“We cannot departmentalize our thinking. We cannot think of economic principles and ethical principles. Underneath all our thinking, there are certain fundamental principles to be applied to all our problems.”

Mary Parker Follett


Ethical creation is the intersection between what one thinks and what one does in the pursuit of value creation. It is that liminal space in which a person, who has received stimulus – knowledge, business objectives, management direction, resource availability, etc. – and they are ready to make a decision or choice. Maybe its better said to suggest it is the space between sensemaking and choice making (apologies to Daniel Schmachtenberger because I believe this mangles his much deeper thinking on these topics). It is where what you end up creating is shaped by, well, what one views as right or wrong. The reason I see its importance residing between value creation and progress/velocity is because if an organization crafts a concept with high value, absent of ethical creation, and it moves on to the next phase and gains its likely velocity the concept shifts into high gear only amplifying its lowest aspect – lack of ethical value. In other words, velocity amplifies value whether it is created ethically or not.

To me this means the business of the future needs to embrace the idea that value creation has external consequences simply beyond sales, revenue and profit. With ethical value embedded its value carries an intrinsic benefit almost immeasurable in value. To be honest, most businesses never notice the absence of ethical value nor even recognize any value in ethical creation. To quote Futurama: “when you do it right, nobody notices.” Yet. Unnoticed, it has an impact in the home, community and society. Ethical creation is structural lift in which the value will not be found in dollars & cents, but rather a more ethical society which will end up seeking more ethical products & services as a reflection of who & what they are.


Let me be clear. I have never been a fan of Business Values statements or any simplistic desire to define ‘good behavior.’ My belief has always been to establish some principles and let people do the right things and they will invariably bend their behavior toward doing the rights things. My belief certainly lends itself more toward McGregor’s “Y” than his “X” in combination with Mary Parker Follett’s view on values and morality:

“Morality is never static; it advances as life advances. You cannot hang your ideals up on pegs and take down #2 for certain emergencies and #4 for others. The true test of our morality is not the rigidity with which we adhere to standards, but the loyalty we show to the life which constructs standards.”

Mary Parker Follett

Regardless. This does not mean ethics and ethical behavior should be ignored. In fact. I believe one of the outcomes of a well-implemented future business model is better ethical behavior.

So, let’s talk about “well implemented.”

From a human perspective I will not invest any energy explaining people’s desire to act ethically other than to say I believe 98% (I made that % up) of people in the workplace, left to their own devices, would act more ethically than most businesses act now. That alone would be progress.

This leads me to technology because algorithms play a significant role in the future organization business model.

While ethical creation is unequivocally a byproduct of human actions and behavior it would be absurd to neglect the role technology has in influencing or impacting human actions. As Marshall McLuhan said decades ago “a technology creates an environment” from which people will inevitably takes cues to think and do.

Yes. Technology plays a role. It plays a role because it amplifies. It is here that I will suggest that morality, ethics and empathy needs technology. Yes. I just said that. The destiny of all those things are dependent upon technology. If that is so then I imagine I could say society’s fate resides in the hands of technology. That may seem backwards in that all of these things reside in humans, not technology. Well. They do, but technology will either flatten, amplify or even extend the reach of all. I am certainly not suggesting that technology will guarantee morality or ethical behavior, but I would suggest improving ethical-ness of technology increases the likelihood that morality and ethical behavior becomes more pervasive (expansive) all of which are integral to a healthy culture.

That said. I will speak of technology’s role on ethics and ethical creations as an indirect consequence. At the core of the business model idea is conceptual thinking and at the core of conceptual thinking is better pattern recognition, better critical thinking/assessment and better knowledge (the more you learn the more ‘wise’ you get). The outcome of all of this is actually better behavior. It offers a person a broader perspective of things and consequences of not only what they do but what they think. It is the thinking version of “in and of society.”

There are dozens of thinktanks tackling the issue on ‘coding with conscience”.

  • ** note: my personal favorite is The Ethics Centre in Australia. Simon Longstaff discusses ethics in this podcast with Mike Walsh: Ethics in the Age of Smart Machines  and the Ethics Centre  ‘Ethical By Design: Principles For Good Technology’ manifesto is a good place to begin the discussion

That said. Where I differ from many of these thinktanks is that they focus on the design and I am dubious this resolves the issues. Why?:

  • Software is designed by humans who will all have some bias which will either overfit the code to some ‘ethical design’ or underfit based on the same criteria. In other words, any ethical design guardrails will be imperfect
  • Imperfect code tends to amplify at scale
  • Tools are designed to measure what the tools are designed to measure. In other words, well intended design is not crafted to measure bad intentional usage
  • Algorithms focus on symmetrical resolutions and people are asymmetrical behavior machines or, as Brian Christian said: “When computers guess they are alarmingly confident.”

Ethics are not absolutes. Your ethics, or values, may not be mine <so maybe we should seek empathy toward other’s feelings and beliefs>. Yet. We must demand our algorithms have some absolutes in order to kill off the bad or evil we know exists. Maybe technology should be seeking what someone called “approximately moral.” This can be done in the actual outputting software (inputs to people), but it is possibly even more important in the ‘constraints’ software – the spies spying on the algorithm spies.

It is the latter point which I believe ethical technology’s hope resides. The spies spying on the algorithms. Just as diabetics have wearable tools to adjust blood sugar in real time, technology should have tools developed to attack and adjust the, well, tools. On a grander scheme, the internet as a whole, this certainly looks like a daunting task. On a smaller scheme, say a business level, it appears less daunting. Business behavior can be defined in ways to insure parameters on unethical use of knowledge and in actual practice.

I also believe the starting point for technology ethics is simpler than we tend to make it. Back in 2010 I designed an online global educational initiative directed toward 3-8 year olds and in it I suggested the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights as a reasonable foundation. Interestingly, in Flynn Coleman’s fabulous 2019 book, A Human Algorithm, she suggested the same thing:

“.. using established international human rights declarations as our model for how to preserve human rights as we incorporate intelligent technology is a good starting point.”

I like this because technology includes not just software design, algorithms, but data usage as well as all artificial intelligence, all of which should be seeking to not only not infringe upon people’s rights but actually seek to augment positive behavior (morality).

Others will focus on how to demand accountability for software design, I will focus on how an organizational Knowledge Sharing software system, through algorithms, can encourage ethical behavior because, inevitably, if I am suggesting technology augments people than we should seek to augment their better business angels, i.e., responsibility, accountability and empathy with regard to consequences of choices & doing something outside the auspices of the actual business and creator.

To be clear. No algorithm will ever solve any human ethical dilemma. Period.

But an algorithm can certainly influence how one thinks about that ethical dilemma. This does not absolve software engineers of moral responsibility, it simply does not ignore the fact people are responsible for sensemaking, choice making and the consequences of things they actually do.

In other words, everyone at every level has a responsibility and of everyone is ethical, or acts within an agreed upon ethical framework, that in totality we increase the probability that ethical decisions are made and ethical doing is achieved.

I admit. I get tired of all the negative discussion with regard to artificial intelligence. I believe, developed well and used well, it feeds positive progress – not just for business, but for humans and humanity.

It seems like people don’t speak often enough about the positives of algorithms and what they can make (isolated crowd or tribe aspects) it can actually unmake. It is possible to take apart larger unhealthy ideologies, or beliefs, so that new more healthy ideologies or ways of thinking can be constructed. Algorithms can be used in a variety of ways and if we elected to create a conceptual thinking community/organizational/societal mindset embracing ethical creation at its core, it can be done – even in a competitive finite ideology world.

That said. I view a checks & balance system as not only a check on bad use of AI, but rather also an iterative positive progress mechanism. I envision a looped ethical creation system to constantly check, and place constraints, on unintended negative consequences or unethical output or use which actually frees up the type of conceptual thinking that benefits people, business & society simultaneously.

I believe this is a reasonable way to think about this mostly because:

  • One need not be prescient to envision future unethical behavior
  • One capable of envisioning future unethical behavior has the ability to design to manage/constrain it
  • One only needs to see constraint design as an ongoing progress commitment

“I do not think we have psychological and ethical and economic problems. We have human problems with psychological, ethical, and economic aspects.”

Mary Parker Follett

Ethical creation, therefore, is never dependent upon one check, but rather people, humanity, AI, output and results, are looped and iterative in terms of its feedback. I believe this thought demands some emphasis because humans really do not have a chance against the onslaught of algorithms. They are often smarter than us but, more importantly, all are embedded with behavioral trigger mechanisms to tap into our mental models to encourage us to do whatever it is they desire us to do.

  • ** note: what if, for businesses who seek a more measurable evaluation of ethical creation, an algorithm were designed to measure activity based on a score developed from Triple Bottom Line, Freer Spreckley, components? I envision an open source measurement feedback code which can be slightly adapted to each business’ focus/vision/purpose. For example a business focused on environmental responsibility will weight those components in its Ethical Creation value assessment versus a business which desires to focus on use of specific material resources.

I do believe the key to ethics in technology is to recognize it as a connective decision or initiative and not a specific task initiative.

I say this because I envision the conceptual thinker of the future will be connected not only to those in the group, but the organization, the cloud (knowledge and data of other unmade, ethical or unethical, humans) as well as community and society (as one’s concepts become reality). Things made cannot be unmade from an ethical standpoint – they ripple out almost infinitely. Let me say it another way. Buyer beware is unacceptable in a future business world grounded in algorithms. It cannot be.

Somewhere within my writings I have reminded everyone that the cloud, and access to knowledge, doesn’t make people smarter. While the cloud represents an almost limitless pool of ever growing knowledge and data I would be remiss if I didn’t point out that the cloud, in and of itself, can be just as stupid, if not stupider, than any one individual. More knowledge, used poorly, simply makes one stupider rather than smarter. The collective knowledge is only as good as who uses it. This is also true of ethics.

Individuals, and small groups of people, within an institution (augmented by the cloud collective knowledge) get more ethical iteratively (even if they misuse knowledge because they learn from mistakes). Conceptually they actually get more ethical than the cloud due to understanding of context.


Let me remind everyone of a slightly contrarian assessment with regard to morality I said earlier before I move on to business being in, and of, society: Morality needs technology. Yes. I said that. Technology is not going away so discussing morality in the absence of technology is a fool’s task. This means, without technology continuing to progress, morality will bend toward bad rather than good. A static technology machine will most likely degrade humanity rather than improve it – morality included. If I could ever argue for ethics in technology, this paragraph would be it. Think about ethics and morality as you ponder Marshall McLuhan’s words” “we shape our technology and our technology shapes us.”

In the end (part 1: technology).

Ethics in technology is a given. We should stop discussing and start doing. The one thing business could teach the technology ethics people is that it will never be perfect and success is rarely found in what is initially created or offered, but rather how well what is developed improves as it faces new unforeseen contexts. Embedding ethics INTO software development, algorithms and technology, at minimum, embeds ethics into value creation at a structural level. From that point on, ethical creation is in the hands of the conceptual thinkers – the people.

In the end (part 2: people)

“Ethical is a polysemous word in that it can refer to process, outcomes, and values. The process refers to the internal procedures that are adopted by the firm to guide decision making on product/service design and development choices. The values aspect refers to the value set that is both adopted by the organization and those of the public within which the product/service might be deployed. This can include values such as transparency, equity, fairness, privacy, among others. The outcomes refer to desirable properties in the outputs from the system such as equalized odds across demographics and other fairness metrics.”

State of AI Ethics, Montreal AI Ethics Institute

We can discuss ethics and technology until we are blue in the face, but I will always, inevitably, come down to people. People doing the right things. Creating the right things in the right way. It was, once again, Mary Parker Follett who can guide us toward the right future using her own words as she described ‘Right’:

  1. We do not follow right, we create right;
  2. There is no private conscience;
  3. My duty is never to “others” but the whole.

“Morality is not the refraining from doing certain things – it is a constructive force” (Mary Parker Follett). Far too often we view morality and ethics as limiting. We should not. ethical creation is freeing and a constructive force. We should stop thinking of principles as things meant to tell people what to do or how to act or even manipulate them, but rather to offer touchstones for agreed upon behavior that benefits value creation – to the individual (ethically and in meaningfulness), the community and society.

Give people some guidance for how to act in choice making situations or ethical dilemmas, not because they determine outcomes but to use as an energy to guide all elements as they face ‘the law of the situation’ (contextually what I best in that time and place which will endure in a positive way in terms of consequences).

Ethical creation for business should be a given. Ethical creation benefits people, business, home, community and society. Ethical creation increases value as it progresses and gains velocity. And, maybe most importantly, ethical creation, well done, actually embeds meaning, and meaningfulness into the people actually creating the value.

Written by Bruce