Tom Demarco talks ethics

I never took ethics in college. I also never planned on attending a conference to hear a talk on ethics. After all, ethics were sort of a base assumption from my perspective and not given much thought beyond large companies having employees sign a code of ethics on some sort of frequency.

In fact, I thought I was attending a talk on decision making, and thus expecting something about decision theory, game theory, maybe psychology. Certainly not ethics. But Tom took something that at first I was like “where is he going with this” to “wow!” I’ll attempt to do it justice, but I can’t promise that I will. To the best of my ability, here’s what I took away:

Aristotle believed that ethics were logically provable. Metaphysics contains all the things we can know about the world. Epistemology is built on that. It’s everything we can derive from what we know about the world. For example, Socrates is a man. All men are mortal, therefore Socrates is mortal. Ethics, Aristotle “promised” were provable with logic. For something like 2400 years, all kinds of philosophers tried to make good on this promise and were unable to. At some point in time, David Hume perhaps, classified metaphysics as “is” statements and ethics as “ought” statements. It was argued that it was impossible to derive an ought statement from an is statement.

Along comes Alasdair Macinytre. He argues that if something is defined by its purpose (this is a watch, for example) then the ought statements follow naturally. What ought a watch do? It should tell good time. So, that raises the question, what is the purpose of man?

We go back to Aristotle. Aristotle also created a mechanism for defining things. His definition requires that you group something and then differentiate it. So, a definition for man might be “an animal with the ability to speak.” That’s an is statement, for sure, but by Macintyre’s requirements, it doesn’t define man’s purpose. Macintyre goes on to define man as an animal that practices. Creating practices becomes man’s purpose. A practice is something we attempt to systematically extend. Tennis, for example, is a practice. The current tennis players have extended the sport in new and interesting ways, such that although famous tennis players of yore would recognize the sport they probably couldn’t compete anymore (even if they were young enough) because the sport has been systematically extended.

So, if that’s right, that man is an animal who practices, then for each practice we create, the oughts follow naturally. If you are a software developer and your manager comes to you and says “we need to take three months off this project” what ought you do? Well, first you ought to be honest – cutting the timeline will hurt the quality of my practice. Second, you must be just – quality matters to our customer, and we can’t deliver poor quality. It’s a disservice. And lastly, you must be courageous – go back in there and tell them no!

How many times has one of our employees, by this framework, acted ethically and we viewed it as a problem? Far too many times, I’d guess. The person with ethics, who values his or her practice and whose ought statements are clear can be frustrating. But when viewed through the lens of Tom Demarco’s talk, suddenly what they’re doing makes a lot of sense.

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