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Markkula Center for Applied Ethics

Meet the Advisory Board: Jim Cowie

Jim Cowie: Markkula Center for Applied Ethics Advisory Board Member

Jim Cowie: Markkula Center for Applied Ethics Advisory Board Member

Jim Cowie, one of the newest members of the Markkula Center’s Advisory Board, arrived at the Ethics Center with a deep appreciation for ethics and the role they play in corporations. His experiences as chief legal officer of the Lawrence J. Ellison Institute for Transformative Medicine and as a lieutenant in the U.S. Navy have taught him much about the role of the individual in pushing for a more ethical world. As he says, “It’s our responsibility, each of us owns our ethical destiny. We’re all accountable.” 

Over the course of his education and career, Cowie was disappointed by the lack of ethical awareness and required ethics courses in the academic setting. Cowie was introduced to the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics through a chance meeting with Senior Director of Leadership Ethics Ann Skeet. When Skeet explained the work she and the rest of the Ethics Center were doing at Santa Clara University, Cowie felt as if he had found a place that was focusing on the work he had wanted to do for years, calling it “almost like a hallelujah.” Cowie then took his first steps into his involvement with the Ethics Center by joining the Business Ethics Advisory Council, coordinated by Skeet. The council is a gathering of business leaders who examine business issues at the forefront of ethical practices and helps the Ethics Center to prioritize the related resources and materials business leaders need most.

When it comes to his career in law, Cowie has seen many legal clients try to outsource their ethical concerns to their lawyers. Instead of asking about the ethical and moral course of action, clients choose to ask about the law, searching for the limits placed by the government as opposed to the limits placed by ethics and humanity. Cowie is disappointed in this “absence of the question about the right thing.” He is extremely concerned with making ethics a core part of his organizational culture, saying “it’s one thing to say it and another to do it.” 

 

 

Over the course of his career, however, Cowie says he has seen improvements. Younger generations, he says, are doing a better job of focusing the conversation on ethics and establishing an expectation of making a positive difference. “It hasn’t always been reasonable to insist on something like this,” he says. He has also seen the focus of the discussion shift to create a distinction between shareholders and stakeholders–as companies shift their priorities to focus on employees and the communities in which they reside. 

When it comes to his military experiences, Cowie says there is a clear and immediate difference in ethical focus between the Navy and the world of law. “There’s a fundamental aspect of the military that puts ethics front and center,” says Cowie. One of the main tenets of military service is the mandate to “follow and execute all lawful orders,” says Cowie, putting extra emphasis on the word “lawful.” The judgment of the morality of an order may come down to the individual officer, Cowie explains, which forces all in the military to keep their minds on the morality and ethics of their actions. 

While Cowie has only been with the Ethics Center’s Advisory Board for a few months, he has long since admired the work and hopes to be a part of its continuing efforts. There are “no excuses” when it comes to upholding the individual end of ethical decisions, he says, and he wants to be on the right side of history in his position with the Ethics Center.

 

Mar 21, 2022

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