2016 was a year of landmark ethics challenges. The year closed with an unprecedented Presidential-scale conflicts of interest quagmire and alleged cyber interference with the US election. Along the way, landmark “in or out” binary decisions such as Brexit left divisiveness, uncertainty, and waste in their wake.

Looking forward to in 2017, we should focus on one element of ethical decision-making: banishing the binary. The persistent interpretation of ethical dilemmas as black and white does not generate ethical solutions to today’s technologically and politically complex problems. We should reframe “either or” and “yes or no” and “in or out” decisions to confront and resolve the grey.

A few examples:

1. Ethics and Presidential scale conflicts. President-elect Trump’s quagmire of global conflicts of interest will persist as an international ethical dilemma in 2017. Contrary to a member of his staff’s suggestion, transparency is not an eraser. It is only the first step of several in proper management of conflicts. And proper management must resolve both actual and potential conflicts of interest.

But the binary question of whether President-elect Trump should sell his business is not likely to lead to an ethical (and politically acceptable) solution. We should reframe the analysis of President-elect Trump’s conflicts of interest from “whether to sell all his businesses” to how to eliminate all inappropriate actual or potential influences from foreign and domestic business or other relationships. The most thorough solution may or may not require sale in every case. Likely the ethically appropriate solution will require more than sale in many cases. It will be proactive. It won’t wait for lawyers, regulators, or media backlash.

 2. Ethics and blended regulation…and innovation. The “opposite camps” view of regulators versus corporates that has fuelled ethics failure and endless headlines in 2016 misses the point. Companies such as Uber combine innovative technology with classic services like taxis. Regulatory and judicial responses should similarly offer blended solutions—not a choice between outdated categories such as “technology platform versus taxi company.” This “we versus they” and “old versus new” approach is unlikely to strike the right balance between regulating for the reasonable protection of society and encouraging innovation.

Ethics should increasingly broker the discussion between companies and regulators. Ethics can keep up with the times even where regulation and governance structures do not.

The more proactively companies step up their ethics (substantively not just on paper), the less regulators and the public will feel compelled to bind them legally. Companies should consider their ethics in real time—as innovation happens not after driverless cars head down the highway or civilians are launched into orbit.

Done right, ethics is 2017’s greatest strategic opportunity—not an impediment to profits. But the failure to seize this opportunity—to tackle ethics proactively as technology develops but while the law still lags behind technology—could ultimately hinder innovation more than the law.

Charging ahead with new products until a regulatory or reputational roadblock pops up doesn’t serve innovation. It encourages an adversarial relationship between companies and governments (or one negotiated through lobbyists in the political arena) rather than a nuanced and situation-specific view of risk and innovation.

3. Ethics and expertise. Ethics requires experts in a wide range of fields to anchor the ethical decision-making in verifiable fact. We should ground ethics in the truth—with all its nuances in 2017—not in oversimplification, whether populism or ill-informed views of artificial intelligence.

Ethicists don’t work in isolation. They rely on financial, military, health, scientific and other experts to provide the information and analysis that feed ethical decision-making. Experts are not always right. But without expertise we will almost certainly get a lot wrong, ethically and otherwise.

In sum, we should resist the false security of framing complex ethics challenges in binary “either or” terms. And ethics is a real-time endeavor—a partner for science and technology not a follower of, or clean-up act for, its consequences.

© Copyright 2017 Susan Liautaud & Associates Limited. All rights reserved.