On ‘ethical’ expertise

In my attempts to push ethics from the domain of philosophy and into that of sociology, I am preparing a paper for the annual European Group for Organizational Studies Colloquium in Vienna under subtheme 19, Reflexivity in Organizational Research. The title of my presentation is ‘Becoming Mr Ethical: Notes on the Reflexive Study of Ethics’. Possibly, you will know why if you read the excerpt below.

So what does ‘ethical becoming’ mean in this particular context? Well, when friends start referring to you as ‘Mr Ethical’ or the ‘Ethical Oracle’ (jokingly, of course), when acquaintances pull you aside at social events in order to ask you a question about ‘ethics’, be it about the acquisition of garden furniture or recent political scandals; when random conversations end with the question ‘what do you think, is that ethical?’; when peers point you towards issues that should be ‘exposed’ because ‘organisation x is clearly not ethical!’; when your inbox is full of invitations to join panels, seminars or working groups on ‘ethics’; when the walk home from the pub turns into an ‘ethical’ discussion; or when you realise that your name comes up high on Google when performing ‘ethics’-related searches.

To begin with you blush or shy away from delivering value judgements, however, as time progresses, you become adept in delivering answers that sound credible; you use particular phrases and ‘scientific’ wordings that provide your statements with what is apparently credibility, integrity and some form of consistency. And the loop goes on, the locomotive of recursivity is picking up speed – could this possibly be considered expertise?

Well, it is expertise in the making because gradually you find yourself quite knowledgeable, perhaps even daring, when it comes to ‘ethical’ issues: it becomes almost an instinctive reaction to read any article, listen, I did not say eavesdropping, extra carefully to any radio show or conversation, and watch any TV broadcast that have the word ‘ethics’ in it. You start using the same words, facing the same dilemmas and recognising the same problems as those experienced by the tribe members under study; you build up vocabularies and rationales that make sense in different settings, although these may, in theory at least, be irreconcilable; you know the difference between de-ontological, utilitarian, and other philosophical schools; you remember the dictionary definition of ethics and moral(s) by heart; you have an informed opinion about the leading academic ‘ethics’ journals; you become fluent in the most urgent ‘ethical’ issues pertaining to businesses, the environment and technology; you find yourself on mailing lists and in the same networks as other ‘experts’; you teach ‘ethics’ and write it on your CV; you start composting, measuring your carbon footprint and looking for local, organic, fairtrade produce; you can no longer remember the exact details of how it got to this stage; in short, you become Mr Ethical.

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