Making Business Ethics a Cumulative Science

Such is the goal of Jonathan Haidt and Linda Trevino in a recent Nature article. “Imagine a world,” they write,

in which medical researchers did experiments on rats, but never on people. Furthermore, suppose that doctors ignored the rat literature entirely. Instead, they talked to each other and swapped tips, based on their own clinical experience. In such a world medicine would not be the cumulative science that we know today.

That fanciful clinical world is the world of business ethics research. University researchers do experiments, mostly on students who come into the lab for pay or course credit. Experiments are run carefully, social and cognitive processes are elucidated, and articles get published in academic journals. But business leaders do not read these journals, and rarely even read about the studies second-hand. Instead, when they think and talk about ethics, they rely on their own experience, and the experience of their friends. CEOs share their insights on ethical leadership. Ethics and compliance officers meet at conferences to swap ‘best practices’ that haven’t been research-tested. There are fads, but there is no clear progress.

The authors argue that societies “would be vastly better off if we could improve business ethics. Efficiency would improve (, enlarging the pie, and workers would be treated better, removing some of the animus directed toward capitalism and free trade in recent years.” However, three obstacles stand in the way:

  1. The hyper-complexity of business ethics: Proper business ethics requires understanding of “the individual, the group, and the legal and cultural ecosystem” as well as “the alignment (or misalignment) across levels, and within each level.”
  2. The risk aversion of firms: “Why take unnecessary risks by inviting strangers in to poke around and ask questions, knowing that these strangers will then publish their findings, even if they say they will hide the name of your company? Request denied.”
  3. The siloed data problem: “[W]hen it comes to sharing data, the walls are higher. Data is normally kept private and only shared with other researchers under limited conditions, particularly when it benefits the researchers in some way. When those data are (rarely) gathered from real companies, which are concerned about downside risk, the walls are even higher…Most companies collect little or no data about their ethical culture, and if they do, they most likely would not share it with anyone.”

Haidt and Trevino continue,

What can we do to get the business and research communities together, and to establish the sorts of long-standing trusting relationships that can lead to longitudinal studies in which data is gathered using the same instruments over the course of several years and many companies, while various interventions are tested? This is the holy grail of business ethics research.

In 2014, a group of ethics researchers from many subdisciplines came together to form a research collaborative called Ethical Systems (see We were formed to address the hyper-complexity problem. We began by summarizing the existing research on topics as varied as accounting, fairness, business law, human rights, conflicts of interest, ethical culture, and whistle-blowing. Our initial goal was to aggregate the vast and varied research literature and make it accessible — always for free — to business leaders and especially to ethics and compliance officers. (Because culture and regulatory frameworks differ by country, we have limited our work to the United States so far, but we plan to expand globally in the future.)

Our second goal was to bring researchers together from multiple subfields and link them to the many business leaders who have begun to realize that they can’t just focus on compliance with regulations; they must invest in improving their ethical cultures. We have found a great deal of interest in working together from all the relevant groups — including federal regulators.

This is an exciting development.