October 28, 2018

The implausible idea of a "chief ethics officer"

I read Kara Swisher’s recent column on the need for chief ethics officers in Silicon Valley with great interest & great skepticism.

Swisher documents, with droll understatement, just a few of the ethical “quandaries” [their words] our giant mega-corporate start-ups have faced (or created):

  • Corporations accepting loads of money from Saudi Arabia (cozying up to Saudi Arabia is a problem they share with the NYT itself, incidentally)
  • Facebook lying (again!), this time about an in-home video device named Portal that will, of course, exchange your data for ad revenue
  • Elon Musk duping everyone, including himself, on Twitter
  • Google getting hacked & not telling anyone

Swisher goes on to say that Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff is in the process of hiring a chief ethics officer to “help anticipate and address any thorny conundrums it might encounter as a business.”

Less concretely, 23andMe CEO Anne Wojcicki has “toyed with the idea of hiring a chief ethics officer.” But Wojcicki rejected the idea, saying “I think it has to be our management and leaders who have to add this to our skill set, rather than just hire one person to determine this.”

Of course, ethics isn’t a “skill” that can be added to anyone’s set. And the idea of a chief ethics officer is ridiculous for many more reasons. Among them:

  • The CEthO role would be most valuable when in opposition to the rest of the C-suite. In other words, it would be most valuable when it was putting a stop to ideas, products, strategic directions deemed most valuable to the rest of the board, not to mention shareholders
  • The CEthO’s role at most Silicon Valley corporations would, if effective, involve a fundamental shift in (not to say abandonment of) those corporations’ products & business plans
  • Hiring a CEthO is an impulse borne out of the desire to seem ethical without necessarily doing anything differently—or, at worst, to set up a scapegoat for failures of ethics within these organizations. It’s impossible to imagine someone in this role having a seat at the table when major decisions are made, unless by government mandate.
  • The corporations most in need of a CEthO are those least likely to ever have one, much less an effective one. Others don’t need one, because ethical reflection was a significant and formative part of their strategic planning and product development from the beginning. These are, of course, precisely the ones most likely both to hire one and to enable that person to be successful.

These are just the obvious, institutional problems. The real problems go beyond these ones and get into questions of meta-ethics: whose ethics are normative? How can any one ethical traditions be meaningful and normative within pluralistic corporation? How does a corporation with genuine obligations to customers, employees, and shareholders balance seeking profit and behaving ethically, when the two are in tension?

My proposal? Some sort of requirement for an independent ombudsman or public advocate. The problem with startups isn’t that they face ethical “quandaries” now and nobody did before. Rather, it’s that the scale and reach of these startups makes the consequences of their ethical failures much more significant, more widespread, more consequential. Someone in a public advocacy role could at least make sure that the public knows the truth—and true scale—of the ethical failures, sometime relatively close to when they happen.

Of course, scale is precisely these startups’ most significant competitive advantage. So don’t expect to suddenly start seeing either CEthOs or ombudsmen popping up throughout the Valley.