The Ethics of Knowledge: The Taboo Topic of Our Times

This blog post doesn’t set out to provide any great answers, but hopefully lays some of the groundwork for the question of knowledge ethics.

Usually discussions about knowledge management revolve around the perennial topics of technology, teams, and talk. If we aren’t exalting or defiling the latest SharePoint application or collaboration platform, we are arguing about teaming and communities, or expanding on how everything is about stories and story telling. The one topic that never seems to enter the fray is ethics. When is sharing morally right, and when is it better to hoard or hide, than share? What about employees and employers that lie about knowledge?

What of secrecy and privacy?

Let’s roll back time a little – It wasn’t all that long ago that doctors routinely held back information from patients, and especially so from women, and the concept of a “freedom of information” law was not just absent, but was unthinkable to most governments. It wasn’t that healthcare providers were swine back then and dead set to harm their patients, in fact reading the medical texts from then, it was thought to be a kinder and more responsible thing to do than to burden the patient with unwelcome knowledge. Now, of course, we see this as unconscionable paternalism at best, and outright abuse at worst – which of course begs the question of what we might be doing right now that future generations will look at and wonder “just what were they thinking?”.

The one area in which the ethics of knowledge gets some play is in ownership of knowledge, largely because money comes into play, but also because of the concept of secrecy.

First the money

Almost all cultures have some sort of regulation of intellectual property – knowledge that can be said to be somebody’s property, to use, rent, or sell as they see fit. Therefore, patents can be held by someone and denied to others, and the owner has legal recourse if that knowledge is used in any of a number of ways that they don’t want. Intellectual property laws and treatments have expanded over time from simply protecting logos and brands, and patents and copyrights, to making some forms of intellectual property a fungible asset in the eyes of the law. In some cases, one can use a copyright or patent as collateral for a bank loan, and patent auctions, swaps, and collectives are a frequent feature of modern business.

It this sense, there are a few quandaries about who exactly owns rights to knowledge that somebody acquires through the course of their work or as part of their career. Most employers ask that employees sign expansive intellectual property rights over to the employer, and many of these are probably neither legal nor possible to enforce. We might then ask how moral it is to try to turn the employees mind into a lockbox, and to attempt to deny them the basic freedom of thinking up new ideas, to synthesize experiences into knowledge, or seeking to improve their station in life by applying that. Should the employer have first rights to something that developed in the mind of the employee, forever? Seems wrong at so many levels.

That was the easy part.

Development and beneficiation

It is probably safe to bet that everyone comes to work on their first day with some level of knowledge that is needed in the organization’s value chain. Presumably, the payment of wages is recognition to some degree of this knowledge, and that the employer pays for its use in achievement of organizational goals. When firms pay for training or when training is carried out during paid hours, the firm invests in developing knowledge that they expect to be used towards operational goals. Many firms require the worker to remain in employ for some period after training, and this is explicable in terms of the value of the knowledge, or at least the cost of creating it. By that standard, the worker owes it to the employer to apply that knowledge to achieving operational goals set by the employer. It becomes less clear when the employee takes the experience of work itself to increase their knowledge. Does simply being in that environment create a duty on the part of the worker if that exposure leads to them having new knowledge? Employees may carry out studies on their own time, or undertake other forms of discretionary self-development that result in a growth or refinement of their knowledge. Do they owe something to the employer for the exposure to a work environment that develops their knowledge? Does the employer owe the worker something if they put that new knowledge to work in the interests of the organization? Sometimes organizations clearly do reward self-development either in the form of direct pay-rate raises, or indirectly through expanded roles or promotion.

Hoarding and Hiding

In the plainest sense, hoarding can be either ethical or unethical – there may after all be reasonable justifications to keep a private stash of knowledge, whether that is tacit or explicit. For example, if the existing knowledge repositories are unreliable, one may simply set up a personal cache to prevent downstream risks of needing it and not having it at hand. Some forms of hoarding, however, may imply that the knowledge is thereby unavailable to others who might need it as part of their work. In knowledge hiding, knowledge is withheld from access by others; it may also be deliberately kept secret so that others are not even aware of its existence. One might argue that in some firms there are abusive or manipulative environments that might make it ethical for the worker to respond by hiding knowledge, but clearly, there is an intention to do harm at some level. As an aside, knowledge hiding may be a clear indication of a lack of attachment when the worker hides knowledge at work that is of value in the course of business operations.

Plain old lying

In a similar vein, and perhaps more frequently, workers and employers may mislead each other with regard to knowledge they claim to have. An employee may give indications, either overtly or tacitly, that they have knowledge or a level of knowledge that they do not in fact have – perhaps taking payment for a state of knowledge that they do not actually possess, especially when they are offered a job based on knowledge they claim to have. In the case of employers, there may be an impression created that they will provide the worker with access to knowledge or opportunities to develop knowledge that do not exist. Employers may lead the erstwhile worker to believe that they will be exposed to knowledge that will be of value in terms of their professional development. Most commonly though, the employer may mislead the worker as to what knowledge they will be using in the course of the role. Many workers discover to their immense disappointment that the true nature of the role they accepted is unlike what they were led to believe, and that skills and knowledge they anticipated using, lie fallow. In cases where these skills or knowledge are core to the person’s self-identity, the person may experience severe and even debilitating stress.

Some experts estimate that up to 80% of job applicants lie about the knowledge they possess, but this is probably dwarfed by the degree to which employers lie about the opportunities that employees will have to use, develop, and acquire knowledge that will be to their benefit.

Up close and personal

People also hold that some things are private and even secret to an extent, and that escape of that knowledge can be harmful to varying degrees. This may range from practical knowledge of how to do something in the sense of knowledge hoarding or knowledge hiding at work, to the intimate details of beliefs and preferences.

The other side of the coin is those who disclose or steal knowledge that is held to be secret by others. Sometimes this is done with intent for a beneficial outcome to the person whose secret is being revealed – such as that they have quietly performed pro-social work, or that they have valued talents or attributes that they didn’t advertise. Often the disclosure is harmful even when no malevolence was intended, such as inadvertently “outing” somebody who preferred to remain anonymous about their donations to a charity, and finds themselves embarrassed by the disclosure. It can also be intentionally harmful, such as the atrocious phenomenon of “revenge porn”.

People even withhold knowledge from themselves, either choosing to be ignorant or selecting to ignore aspects of themselves or others that they prefer not to believe. People routinely rationalize their behavior to maintain a positive self-image, and may become angry and combative when brought into a situation of cognitive dissonance.


With knowledge becoming ever more salient to business survival, the advent of social media, and the disappearance of employment for life, the ethics of knowledge will become an increasingly pressing area of discussion. There are many features to knowledge ethics, and many stakeholders, and it is high time the knowledge management fraternity and business managers rolled up their collective sleeves, gritted their teeth, and got involved with it.


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One Response to “The Ethics of Knowledge: The Taboo Topic of Our Times”

  1. Kim Says:

    I found your blog for the first time today. Really enjoyed the post above. Lots of food for thought here. I guess that appealing to our fee earners better nature to share knowledge is not enough any more. Having said that it seems to me that fro fee earners sharing their knowledge and being “subject matter experts” and the kudos (and hopefully fees) that comes with it should be incentive enough – I sometimes wonder why it isn’t. Perhaps we hope that technology will make it easy for knowledge to be shared when actually it sometimes it inhibits.

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