We Know Enough about Ethics Already

If Shakespeare understood ethics so well, why are we still pretending to be ignorant about it?

I awoke to read about a breathlessly announced new work on ethics, a book called “Blind Spots: Why We Fail to do What’s Right and What to do About it.” Business Professor  Ann Tenbrunsel and co-author Max Bazerman write that we are unaware of the “ethical blind spots” that keep us from recognizing how we engage in unethical actions. The book cites tests and new research showing behavior that the authors call “ethical fading” and “motivated blindness.” They examine such case studies as Enron and the Madoff scam to show how people “believe they will behave ethically in a given situation, but they don’t. Then they believe they behaved ethically when they didn’t. It’s no surprise, then, that most individuals erroneously believe they are more ethical than the majority of their peers.”

Stop the presses! Conflicts of interest make us ignore core values and act in our own best interests, and we rationalize our actions to avoid confronting the true nature of our conduct!

Oops! I just stated the entire thesis of the book. I’m sorry, Ann! Apologies, Max!

This sort of book, which comes along several times each year, is significant, but not in the way the authors always seem to think it is. We keep finding catchy new ways to describe the forces that lead to unethical conduct, and psychologists and behavioral scientists exercise their creativity devising new ways to demonstrate them and describe them, but the sad, cruel fact is that human nature hasn’t changed in thousands of years, and neither have our abilities to resist the power of non-ethical considerations, bias, and conflicts of interest.

We know that all of the human needs and wants that excite us and motivate us also act as a magnet, pulling the clapper on our ethics alarms away from the gong. We know that lust and greed and ambition and self-preservation and fear and vanity and laziness cause us to look past what is right in order to do what we perceive as helping us and the people we care about. We know that conflicts of interest are the enemy of ethical decision-making. We just haven’t figured out how to do anything about it.

I suppose there is nothing terribly wrong with coming along with new names for phenomena that Plato and Aristotle, not to mention Homer,  Euripides and Shakespeare, understood as well as anyone alive now, no matter how many degrees they may have. And it is natural and human, if a bit silly and a waste of everyone’s time, for researchers and academics to claim that they have made  breakthroughs in understanding a basic human behavior pattern that is responsible for much of the misery, inefficiency and injustice in the world. Nonetheless, books like “Blind Spots” are like diet and exercise books, using new terms and repackaging old wisdom that give us an excuse to study and prepare rather than actually do anything about a fairly straightforward problem. If we are fat, we need to eat less and exercise more.

At least diet and exercise book have one clear advantage over books about ethics: the people who need to read them are also their primary market. Do the most unethical among us read books about ethics? Not a chance.

Concepts and tools are useful in discussing ethics; I’m not disputing that. Ethics Alarms is scattered with them; I am always on the lookout for clearer ways to clarify the process of how we decide what is right and wrong, and for more effective ways to get the ethics alarms to ring. At some point, however, we all just have to do it. The reason we are unethical has little to do with our failure to understand the phenomenon, and much to do with the fact that it is easier to just follow our instincts, which are largely dictated by self-interest.

There is no magic bullet for unethical behavior, and we have accumulated all the tools and knowledge we need to combat it. Books like “Blind Spots: Why We Fail to do What’s Right and What to Do About It” primarily serve to provide one more rationalization for why we are still unethical: we don’t understand what makes us do and tolerate bad things.

Oh, sure we do. We always have. It’s just easier to talk and write about ethics that it is to be ethical.

3 thoughts on “We Know Enough about Ethics Already

  1. That is interesting. I never felt that I missed out on much by not taking psychology in college. I felt that I probably learned at least as much by reading lots of Greek plays and Roman literature.

  2. Re your “eat less, exercise more”: I’m reminded of a scene in A, J, Cronin’s novel, “The Keys of the Kingdom”. In the scene, the protagonist, a priest, is being chided by his bshop, as insufficiently sympathetic toan overweight, obese parishioner who came to him for advice.

    The bishop says, “…and so what did you tell her? ‘Eat less, the gates of Heaven are narrow!'”

  3. Unless society decides that everyone who does something wrong must be insane… unethical people do unethical things and they know when they are; bad people do bad things and they know when they are; cruel people do cruel things and they know when they are; sadistic people do sadistic things and they know when they are, etc.

    I fully agree that ethical dilemmas exist for certain kinds of decision-making — personal and professional — and that they that are worthy of examination for a number of reasons, some of them complicated. But for any idiot to claim that the Madoffs of the world THOUGHT they were being ethical when they committed serious crimes might as well profess that Hitler was simply misguided instead of purposefully evil. What horseshit. What moronic editors decided to publish that book?

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