With vaccinations likely beginning imminently in the US, organizations will need to decide whether they’ll require employees to be vaccinated in order to return to the office or continue working. Beyond the legal considerations, it can be a complicated issue. 

But it’s the sort of question that Susan Liautaud aims to provide us all with an ethical framework for approaching. Liautaud, who teaches at Stanford and counsels businesses, nonprofits, and governments on ethical issues, has a new book called The Power of Ethics written with Lisa Sweetingham that is coming out on January 5.

For Liautaud, ethics is about making principled decisions. She says her approach is optimistic, but anchored in reality, and can be applied to pretty much any issue ranging from corporate crisis management to gene editing to whether you let an aging parent continue driving. 

In this year, when decision-making has too often felt fraught and consequential, even around mundane questions like where to get groceries or how to get from one place to another—Liautaud’s framework is welcome and reassuring. 

In The Power of Ethics, she outlines four steps for coming to an ethical decision:

  1. Figure out what your guiding principles are. (p.24) Pick five to eight of them, which can steer your decisions. 
    • Honesty, integrity, kindness are the three most popular among her Stanford students (p.27) Truth and respect are two other principles that recur in some other examples in the book. (p. 188 and p. 208)
  2. Do you have the information you need to make this decision? (p. 27)
    • In one example Liautaud describes, the managers of the Pret A Manger sandwich chain weren’t fully aware that customers were having allergic reactions because the information wasn’t compiled from disparate complaints channels. (p. 205)
  3. Who or what stakeholders matter to your decision? (p. 30)
    • In a scenario Liautaud examines regarding consumer genetic sequencing by 23andMe, an individual’s decision could expose family members’ privacy as well. (p. 111)
  4. What are the potential consequences of the decision in the short, medium, and long term? (p. 32)

Notable examples discussed:

  • Boeing 737 Max—Liautaud is highly critical of Boeing’s handling of the safety issues with planes that led to two fatal crashes. “Boeing sank deeper in the ethical quicksand as it avoided truth, blamed pilots, and focused on the narrow objective of fixing software,” she writes. “There is a fundamental failure in the way the company made, and continues to make, decisions.”  (p. 203)
  • 23andMe—Liautaud believes that many consumers aren’t prepared to navigate the implications of genetic tests on their own, and that 23andMe and other testing companies should proactively make sure that they are. (p. 116)
  • Airbnb—Liautaud believes that the company’s founders didn’t anticipate that some homeowners would discriminate against would-be renters based on race, and when they became aware they took specific steps. “Airbnb leadership didn’t deflect responsibility or promise a software patch, they made thoughtful changes that fortified trust.” (p. 34)
  • Pret A Manger—Inadequate ingredient labeling led customers to have allergic reactions. The company made poor decisions, but after the death of a teenage girl it told the truth, took responsibility, and changed its practices. (p. 203) 

For the decisions we all make every day, Liautaud has a very useful framework for ethics on the fly. She calls it “the 2 x 4” and it involves weighing four sets of two factors  (p. 172): 

  • Choose the two most important principles.
  • Choose the two most important and irreparable consequences.
  • Choose the two most important forces.
    • Liautaud describes six forces, including “scattered power” (p. 40) and “contagion” (p. 69). Some of the forces describe the ways in which the impacts of decisions ripple out to touch others. (p. 131.)
  • Choose two alternatives.

Some scenarios that we might encounter in our personal lives that Liautaud talks through:

  • Should we take keys from elderly drivers? She suggests exploring alternatives to start, like an agreement to not drive at night or during rush hour. (p. 174) 
  • Should we post our children’s photos on social media? Liautaud discourages this, given privacy and safety concerns. (p. 176)
  • Should we tell house guests that our Amazon Alexa device is listening? Exposure to the potential surveillance is not your decision to make on your guests’ behalf—so Liautaud recommends turning the devices off or making sure guests are aware. (p. 191)
  • Should we avoid watching Harvey Weinstein films because of his crimes? Liautaud suggests distributors add disclaimers to the films saying that he was convicted for behaviors that they don’t condone, and redirecting any of his profits to survivors of sexual misconduct. (p. 210)

The book has shortcomings. 

  • Parts of the beginning chapters read like stiff business school case studies. And discussion in a middle chapter about ethical questions related to humanoid robots felt more academic and less core to the promise of the book’s subtitle: “How to Make Good Choices in a Complicated World.” The Power of Ethics is worth reading for the more useful advice in chapters seven and eight, even if it can sometimes be slogging getting there.
  • It makes only oblique reference to President Trump’s extreme mendacity in a chapter about “Compromised Truth” that is otherwise effectively a recitation of tactics used by Trump, and an explanation of how such misinformation erodes the ability to make ethical decisions. When we spoke this week, Liautaud told me that this was deliberate, as she hoped the book would reach more people if it wasn’t seen as overtly partisan.  

Choice quotes:

  • “Ethical decision-making tethers us to our humanity—it helps us keep human beings front and center at all times.” (p. 2)
  • “The edge is the line where the law no longer guides and protects us, leaving ethics as the lone standard by which to gauge our behavior.” (p. 3)
  • “A failure to integrate ethics into our decisions is the most dangerously underestimated global systemic risk we face—whether as individuals, citizens, leaders, organizations, or nations. It is the existential threat at the source of so many others.” (p. 3)
  • “We don’t get a net ethics score. Our good choices don’t excuse the unethical ones. We are held accountable for every decision.” (p. 79)
  • “Ineffective listening is an age-old ethics blinder.” (p. 115)
  • “Compromised truth is like ethical quicksand that swallows us up completely.” (p. 165)
  • “Fight for truth. Fight as if the ethical decision-making that tethers us to our humanity depends on it. Because it does.” (p. 169)

Apt quote cited:

  • “Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better.”—Maya Angelou (p. 202)

Where does Liautaud come out on the ethics of organizations requiring that employees be vaccinated? It’s not a question that Liautaud addressed in the book, but in an interview this week, she told me she thinks governments should decide on any mandates rather than corporations. Liautaud suggests that companies have better options at their disposal to encourage vaccination, like saying it’s a prerequisite for discontinuing masks, social distancing, and contact tracing, and for having access to facilities like the office cafeteria or gym. “Whatever you do, you can’t put people at risk—and here’s the menu” of options, Liautaud suggests saying to workers.

All page numbers referenced above are to the hardcover edition. You can preorder The Power of Ethics at Bookshop.org or Amazon. (We may make a commission when you buy a book.)