Judging Goodness

Two different news items recently led me into the same train of thought: we are all increasingly in the business of judging Goodness, and of being so judged. I purposefully capitalized Goodness here, because I mean in it in the highest sense of the word. This probably sounds vague, so let me use the examples to explain.

The first item is from the NYTimes, and discusses the conundrum caused by a proposed solar plant in Nevada. While the plant will produce copious free energy, it will also require over a billion gallons of fresh water a year, or over 20% of the water supply for the valley in which it is to be cited.

This is a classic problem that we’re going to hear more and more about. What are we willing to give up in exchange for cleaner energy? Many types of solar power need water, as shown above. But how much water is too much? How many dead migratory birds are too many at a potential wind farm location? How much car safety should we sacrifice for better mileage? How much can the view from the shoreline be impacted by offshore wind farms before it cross the line? There are tons of these questions, there are going to be more, and they are going to get more and more complex.

And you can see why I described this as judging Goodness. We might try to reduce these to financial terms, but its hard to put a price on scenic beauty or a single bird. And your answer may not be the same as someone else’s. I’ll react differently to a wind farm I can see from my deck than one that’s a thousand miles away in a place I’ll likely never visit.

The second example isn’t about tradeoffs, but about people trying to quantify the Goodness of organizations. You see this all of the time: green rankings of companies, ethical lists of schools, etc. For example, Sun was recently included in the Newsweek green ranking, finishing XX out of YYY. (Note: I’m not singling out the Newsweek ranking - there are dozens of examples I could have used and this just happened to be a recent, well publicized one.)

This, however, is even trickier than the task above. We’re not talking about an either or situation, we’re talking about trying to capture all of the factors that make up the green-ness or ethical-ness of an organization in a single number. And to make matters worse, these organizations often don’t even do the same thing. How do you compare someone who flies planes to a consulting company? A manufacturer to a non-manufacturer? A small school in the north woods to big one in Manhattan?

But as we’ve seen, there’s no shortage of people who feel they are up to the task. They’re willing to make all sorts of generalizations and use a variety of direct and indirect data. For example, one of the three major factors in the Newsweek ranking was perception audit they did of the public and other “experts”. Since Sun Microsystems is not a consumer brand and we don’t advertise much, its not hard to predict that we may not score as high in that as organizations that are household names, or are use big ad budgets to tout their sustainability. Sure enough, Wal-mart tops the list in that category, and we score well below our larger, better-known competitors. (BTW, Wal-mart is doing some outstanding sustainability work, but that doesn’t validate the scoring methodology.)

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that Sun deserves to be scored or ranked higher. In fact, I’ll go a step further and say that I have no moral grounds on which to judge the ethics or greenness of any organization, Sun included. I’m confident in telling you that we’re using less fresh water and emitting less GHG than we were a year ago, but that’s as far as I’m comfortable going. In short, who am I to judge?

And don’t let me imply that there’s no value in these rankings. Many of them embody methodical and thoughtful fact gathering, and to the extent that they make the underlying data available, you may be able to gather useful information to inform your own decisions. For example, if your organization has decided to stress water conservation, you may be able to get some good data on the relative water intensity of some companies you were considering as partners.

In closing, I think there’s a few important points to take away from this discussion:

  1. It’s important to identify when a judgement of Goodness is taking place and to recognize it as such.
  2. Any judgement of Goodness embodies a certain morality, and the morality others would employ may not match your own.
  3. If you are trying to make a specific judgement of Goodness, then you may be able to tap into a growing set of real data that’s available on organizations.