The Operating System (OS) of Ethical Business

Bryan Johnson recently made a $100 million gift to launch the OS Fund. The OS Fund invests in bold, high-return ideas that “promise to reinvent the operating systems of life.”

Why is this relevant to ethical systems design? Because we’re trying to rewrite the OS of business to make it the primary driver of flourishing societies and there’s a lot to learn from their approach. There’s a quantum leap within reach by applying behavioral ethics, behavioral economics, psychology and systems thinking to business. 

Many of the current efforts to encourage ethical corporate behavior are too downstream, focus on the tail end of the problem and only address half of the challenge by disproportionately focusing on the problem but not the solution.  By making psychologically-validated, systems-level changes, the core incentives of business can be aligned with ethical corporate conduct, and in the process, ensure that businesses create value for all stakeholders.

We don’t want to do downstream work cleaning up after mistakes have already been made; we want to obviate the problem to begin with.  Ethical systems design means focusing on the individual, organization and society within the broader ecosystem of influence that each are nested in and designing solutions to match. 

We have predictable and naturally conflicting incentives and biases that, unless dealt with proactively, will produce undesirable behavior.  These predictable misalignments between desired behavior and actual behavior are correctable at the individual, organizational and societal levels though it requires a broader approach than simply punishing miscreants and bemoaning the lack of ethicality of corporations.

As Nicholas Epley pointed out, humans don’t have an innate desire to litter – they just do what’s easy. Similarly, the current OS for business does not make ethical behavior easy.  This is a design challenge at core. 

Academia has created a rich tapestry of theoretical knowledge but left consumers of that knowledge lost on how to best to apply it.  Identifying a problem and figuring out how to design and apply solutions are very different frames of analysis and prompt very different lines of thinking. There is a structural gap in translating the technical knowledge of academia into practical solutions that are easily implementable.

This is why Ethical Systems exists.  By going upstream, taking a systems approach at each level of analysis, using the key insights from the behavioral sciences, and focusing on problem solving, we’re aiming to make the easy choice, the ethical choice, and rewrite the OS of business in the process.