Morals and the Machine

by Dr. Donald N. Sweet

This was the provocative headline of a recent Economist.  The “Leaders” article starts with the example of Hal, the computer in 2001 A Space Odyssey.  Faced with a dilemma, Hal decides to kill the crew.  Morals and the machine.

Immediately the mind moves to question just how we will educate machines, computers, about right and wrong.  We now see the use of computers from driverless cars to drones.  These machines are capable of injuring people.  They will be called upon to make some difficult decisions.  There are undoubtedly many smart people working hard to anticipate the various scenarios.

I realize I’m out of my depth when it comes to these machine conundrums.  However we should extend that discussion to the people in a business organization.  Couldn’t the title just have easily been Morals and the Man?   We have numerous recent examples in our society from Madoff to Murdock that would suggest moral issues there, too.

Merriam-Webster defines morality as “conformity to ideals of right human conduct”.   Wikipedia defines it as “manner, character, proper behavior”.  While a number of my academically minded friends would have issue with the precision of both definitions, it’s clear enough for most of us.

We know what is right and what is wrong.  Do we, however, engage people within our organizations in those conversations?  Should we?  Many of us would probably answer those questions, in order, as no and yes.

Many of us, and our teammates, face moral dilemmas somewhat regularly.  How do we assist each other in dealing with them?  One effective way is to ensure our organizations have a robust set of core values.  The next way is to ensure those core values are alive and discussed regularly.

Without solid core values to lean on, we will be rudderless when the next moral storm hits.  We may not be able to resolve the issue of “Morals and the Machine”.  However, we can provide a solid foundation of core values for our organizations to use when wrestling with the moral issues that arise.