When we think about the kinds of things a society needs for its survival and flourishing, we tend to begin with the basic necessities.

A society needs enough food to feed everyone, road and transport infrastructure, housing. It needs laws to manage how people treat one another, systems of government to make decisions. In a modern society, complex communications and other forms of technical infrastructure are required.  

Each of these this is a component of a society’s infrastructure. Each is essential to the common good, survival and wellbeing of a society. However, just as essential for the wellbeing of a society is ethical infrastructure – the formal and informal means by which society regulates the use of power by both public and private institutions to ensure it serves the common good.  

The term ethical infrastructure has been used in a number of countries around the world, including The United States of America. However, it has typically been used to refer to systems of control, compliance and risk management. There is an opportunity to expand the idea of ethical infrastructure so it does not simply refer to the basic rules of public service. 

A society can have a clear set of rules and principles about appropriate spending, disclosure of interests and so on, and still not have systems and institutions that serve the common good. We need only look at the United States for proof of this.  

This is why it is better to consider ethical infrastructure to be  collection of institutions, systems, norms and processes that we use to ensure not only that society is operating effectively, but that it is operating ethically.  

To understand why this is necessary, consider the fact that there is a person or group who is responsible for, and in control of, each piece of social, physical or digital infrastructure we have and need. This control confers power. The power to give or deny essential resources to some groups, to favour some people over others or to mismanage those resources due to incompetence, laziness or selfishness.  

Handing this kind of power over to somebody without some assurance they will use it well would be reckless and foolish. Indeed, some of the most influential voices in Western political philosophy – Thomas HobbesJohn LockeJean-Jacques Rousseau and John Rawls – have argued that it’s only when the powerful are willing to act in the interests of those they are meant to serve that they should have any power at all. Ethical infrastructure refers to the means by which a society can ensure power is exercised in the common interest, and take meaningful action when it is not.  

A clear example of a piece of ethical infrastructure would be laws, policies and systems protecting the actions of whistleblowers, who draw attention to unethical behaviour – often by the powerful. Many organisations lack appropriate systems and processes for employees to flag ethical issues, and even if they have these processes, there are often cultural factors that mean those processes don’t have the results they should. This can drive some whistleblowers to look for other avenues outside their organisation, but often do not feel supported – practically or legally – in doing so.  

Thinking about an issue like this as a challenge of ethical infrastructure helps us see it as a systemic issue. It is not simply a matter of new laws. We also need to normalise new ways of thinking about dissenting, concerned or outspoken staff within our organisations.

We need to ensure individuals have the training and support they need to identify and draw attention to ethical issues and we must have appropriate accountability in cases where it appears important information has been covered up or kept secret. This complex and powerful network of norms, policies, institutions, processes and people is a society’s ethical infrastructure. 

Each aspect of a society’s infrastructure is designed to allow its citizens to flourish: provided with the means to live prosperously, confidently, safely and well. Ethical infrastructure serves this goal in two ways. First, it ensures the other aspects of our infrastructure are serving everyone’s needs, and second, it gives people the confidence to take risks, act creatively and magnanimously, trust in their neighbours, leaders and institutions and feel confident in theirs and their loved ones futures.  

Because without this, no amount of sophisticated infrastructure will secure what we’re all searching for: a life worth living 

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How can we ensure power is exercised in the common interest?