s this sense, “Oh, that ethical problem was a bad apple or a few bad apples. I’ve made a shift. I don’t care about bad apples. They’re always going to be there and hopefully you screen out ethical psychopaths. 

But why do good people sometimes do dumb things, unethical things? To the point that, in the cold light of day, they themselves will say, “What was I thinking? It wasn’t worth it.” I look at impediments to ethical decision-making and put a lot more accent on that. Some of those are within our control. And some are largely out of our control; they’re contextual — the culture of the organization that employs you. How do you navigate those? My students are intrigued. What might cause them — or me — to have a lapse? They find that sobering, a little bit scary, but very helpful. 

DM: Do ethics get punished?

DWM: Doing the ethical thing can be a career-ending move, particularly if you’re in whistleblowing mode where you’ve tried all the right things and finally go to the press or something if your company has not supported you. I’m of the belief that over time, doing the right thing pays in most contexts — but there are parts of the world where the system is so broken, so corrupt, that won’t happen.

DM: How’s corporate culture?

DWM: Companies are alert to the importance of professional conduct and ethics. Many have a chief ethics officer. Some differentiate between compliance and ethics, which are not the same. Ethics is character and culture, compliance is checking: Did you break any rules yesterday? I do a lot of advisory work with executives. Some had things go catastrophically wrong, or made embarrassing public mistakes resulting in fines. They say, “Can you help me rethink how we approach ethics and what sort of training we ought to do and how we embody it in our values?” Some have been caught by some regulatory body, so there’s a carrot or stick. But I think most really care about this.

DM: What’s your last word?

DWM: Two things: Ethics is character and culture, not law and compliance. Laws are necessary, but not sufficient. Second, in the Western world we’ve committed intellectual malpractice by essentially deleting the wisdom found in great religious traditions, particularly in university systems. I’m not idealizing the past, but the questions and ideas and thoughts of people from a thousand or three thousand years ago are still relevant to modern-day ethics. There’s great wisdom to be found in these traditions that we ought to be looking at from a practical point of view. I’m fascinated to see what we can reclaim and how it might apply to current dilemmas. 

This story appears in the April issue of Deseret Magazine. Learn more about how to subscribe.