In Randy Cohen’s farewell column for “The Ethicist” today—he was sacked by the new editor of The New York Times despite providing an entertaining, well-written and provocative column for many years— he makes a statement that I find shocking, and one that challenges the core assumption of this blog and indeed my occupation.
Writing the column has not made me even slightly more virtuous. And I didn’t have to be: it was in my contract. O.K., it wasn’t. But it should have been. I wasn’t hired to personify virtue, to be a role model for the kids, but to write about virtue in a way readers might find engaging. Consider sports writers: not 2 in 20 can hit the curveball, and why should they? They’re meant to report on athletes, not be athletes. And that’s the self-serving rationalization I’d have clung to had the cops hauled me off in handcuffs.
What spending my workday thinking about ethics did do was make me acutely conscious of my own transgressions, of the times I fell short. It is deeply demoralizing.
Amazing. Randy, we hardly knew ye, and we sure didn’t understand ye, either. How can someone possibly spend one’s working day “thinking about ethics” and not become more virtuous in his daily conduct?
As I have mentioned before, behavioral economist Dan Ariely created an experiment to test this exact issue. In his best-selling book “Predictably Irrational,” Ariely describes giving Harvard Business School students a test that had an obvious way to cheat built into it, offering a cash reward for the students who got the highest scores. He tracked how many students cheated. He also varied the experiment by asking some students to do simple tasks before they took the test: name five baseball teams, or state capitals, or U.S. Presidents. None of these pre-test questions had any effect on the students’ likelihood of cheating, except for one question, which had a dramatic effect. He discovered that students who were asked to recite a few of the Ten Commandments, unlike any of the other groups, never cheated at all. Never. None of them. Ariely recently told an interviewer that he has periodically repeated the experiment elsewhere, with the same results. No individual who was asked to search his memory for a few of the Ten Commandments has ever cheated on Ariely’s test, though the percentage of cheaters among the rest of the testees is consistently in double figures. This is true regardless of the individual’s faith, ethnic background, or even whether they could name one Commandment correctly.
Like a slap in the face, the classic moral rules remind the students to consider right and wrong. It wasn’t the content of the Commandments that affect them, but what they represent: being good, or one culture’s formula for doing good. The phenomenon is called priming.
Priming is a superb way to make sure your ethics alarms are turned on and in working order. All of us go through life focused on what ethicist call “non-ethical considerations,” the human motivations, emotions, needs and desires that drive us in everything they do—love, lust, greed, ambition, fear, ego, anger, passion…wanting that promotion, the new car, the compliment, fame, power. Good people do bad things because at the moment they are unethical, they aren’t thinking about ethics. If they were, then they wouldn’t engage in the misconduct, because they would be “primed” and their ethics alarms would sound in time to stop them.
Yet Randy Cohen says that thinking about ethics didn’t change his behavior at all. I can say, with absolute certainty, that working as a full-time ethics trainer, writer and consultant affects my conduct every single day, and to an aggravating degree. Sometimes I long for those blithe days of the past when I could solve a problem with a well-constructed and undetectable lie, or crush a fool with a torrent of debilitating personal insults, or ignore a clear conflict of interest that should stop me from taking a lucrative contract. I can’t do any of these things any more, because me ethics alarms are ringing so loudly that it’s impossible.
The whole reason I do what I do is built on the belief that talking about ethics, arguing about ethics (regardless of whether one’s argument is “right” or not), training oneself to realize when there is an ethical component to a decision or a problem, makes all of us more ethical in our daily lives.
But apparently not Randy Cohen, “The Ethicist,” soon to be the ex-Ethicist. I don’t know whether to envy him, pity him, or just conclude he’s not being truthful, an especially damning verdict for someone in the ethics business. Maybe the explanation is simple. Maybe, in writing that thinking about ethics hasn’t made him more virtuous, Randy Cohen is just plain wrong.
It wouldn’t be the first time.