See No Evil? Then Just Do It
It’s been awhile since I have managed to post something. The last wholehearted attempt I made was a reflection on May Day observances that I never finished. For some reason or another I could never come to a conclusion to that piece that really satisfied me. At least not in the sense that I was getting to the heart of what I was watching on the news and in the streets, especially here in Seattle. As a result, it sits mouldering in my queue still waiting for rewrite or deletion.
Somehow, though, a few of the themes I struggled with just a couple of weeks ago came into sharper focus for me this week in the form of two articles I read. The first described the effects of growing income inequality on individual mortality. Put simply, those who earn the least can not only expect to live shorter lives, but they can also expect their longevity to diminish as the length or the depth of the gap widens between their earnings and those at the top. The article cites other studies’ speculation as to the causes of income inequality-related mortality while noting that the academic research cited has reached no firm conclusion about specific causes, especially over the short-term. At the same time, the study provides compelling evidence of the cumulative effect of income inequality on health.
The second article suggested that crime really does pay. Or rather that unethical behavior or at the very least less-than-ethical behavior has its rewards. The Harvard Business Review item noted a recent study that displayed significant gaps between the earnings of those men who self-reported improvements in ethical awareness and subsequent ethical conduct as a result of exposure to ethical principles and practices in their post-graduate management curricula. (Sorry, no word on how the women did. Let’s just hope it was considerably better than the boys.) Sadly, but probably not too surprisingly, those who earned the most reported little awareness of or influence from exposure to ethics while earning their MBAs.
These two items got me reflecting anew on a third item that aired on May 1. NPR’s Planet Money Team produced a truly exceptional segment entitled Psychology of Fraud: Why Good People Do Bad Things. This piece examined the story of Toby Groves, a convicted mortgage fraudster who convinced colleagues to conspire with him to create a ghost mortgage, a very real loan for an utterly fictitious property, to cover mismanagement of his business.
In the simplest terms, Toby and his colleagues justified their actions by framing the problem in two very simple but compelling ways. First, instead of seeing their actions as unethical, which they openly acknowledged they were, they reframed the decision as one of business necessity. They supported this framing in a second but equally compelling way by seeing their actions as a personal favor for a trusted friend and valued colleague. In other words, they saw Toby as someone they liked and enjoyed working with who now needed a small favor from them as opposed to the illegal and craven actions of a desperate man at his wits’ end. In short, their decisions to be helpful were aided by the notion that Toby Groves was a business associate, his business was at risk due to financial decisions they all make, and the actions he requested of them (which he openly acknowledged could get them all in heaps of trouble) required little effort on their part and were actions in which they were routinely engaged as part of their normal and legitimate business practices. Clearly, the road to hell — and prison — is paved with good intentions.
If the NPR story had any shortcomings, it was in the lack of resolution I felt from the reforms they suggested might arise to combat the problem of inappropriate cognitive framing of ethical dilemmas in the business environment. How, I wondered, might it help the situation to remind people on the forms they are signing that lying or misrepresentation are unethical or illegal? Don’t they know this already? And who reads the fine print anyway? Sure, it might help to change auditors frequently to keep them from becoming too cosy with those they oversee. But don’t we want auditors to be both rational and fair? Does this not suggest a need for some sort of empathy? How much then is too much?
Clearly, the dilemmas we face are becoming more complex just as they problems that give rise to them become more complicated and even convoluted. The credit crunch that led to the lingering economic stagnation we still endure, the ideological and political excesses of violent extremists here and abroad, and the inability to reconcile political differences for the common good not only reflect certain states of mind but also provoke powerful emotions in us that arise largely from our own cognitive biases. The challenge then is not to oversimplify any of these issues but to see them for what they are: Situations that require us to apply many different frames to achieve not only the proper resolution but sufficient perspective to interpret correctly what sits before our eyes.
We can look upon the health effects of income inequality as the sad but unintended consequences of an otherwise salutary economic system or an injustice that demands redress. We can reward unethical conduct in the workplace and accept unequal rewards for those who look after themselves before others or we can hold one another to account for what each of us thinks, says and does. If it’s true that the road to hell is paved with good intentions, then it’s also worth noting that there’s more than one way to skin a cat and we should try them all rather than looking for the easy way out.