Marvin Brown, Organizational Systems

Photograph of Marvin Brown

Marvin Brown

Organizational Systems Faculty

Everyone agrees that we need businesses and organizations to be more ethical - but what does that actually mean?

Part of the reasons our organizations aren’t getting any more ethical, says Marvin Brown, is that we like to think unethical corporate behavior is caused entirely by unethical people. In fact, improving organizations requires more than improving the individuals who participate in them.

"There’s this very common view that organizations are made up of individuals, and so if you just get good individuals in the organization, you’ll have an ethical organization," Marvin says. "But in fact organizations have decision making processes that they follow, and entrenched systems of rewards and punishments … and most people, even good people, end up doing what the organization that pays them wants them to do. So if you want an ethical organization, you have to look at more than whether the people in it are ‘good’ or not: you have to look at the organizational decision-making process and the organizational culture in which it is embedded."

Marvin’s books on organizational ethics have been widely recognized by professional societies, and translated into multiple languages. But the larger work of reorganizing society around ethical lines has yet to be done.

For him, it’s something of a calling, dating back to his time as a Methodist minister studying in the US and Germany, and seeing that different cultures have vastly different ways of dealing with conflict and ethical concerns. "What I came to realize," he says, "is that ethics is not just a set of rules we follow: ethics is a set of tools by which we deal with conflict. In fact ethics really begins with disagreement."

"Most people do what they think is right considering the world they think they live in - but that doesn’t mean they know the best thing to do," he says. "So the ethical process involves a situation where people have evaluated a decision and decided to do what they think is the right thing, but they disagree about it. Then what? What do you do when everyone’s doing what they think is right - but they disagree? That’s where the ethical process really begins. It’s a kind of dialogue, rather than a set of rules."

Marvin earned his PhD in rhetoric and hermeneutics, and began teaching ethics courses at the University of San Francisco, where he still teaches today in addition to his work at Saybrook. He began writing an organizational ethics newsletter, which reached an influential audience and eventually turned into his first book Working Ethics. He became a sought after ethics consultant for businesses. He also left the ministry.

"What I found myself asking was: do you need a religious vocabulary to address the world’s ethical concerns? And in my case, the answer was no - you don’t. There are many conversations where people have insights, where people share with one another, where people grow, where people connect, and they don’t use theological language to do that. So I became a practical philosopher," he says. "In fact, I’m a critic right now of the easy spirituality that is used by different groups in our society to ignore the real providers of wealth. We thank God for the dinner before us, but ignore the people who pick the strawberries, and the people who work in the kitchen. Religion that is missing a concrete way of discussing how we get our muffins for breakfast gets in the way more than it helps."

What does help, and what Marvin is passionate about developing, are Civic Conversations - dialogues that can connect the people who pick the strawberries with the people who buy them at the supermarket. Together, they tend to come up with better solutions than they do on their own.

"Corporations spend billions to promote unsustainable lifestyles and governments have been pursuing wasteful and destructive policies. As individuals very few of us want such a world, but the systems we live in are pushing us in those directions," he says. It’s much like the employees at a global corporation - they can be good people and still contribute to a bad organization. "If you look into the future, these trends lead to destruction. But how do we stop it? How do we make those changes?"

Marvin’s company, Working Ethics (named after his first book) helps organizations have the conversations among stakeholders necessary to create self-directed change and get on the path to social justice and sustainability. Whether within a company, a city, or a country, Civic Conversations are different from "town hall meetings" or strategy sessions because of their focus on ethical behavior as a dialogic process that addresses everyone’s needs, from the dish washers to the CEOs.

He’s encouraged to see more and more organizations, from civic groups to international businesses, taking up the challenge. He teaches at Saybrook because he sees Saybrook students as being at the vanguard of this change.

"I teach undergrads at USF, but I really enjoy teaching working adults, because they bring a lot more to the conversation," Marvin says. "The Organizational Systems program at Saybrook is very good at bringing in very interesting faculty and a truly engaged group of students, and everyone is very focused on not just advancing their careers, but doing so in a way that is ethical, that supports the conversations and the changes that the world needs to have. It’s a great environment to be a part of."