“Ethics” is not a dirty word

Peter B Godfrey
5 min readJun 11, 2020


Photo by Yeshi Kangrang on Unsplash

I have arrived at a point in my Covid-19 induced sabbatical that says: beyond ‘ethics’ not being a dirty word, ‘ethics’ is potentially one of the best words and one of the most important words right now. Important not just for humans at large, but for leaders of every description in organisations of every complexion.

Ethics — called to action. Ethics — front and centre. Ethics — on point. Ethics — as we face the next important phase of organisational life in the 21st Century.

I am also in the early stages of refining a thought, that, it is ‘ethics’, and all related, that my friends and colleagues in the HR community might be able to take a leadership position on, and drive renewed and afresh in organisations, in the very near term (more to come here as I mature that thought, but it is connected to my firm view that it is HR practitioners that (should) walk a higher path in organisations, and hence a natural ethics fit).

How did I get here on ethics? As part of my Covid-19 sabbatical I developed and submitted myself to a reasonably intense reading and development program. It’s been huge, and a fulfilling way to invest isolation time as I reset personally and professionally. Among others I have been working my way through these texts: Justice (Sandel); On Bullshit (Frankfurt); Assholes (James); Practical Wisdom (Schwartz); The Stoic CEO (Agio); The Stoic Art of Not Giving a F*ck; Ethics (Blackburn) Practical Ethics (Singer) — side-note I have had Peter Singer’s Practical Ethics on my bookshelf since the early 1980s. Undergrad content still relevant today, go figure. Second side-note — just arrived in the mail the long-awaited, absolutely next on the reading list, the big one, the grand-parent of them all, where it all began, Aristotle’s NE Ethics (edited by Roger Crisp). In addition to the texts there’s also been a couple of on-line ethics programs of the MOOC variety.

This content has been invaluable to fold into my own worldview of organisations, organisational life, the purpose of organisations, and how organisations do, could, and should function now and into the future. Moreover, as I look forward, other questions have emerged for me. What might or should be different from an ethics and leadership perspective? How might I be able to advance that quest?

There’s way too much content to be able to do it justice (no pun intended) here, but as a sample of that which has hooked my thinking of late.

In a ‘Distinguished Lecture’ reproduced in the Boston University Law Review (Vol 91 1303–1310) Harvard Professor Michael Sandel concludes this way:

“To achieve a just society, we have to reason together about the meaning of the good life, and to create a public culture hospitable to the disagreements that inevitably arise. It is tempting to seek a principle or a procedure that could justify once and for all whatever distribution of income or power or opportunity resulted from it. Such a principle, if we could find it, would enable us to avoid the tumult and contention that arguments about the good life and the telos of social practices invariably arouse. But my argument is that these disagreements are impossible to avoid. Justice is inescapably judgmental. This is because justice is not only about the right way to distribute things; it is also about the right way to value things. We cannot define or defend principles of justice without taking up hard questions about the meaning of the good life.”

For me the extension of, or the precursor perhaps to, the questions and the conversation about the good life (it might help to think organisational and leadership good life, to narrow the scope here and to keep things a little more real and tangible) must include questions and conversations about ethics. Organisational ethics, leadership ethics, business ethics, virtue ethics, and exemplar ethics.

In his Introduction in ‘Ethics — A Very Short Introduction’ Simon Blackburn plots Ethics neatly. Grounded, tangible, relevant, meaningful. Let this wash over you:

“We have all learned to become sensitive to the physical environment. We know that we depend upon it, that it is fragile, and that we have the power to ruin it, thereby ruining our own lives or more probably those of our descendants. Perhaps fewer of us are sensitive to what we might call the moral or ethical environment. This is the surrounding climate of ideas about how to live. It determines what we find acceptable or unacceptable, admirable or contemptible. It determines our conception of when things are going well and when they are going badly (and of) what is due to us and what is due from us, as we relate to others. It shapes our emotional responses, determining what is a cause of pride or shame, or anger or gratitude, or what can be forgiven and what cannot. It gives us our standards — our standards of behaviour.”

If you are still reading, thank you. If you’ve not had the a-ha moment just yet, here it is.

The 34-year deep thinking HR guy (with unashamed and strong employee advocacy leanings — the often forgotten or neglected quadrant in the Ulrich and Brockbank HR model) is on a sabbatical — reading, thinking, reflecting, and resetting for his next career horizon. What has captured his intellectual and practical interests are matters of standards, behaviours, what’s acceptable (and not), what’s admirable (and not), and issues associated with determining distribution and determining value. The contested terrain of the meaning of the good (organisational and leadership) life. Ethics… a-haa.

To wrap this article, and as I continue my magical ethical mystery tour, I am interested in what the agenda and the conversation will be as organisations and leaders progressively return to connecting humanly face to face at, for example, Board Strategy Days, Executive Team Conferences, Senior Leadership Team Retreats. I am imagining reviews of strategies and plans, most likely of business models and organisational design too. Perhaps a glance at ‘purpose’ and ‘values’ to tick those boxes. Maybe just maybe employee engagement will feature also. All well and good, and essential.

I see a bigger more important potentially more profound opportunity though.

I am proposing, suggesting, perhaps hoping even, that ‘ethics’ will not just feature on those Board, Executive, and Leadership agendas and in those conversations, but that ethics will frame the conversation. Even if for only a short time, estrange from that which is organisationally familiar, unsettle previously settled assumptions about work, organisation and leadership. Think teleologically about organisational purpose, debate what it means to be a ‘good’ organisation and a ‘good’ leader in the context of the organisation, our pluralist nation and our liberal democratic state. See where the conversation goes, explore what might be different, frame what might be better.

The future is now, and, ‘ethics’ far from a dirty word, rather an opportunity not to be missed.



Peter B Godfrey

I have thoughts, I am a thinker. I write words, I am a writer.