Thoughts for the Evening
When I teach my Ethics course, I often (if time allows) have a class on business ethics and a class on government ethics after we've looked at the big approaches to reasoning (consequentialism, deontology, virtue ethics). For government ethics I usually discuss basic civil service issues, and for business ethics I usually look at ethical crisis management. But at times instead of focusing on avoiding and handling ethical crises in business ethics, I've looked at the notion of 'conflict of interest', which is relevant to both fields. It has been a number of years since I've done it, but given that it keeps coming up politically, this is pretty clearly a term in which it should be a topic. So I've been reviewing the state of discussion about it.
'Conflict of interest' is a curious term. It is relatively recent -- less than a century old, and it hasn't been popular for more than sixty or seventy years. Originally when people talked about conflicts of interest they meant literally conflicting interests, but this is neither necessary nor sufficient to have a conflict of interest in our sense. A lot of things that we would say are there in order to avoid conflicts of interests -- civil service procedures, for instance, or judicial recusal, or the like -- were not originally rationalized in quite these terms. And because it is a heavily practical term, it has always been difficult to pin down a general meaning for it. Despite its being of obvious importance to fields like business ethics, there is no consensus on how best to define it -- although there are some major candidates floating about. There's not even much agreement about whether the label is a good one for what it describes. It's widely held that there need not be an actual conflict in order to have (something that could plausibly be called) a conflict of interest, and it's somewhat disputed whether it need to be put in terms of interests at all.
But there is, of course, a natural preference for keeping term and label fairly close -- maybe cases without conflicts or without interests are COI-like but best kept in a separate basket, and given that we keep calling it a 'conflict of interest' it's a little absurd to say that it doesn't at least usually involve conflicts and interests in some way.
So if we accept that line of thought, we can go on to a few desiderata for a decent definition of COI:
(1) There should be at least two interests.
(2) Since we don't talk about COI when dealing with purely private matters, at least one of the interests should be, in some sense, a public interest -- something arising in a public forum due to one's role within that forum.
(3) While it's pretty clear that you could have COI with only public interests, it seems important for any definition to elucidate clearly the most serious cases, which are where a public interest is conflicting with a private interest.
(4) The definition should allow both for cases in which there is a general tendency of the interests to conflict and for cases in which they simply do by coincidence.
(5) A definition of COI should make clear that COI is ethically problematic, but also make clear that it is not itself ethically culpable -- having a conflict of interest is often unavoidable, so having one doesn't automatically put you in the moral wrong, just in a tricky position for ethical reasoning.
(6) While the ways of mitigating COIs wouldn't be part of the definition itself, a good definition of COI would shed light on how to deal with one.
While there might be room for quibble, I think most people studying the matter would agree with something like these. But I'm not sure any definition that you usually run across does all that well by this standard.
One reason, I think, is that people tend to shy away from teleology and focus on the situation itself. But COI is pretty clearly a teleological concept -- an interest involves being directed at goals, and so is always teleological, and I think both (5) and (6) require taking this far more seriously than most people do. And I also think that people tend to try to give an approach-neutral definition, and I'm not wholly convinced that this is possible. Virtue ethics can handle the concept of COI pretty well -- it's already close to the kinds of concepts virtue ethicists tend to be using anyway. But, from what I've seen, it's far trickier to have a consequentialist or deontological account of COI. I don't say it's impossible; but it's not a particularly natural concept for the latter two approaches, and I think this often gums up the works.
In any case, it's an interesting topic.
Links of Note
* Speaking of COI, Will Baude notes some puzzles about how COI legally works with the Office of President -- which has no legal standard for COI except the Constitution. (Obviously moral standards are distinct from legal ones; but when dealing with political offices, the latter are the only instruments to use to meet the former.
* Francis Su, Mathematics for Human Flourishing
* Robert Paul Wolff, Macros and PC's: A Last-Ditch Attempt to Salvage Ideological Critique
I got a whole pile of books for Christmas this year, so the list is quite long. But some of the notable ones:
* Ayako Sono, Watcher from the Shore (the fortnightly book)
* G.R.R. Martin, Game of Thrones
* Mary Beard, SPQR
* Kim-chong Chong, Early Confucian Ethics
(This was a post format I used briefly once over a decade ago, and I thought I would resurrect and occasionally use it for times when I might have half-formed thoughts and the like, and also for reducing how much the links posts have been building up.)