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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):

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:

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.

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