One of the most used phrases when I was in the army was “Keep It Simple Stupid”. We used it in relation to explanations of difficult concepts. We tried to make them as simple as possible as long as the basic premises were not compromised.

It was a long way to the army from my university days, and in the long transition I had forgotten all about “Occam’s Razor’ and I can’t really claim that my present musings about it are an outcome of a sudden revelation – it is merely that it came up in conversation recently and I was jolted into revisiting some uni philosophy. (And how I wish I could remember the words of that Philosopher’s song – can anyone help out?)

For those whose memory is as bad as mine, Occam’s Razor – in its simplest form – states “All other things being equal, the simplest solution is the best.” Which, of course in the army was expressed in an even simpler format as “K.I.S.S” or ‘Keep it Simple Stupid’

I can assure you that I am not going into the concept any deeper, and before anyone leaps for their books I am familiar with the ideas of Chatton and Menger – my preference is for the more modern “Make everything as simple as possible, but not simpler” and if it is good enough for Albert Einstein then it’s good enough for me!

In fact I want to segue right into business ethics, and because of that I was reading Immanuel Kant … (what do you mean you can’t see the connection!) and it was because I was struggling with Kant that I remembered the conversation about Occam’s Razor … now do you get the connection? No? Then may I suggest you pick up Kant’s “Grounding for the Metaphysics of Morals”. I believe that all philosophical discussions go better with a bottle of red and a youthful disposition!! At my age it is definitely a case of K.I.S.S.

This all came about because I had come across several references to “Ethical Leadership” and “Ethics in Business” and I wondered, as one does, who decides what is ethical and what is not. And more to the point is there a fashion in ‘Ethics” which changes as society changes? I thought it was likely and consequently set off on my journey of discovery.

I remembered the catch cry of the 1980’s “Greed is good!” so well exemplified by Michael Douglas. And I recalled the outrage at what was deemed to be ‘unethical conduct” by some of our entrepreneurs, with a moralistic determination that “it would never happen again!” – and then came the credit crunch!

In 2007 Samuel Gregg said :

With so many people’s economic well-being now partly determined by decisions of those working in financial industries, sound moral character in their employees and directors should be a premium asset sought by any bank or financial company.”

So the question has to be asked “what constitutes a ‘sound moral character’?” especially in banking or financial circles. And does it change from decade to decade?

If you search the internet you will find pages of writings and opinions on the topic of “Ethics” and you can debate the value of Humanism (ethics outside of religion) and non-secular ethics (inside religion) until the cows come home. And there are still more questions – can we agree with Charles Wilson of General Motors who is reputed to have told the U.S. Senate in 1955, “What is good for General Motors is good for America” – i.e. that what is good for business must be good for the wellbeing of the nation. Can we put a moral dimension onto business transactions which may have greater global impact today than ever before? Where should company director’s loyalties lie – with the shareholders or with the greater good of humanity? And what should happen if these are not mutually compatible?

In January 2004 Pierre Ronzier wrote a review on “Changing Business Ethics” which is worth a read – and I wonder what he would have to say about the moral dimension of the present crisis. But – and here’s where Occam’s Razor comes in – Is it really that simple?

Who is going to decide what constitutes ‘ethical behaviour” and if we have a standard of process put in place judicially – is that ethical in itself? How does that impact on our freedom of choice? Can curtailing someone’s freedom to choose their own standard of moral conscience be deemed an ethical act?

I know that I try to act in a conscientious way – and I doubt that there are many in business today who would knowingly act contrary to their consciences. So if our present financial woes are indeed an outcome of ‘unethical behaviour’ where did it start?

I don’t know – so it’s back to Kant – but I really wish he would keep it simple because I am feeling a little stupid.

Michele @ Trischel

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