Why Business Ethics is (Hard) Work

April 12, 2011

Why Business Ethics is (Hard) Work

"Can people really change?" More than one student has asked me this after being confronted with a wealth of information from the biological and cognitive sciences suggesting that the ethical aspirations championed by various philosophies and religions, those moral guidelines that are the foundation for ethical business practices, are up against forces that often enough make a mockery of our intentions, our will.  And every afternoon, like clockwork, I am reminded of the reality of this when my ethisphere corpedia e-mail arrives, totaling up the day's ethical transgressions in the business world.  It is never a short e-mail. How to explain the endless stream of business people, most already successful, engaged in corruption, price-fixing, bribery, insider trading, sexual harassment, discrimination, etc.?  There is no lack of knowledge in most of these situations about what the right thing to do (or not do) is, or what the consequences of doing the wrong things are likely to be, so we are forced to look beyond old theories about rational choice and information processing to shed some light. Jonathan Haidt, a psychologist at the University of Virginia, writes in his superb book The Happiness Hypothesis (Basic) that it's probably best to imagine our brains as composed of one very large elephant (desire) and one very small rider (reason). The rider is the controlled system of the brain that allows us to think about things like long-term consequences, that gives the elephant some perspective, but it can only concentrate on one thing at a time and is a fairly recent development.  The elephant, on the other hand, is the automatic system of the brain that evolved "to trigger quick and reliable action and included the parts of the brain that makes us feel pleasure and pain."  It can do a thousand things at once and is near perfect in its maturity.  It is the seat of our survival mechanisms. Haidt argues that the rider, far from being in control, is at best a guide, a servant, definitely not the CEO. If the elephant decides it wants to go a different direction than the rider, well, you try steering it.

In his more wide-ranging and more controversial book The Blank Slate (Penguin) famed Harvard author Stephen Pinker delves even more deeply into the some of the mysteries of human nature and discovers, among other things, this gem, which may be no surprise to managers: people consistently overrate their own skills, honesty, and contributions to joint efforts. Self-deception, he writes, "is among the deepest roots of human strife and folly. It implies that the faculties that allow ought to us to settle our difference—seeking the truth and discussing it rationally—are miscalibrated so that all parties assess themselves to be wiser, abler, and nobler than they really are."  The rider would like to think of itself in a particular way, but the elephant doesn't care.

Behavioral economists such as Dan Ariely and others offer corroborating evidence on these common human traits—a propensity to think we are in control of decisions that are in fact largely being shaped either unconsciously or by the decisions of others; a tendency to cling to views completely contradicted by the facts;  an aversion to moral complexity or humility.  On this last point, take a fairly common ethical dilemma in business, or anywhere for that matter, the "too-much-information" problem.  It can take thousands of specific forms, but always has the same characteristic:  You were more or less minding your own business when you discovered, inadvertently, that… Todd was padding his expense reports, Ed was making fraudulent claims to clients, JoAnne was sabotaging Beth's work, Larry spent most of his day surfing porn sites, etc., etc.  These can and do differ by degrees of severity, but most leave us vaguely discomfited, knowing that to confront or report will be awkward at best, maybe dangerous at worst, but failing to do anything will indict us as moral cowards or complicit either in a) behavior we don't condone and/or b) serious harm to the business and hence potentially to ourselves. In these situations it does no good to pretend that because you never should have known what was going on, that you weren't intended to know, therefore you don't actually know, because, well, the fact is now you do.  The old Ann Landers advice is not always helpful here: if it wasn't any of your business before it isn't any of your business now.  How nice that would be!  But as you sit there watching trust undermined, lies told, money walking out the door, how is this not your business?  So you think some more about what to do.  Perhaps the first thing that pops into your head is the playground code of honor:  never be a rat, nobody likes a snitch, a tattle tale, a baby.  What do you want to go and be the goody two-shoes for?  What will it get you?  Shunned, probably.  But then another thought occurs to you, and since the stakes are higher now than they were then, this thought cannot be ignored: by knowing and not telling you really are complicit! Not just in some abstract ethical way, but probably according to the law, or at least company policy.  What dawns on you is that when the truth comes out (maybe on WikiLeaks for the whole world to see) you'll either have to say yes, you knew, and take the consequences, or dig a deeper hole by lying. So you curse the party or parties responsible for putting you into this terrible place, and resolve to do...something.  You next consider approaching a trusted co-worker for advice, but just as you open your mouth to say hey, let's go into a conference room and close the door real tight it occurs to you you're about to make this person complicit too.  What do you want to do, implicate the whole company?  A conspiracy of silence where everyone knows but everyone pretends they don't?  Another strategy is called for.  It's time to suck it up, approach the offending party before this gets out of hand, before any more damage is done, before you lose any more sleep.  But what, finally to say, to do?  The elephant and the rider may not—probably won't—agree.

What makes business ethics a hard practice is not that there aren't viable courses of action to take when confronted with unethical behavior, it's that we get mixed messages from the various parts of our own selves about what to do, and then as often as not use philosophical or religious reasoning as post hoc rationalizations to maintain the self-serving view of ourselves Pinker and others describe.  This "shining illusion" about who we are is one default position for human nature, claim the behavioral and cognitive scientists, and a position that comes often enough at another's expense.  As the field of business ethics moves forward, we will increasingly draw on findings from the sciences to expand and cultivate our capacity for moral humility, which is proposed by most writers on the topic as the antidote to the elephant's whims, as at least one answer to the question of whether or not we can change.  Moral humility is perhaps understood best as that capacity of human beings to recognize, with a little help, just what, and where, our weaknesses are so that, slowly but surely, we can give Haidt's rider, the elephant's guide, a fairer share of the reins.   

-Michael DeWilde

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Page last modified April 12, 2011