High principles?

Aug 01, 2018
It is a significant development when a major politician resigns, but one’s true motive may not always be apparent.

As Oscar Wilde nearly said, to lose one cabinet minister is unfortunate, but to lose two looks like carelessness. The resignation of David Davis and Boris Johnson from the British cabinet last month has a direct impact on the manner in which one of the world’s largest economies leaves one of the world’s most important trading blocs. By the time you read this, there could have been even more resignations and changes.

From the outside looking in, you could be forgiven for wondering whether these are principled resignations or merely tactical resignations; a suspension of involvement in the hope of achieving something better later. Another explanation, equally plausible, is that a resignation simply removes people from an uncomfortable position and puts them out of the firing line. Political journalists make a career from such speculation.

Project Maven

There is always difficulty discerning what is principled from what is pragmatic. One of the earliest exponents of the novel in English, Henry Fielding, focused largely on what he saw as the hypocrisies of contemporary life in his era. His recurring theme is that virtue is most often exercised by those who have no option but to do so. Some 300 years on, he could take a different line: that virtue is most often exercised by those who actually do have a ‘Plan B’.

Project Maven may be an example of virtue on the part of those with a ‘Plan B’. Maven was a project undertaken by one of the larger high-tech multinationals on behalf of the US military. It involved using advanced artificial intelligence and recognition technologies to analyse drone footage. It has been widely reported that the company concerned suspended its activities on the contract because of walkouts and threats of walkouts among staff members. The feeling was that involvement in a contract which impacted on people’s privacy to such an extent was unethical.

Taken at face value, the behaviour of the employees could be seen as principled and laudable, and I am sure that in many instances it was. Credit is also due to the company for responding to those concerns. However, it also relevant to point out that highly-skilled people in the tech sector can walk out of a job one afternoon and find themselves in a new job the next. Sometimes ethical decisions are not borne from the constraints which Fielding pointed out, but from the capacity of the individual to recover personally from the consequences of their stance. It is noteworthy how many resignations from government or other accountable posts are taken by individuals with plenty of opportunity to recover both financially and socially from their “principled” action.

Principles, or options?

There is no room for complacency in any profession. Dr Elaine Doyle from the University of Limerick, who trained as a Chartered Accountant, has carried out important research into how professionals take ethical decisions. She has found some evidence to suggest that people are actually better at taking ethical decisions when they are not working within their own professional sphere. This in turn raises questions as to the impact of codes of conduct and professional standards in day-to-day decisions and if they are set at a high enough bar.

Perhaps the most compelling reason for questioning the motives behind an apparently principled resignation is to assess whether or not the individual concerned could put matters right more effectively from within, rather than from outside the organisation they are leaving. Taking an ethical position should not be a passive activity; matters should improve from the decision to resign.

A resignation from a position of responsibility may signal high principles. But sometimes it merely signals that the person concerned has plenty of options.

Dr Brian Keegan is Director of Public Policy and Taxation at Chartered Accountants Ireland.