As much as we would like to think that, put on the spot, we would do the right — and perhaps even heroic — thing, research has shown that that usually isn’t true.
“People are routinely more willing to be critical of others’ ethics than of their own,” said Francesca Gino, an associate professor at Harvard Business School, and two other authors in the journal article “See No Evil: When We Overlook Other People’s Unethical Behavior.” The article appeared as a chapter in the book “Social Decision Making” (Psychology Press, 2009). “People believe they are more honest and trustworthy than others and they try harder to do good.”
One of the experiments in ethics Tugend references is the Stanley Milgram in the early 1960s. That experiment attempted to find an explanation as to why or how mass lapses of ethics, as in the Nazi death camps could happen. Milgram found that people were willing to inflect pain on others ( the subjects were led to believe they were applying electric shocks for each wrong answer to a list of questions) if authority figures said that it was OK to do so. Many people were troubled by the fake screams of the victims, though most proceeded with the shocks anyway. If they said they wanted to stop the experiment supervisor would give them three prompts – Please continue.The experiment requires that you continue. It is absolutely essential that you continue. You have no other choice, you must go on. – Most of the participants would continue. There were some ethical issues with the experiment itself, even though no one was actually electrically shocked, many of the participant did suffer from emotional trauma. Astounding to me was that some of the participants said they continued because they did not want to be rude to the person ( the authority figure) conducting the experiment.
There is a link to this paper which goes into how unethical behavior can become the norm – When misconduct goes unnoticed: The acceptability of gradual erosion in others’ unethical behavior (pdf). Just one paragraph from the introduction,
Four laboratory studies show that people are more likely to accept others’ unethical behavior when ethical degradation occurs slowly rather than in one abrupt shift. Participants served in the role of watchdogs charged with catching instances of cheating. The watchdogs in our studies were less likely to criticize the actions of others when their behavior eroded gradually, over time, rather than in one abrupt shift. We refer to this phenomenon as the slippery-slope effect. Our studies also demonstrate that at least part of this effect can be attributed to implicit biases that result in a failure to notice ethical erosion when it occurs slowly. Broadly, our studies provide evidence as to when and why people accept cheating by others and examine the conditions under which the slippery-slope effect occurs. (emphasis mine)
Even though I am already familiar with these studies including the Philip G. Zimbardo experiments at Stanford University in the Stanford Prison Experiment where students very quickly engaged in sadistic behavior towards pretend prisoners – reading about how easily and quickly morality breaks down is depressing. There is hope. In the Milgram experiment a few did refuse to continue. In addition Professor Zimbardo has set up the Heroic Imagination Project, already implemented in a few California schools. The project’s aim is to teach people how they can act individually to be cognizant of ethically compromising situations and still do the right thing.
One of the aspects of societal, governmental or corporate culture that weighs against acting ethically is how groups respond to whistle-blowers – the example they use in the NYT article. In most cultures people grow up with the peer pressure attached to being a “rat” or a tattletale. I was amazed at once hearing a grown man who was harassing an employee call someone a rat for reporting his behavior to upper management. Like most people I let some everyday behavior slide as long as no one is getting hurt, but when you report someone for being threatening, trying to intimidate someone, you’re not a rat, you’re a decent human being. One of the things discovered in a study by some Australian researchers (When groups are wrong and deviants are right*) is that we say we admire people who stand up for the right thing, but in actual practice a peer group ( co-workers, students, police, politicians) can be hostile toward the person who went against the prevailing group behavior. People might respect rats and whistle-blowers, but not like them or feel uncomfortable around them.
“Action indeed is the sole medium of expression for ethics.” – Jane Addams
“A man without ethics is a wild beast loosed upon this world.” – Albert Camus
*Deviant as used here is in the classical sociological definition of any behavior which has been deemed different from norms established by the group. If you lived in a small village in 1649 and did not attend church services on Sunday that would have made you a deviant within that group.
Anti-abortion forces are pushing ahead with the so-called personhood initiatives, despite suffering defeat in Mississippi, where a mostly conservative electorate soundly rejected the notion that life should begin at conception. The group, Personhood USA, plans to hold a press conference later today to announce their renewed efforts to pursue personhood amendments in Colorado, Oregon, and Montana…
[ ]…Personhood initiatives have failed twice before in Colorado by a 3-1 margin, as the medical community and women’s groups used public forums to “cast the measure as misguided, arguing that, beyond ending abortion, declaring fertilization as the starting point for life would lead to a prohibition of emergency contraception in rape cases and limit treatment for miscarriages, tubal pregnancies and infertility.”
I wonder about the ethics of forcing other people to believe that the rights of a zygote are greater than that of a 16 or 32 year human being.
Landscape with House and Ploughman, 1889 Vincent Van Gogh.
Some pretty smart people, one here – Here’s what attempted co-option of OWS looks like – have argued that OWS does not need to mature and evolve into an actual political force that gets legislation passed and people elected who truly represent the interests of the 99%. Certainly the real world of politics or joining the corporate world to change it from the inside are akin to diving into a mud bath. Still I’m not so sure that is not the way to go. Nicholas D. Kristof argues OWS has already succeeded in changing the national focus of the conversation about the economy, Occupy the Agenda
The high ground that the protesters seized is not an archipelago of parks in America, but the national agenda. The movement has planted economic inequality on the nation’s consciousness, and it will be difficult for any mayor or police force to dislodge it.
A reporter for Politico found that use of the words “income inequality” quintupled in a news database after the Occupy protests began. That’s a significant achievement, for this is an issue that goes to our country’s values and our opportunities for growth — and yet we in the news business have rarely given it the attention it deserves.
The statistic that takes my breath away is this: The top 1 percent of Americans possess a greater net worth than the entire bottom 90 percent, according to an analysis by the Economic Policy Institute.
Kristof also thinks the Super Committee Democrats and Democrats behind the scene dug in their heels to protect Medicare because of OWS. Maybe. Politicians generally only fear one thing – not being reelected. Unless OWS can make that a permanent state of mind in regards to the 99% it seems doubtful this effect will last for long. I have not noticed much difference in Wall Street’s behavior. One item on OWS’s semi-agenda was Bank Change Day. That did seem to scare off some of the big banks from enacting the new debit card fees they were talking about.