We are a policy culture. Our institutions spend an enormous amount of time and energy creating, revising, and educating us on policies. Those policies may include important topics like racism, publicity, sexual harassment, plagiarism, and so on.
Our obsession with policies is a symptom of our times, which is obsessed with rights and litigation. Policies serve to protect individual and institutional rights, and provide a way to avoid expensive lawsuits. Policies are a sort of contract that shield us from litigation and protect our mutual rights. They are, therefore, a product of modernity.
Just as modernity birthed the notions of legal rights, contracts, and the state as the adjudicator of infractions of those rights and contracts, so it has birthed the notion of policies, which promise fair treatment. Policies are meant to protect us and to show fairness. Employers, for example, will not discriminate in the hiring policy (since there's a policy against that). A company will grant two months of maternity or paternity leave (there's a policy about that). A university will have a disaster preparedness policy that spells out what to do if there is a natural disaster that hits the campus. A church has a policy about who may work with children and how accusations of sexual abuse are dealt with. Policies are, like our justice system, impartial, and treat everyone the same, regardless of the situation or context. The policy protects the institution and the individual. Policies often develop in the wake of litigation, as a means of protection.
We are continuing to see, however, that policies can be ignored, either accidentally or intentionally. There may be an age discrimination policy at a corporation, but that company may still decide to lower employee costs by replacing an older and better paid worker with a cheaper, younger one. A sexual abuse policy may not be fully implemented if the accused person has a particular standing in a local church. The Secret Service may be out cavorting with prostitutes in Latin America.
Policies fail for various reasons. Sometimes it's simple ignorance. The dizzying number of policies in some places makes it impossible to keep up with them all, especially when they are often updated and changed. Institutions may do training about these policies, but how many training sessions can one actually go to and still be productive?
Other times, policies are not implemented because those in power simply choose to ignore or sidestep them. There may be too much money to be made, which is always a great reason for circumventing policies – I'm thinking of the mortgage related fraud in the recent housing bubble. We may want to helpful, or think it's permissible this one time. We are often tempted to do bad things. There are always exceptions and gray areas, where the policy doesn't seem to exactly fit the situation. In these scenarios, rather than preventing something unethical, policies actual encourage them, since they act as a shield. Hiding behind a policy, one can do the opposite (if one is careful and leaves no record). It's the Enron defense, claiming ignorance of the events while pointing to the policy.
In the end, policies fail. After teaching Christian Ethics and working through Sam Wells and Ben Quash's textbook, I've become convinced that a universal ethic that tries to be impartial and principled simply doesn't work. People make decisions, not policies. Virtuous people make good decisions, and they don't need a policy to tell them the difference between right and wrong. We don't make decisions by grabbing the corporate policy manual; we make decisions based on intuition, experience, and emotion.
The word virtue has taken on a sexual purity connotation, as in the "virtuous young maiden." Like Wells, Quash, and other ethicists, I mean something different when I use it. Virtue is an ancient and medieval notion that stresses character, moral experience and maturity, wisdom, prudence, and moderation. It works not from rights and contracts but from chraracter and discernment. Christianity has a long history with working in virtue theory.
Forming people into virtuous citizens, employees, or church members is far more important than consulting the policy. In our litigious world we may still need policies, but we also need to develop character. Google's "don't be evil" mantra was a start, but we need more specifics than that. Institutions need to develop a culture of respect, tolerance, and peaceableness. Peaceful people don't coerce or harass one another. Respectful people don't discriminate against others. Being skilled in virtue means you can see a situation for what it is and what the right choice to make is. The decisions may be difficult, but a virtuous person can deal with an exception or gray area much more readily than a policy can.
This also means that institutional leaders need to be virtuous, as they set so much of the spirit and culture of an institution. The hiring process for leaders needs to include ethical questioning – how would you deal with a particular situation? Employers may need to investigate a leader's moral reasoning. Virtuous leaders don't engage in coverups or have lavish GSA parties. They don't commit mortgage fraud.
In ancient China, Confucians were prized as civil servants in part because of their skilled virtuousness and honesty. It's time to realize that policies fail, but moral people succeed, and to encourage moral growth and maturity in our institutions, leaders, and citizens.