The NSW Building Commissioner’s most recent communication deals with why an ethical and authentic developer or construction enterprise will have the most customers in future.
According to David Chandler ethics and authenticity lie at the heart of what makes a construction business distinctive, in demand and ultimately successful. Most leading companies in the construction industry realise this and will have listed ethical and responsible behaviour as a core part of their stated company values. See for example what Multiplex says, Lendlease and Laing O’Rourke.
Of course, these companies are the leaders of our industry and many of the companies that operate in the supply chain and in the residential building sector are not so sophisticated.
However, this doesn’t always mean they will be less ethical. Being a big company, having a formal ethical code of conduct and a stating that you will be ethical on your website is no guarantee that everyone working for that business lives by these values.
This ultimately depends on the observable behaviour of business owners and managers who must lead by example, the effective implementation of these policies in practice and the creation of an organisational culture which puts the community and customer at the heart of a business.
David Chandler also argues that to change our industry for the better, ethics needs to be at the heart of every construction student’s education and training.
However, a cursory inspection of many courses across the variety of professions that work in the construction industry indicates that it is too often missing. This means that many people in the industry have little formal understanding of what the NSW Building Commissioner actually means.
To enlighten those who are keen to know more, ethics is a branch of philosophy that at its simplest can be described as a system of moral principles that affect how people make decisions and lead their lives.
At the heart of ethics are our beliefs about what is right or wrong and a concern about something or someone other than us. This includes the environment, customers of the construction industry, the community in which we build and those who work in our industry.
These ideas about right and wrong, which develop over many generations in our communities, families, religions, philosophies, cultures and institutions, are continually changing and are socialised through education and our membership of various organisations, community groups and societies.
They all have a role to play in achieving what the NSW Building Commissioner wants and the ethical principles they collectively impart, offer us ethical rules, moral maps and principles that we can then use to find our way through difficult issues we face in running our businesses.
There is also a long history of scholarship in ethics for us to draw from. This goes back to ancient philosophers such as Plato and Aristotle, German philosopher Immanuel Kant and more philosophers such as Ralph Barton Perry.
This huge and rather impenetrable body of work provides us with many frameworks for making and evaluating our business decisions, particularly in ambiguous situations where moral values and organizational rules clash.
The table below is a plain English description of the more common ethical schools of thought which have emerged over the years.
School of thought
|Supernaturalism||Supernaturalism draws its principles from religion. It teaches that the only source of moral rules is God and that a decision is good because God says it is.|
|Intuitionists||Intuitionists think that goodness does not need justifying or proving. They think that basic moral truths of what is a good or bad decision is self-evident to a person who directs their mind towards moral issues.|
|Utilitarianism bases morality on the consequences of decisions and not on the actions of decision-makers themselves. So decision-makers should do whatever produces the greatest good or “utility” for the greatest number of people.|
|Deontological ethics is concerned with the actions of decision-makers and not with the consequences of decisions. An ethical decision is one that is intended to do good whether or not good comes of it or not, assuming it comes from a sense of duty rather than self-interest.|
|Virtue ethics||Virtue ethics emphasises the character of the decision-maker, rather than their intentions or consequences. To put it very simply, virtue ethics teaches that a decision is right if and only if it is one that a virtuous person would make in the same circumstances, and that a virtuous person is someone who has a good character.|
|Situation ethics||Situation ethics rejects prescriptive rules and argues that individual ethical decisions should be made according to the unique situation. Rather than following rules decision-makers should desire to seek the best for the people involved. There are no moral rules or rights – each case is unique and deserves a unique solution.|
|Ideology ethics argues that ethics is the codification of political ideology, and that the function of ethics is to state, enforce and preserve particular political beliefs. It argues that decisions are unethical if they are used by the dominant political elite to control everyone else – but particularly if they do not apply this code to their own behaviour.|
The above table shows just how easy it is for people to construct an ethical argument for or against any decision they may have to make. It also shows how people can easily clash in making judgements about the morality of decisions, and that an understanding of ethics is not likely to provide a definitive single right or wrong answer to the moral problems of running a business in the construction industry.
To be fair, the field of ethics does not claim to give us answers. Rather, it simply seeks to provide us with a set of principles that can help decision-makers think about their decisions more carefully. After that, it is up to each individual to arrive at their own conclusions and hope that they do not cross the path of the NSW Building Commission or be asked to justify a decision in court which has caused harm to the community, to the people that work in our industry and to the customers our industry will need to compete for in the post COVID economy.
Martin Loosemore is Professor of Construction Management, University of Technology Sydney
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