Doing the right thing

When I was in business school, we didn’t have a single class on ethics. At the time, this struck me as crazy. It was 2009, and while the Great Recession was getting into full swing, blame for what had happened was being assigned: greedy bankers, corrupt ratings agencies, feckless regulators, crooked mortgage lenders, and so on. Up and down the chain, you could point to people who had lied, cheated, or at a bare minimum, didn’t do their job. A few got extremely rich doing this, with the disastrous results for most that the rest of us remember. In our classes, we avoided almost all of this, which frustrated me greatly then and still does.

I’ve changed my mind about some of this in the past near-decade, though, in two important ways. Namely:

  • I no longer think that “teaching ethics” is really something you can do
  • I’ve come to understand ethical lapses less as a single moment of failure, and more as an ongoing process

Coming to both of these conclusions has changed how I approach ethics in my own life and career, and I thought I’d write a little about how and why.

“Teaching ethics”

Of all of the college students who are assigned reading on Aristotle, Hume or Kant (which is probably not that many), how many do you think retain any of it?

It’s generally my belief that the way a lot of moral philosophy or ethics are taught is pretty ineffective. Like in almost any area of education, particularly in the humanities, if the student doesn’t really care, then it’s very difficult to get anything to stick. 19-year-old Blair definitely skimmed over a lot of Hume and Sophocles to pass some quizzes, which were generally taught by bored TAs who were going through the motions of teaching in order to get back to what they really cared about doing. They pretended to teach, we pretended to learn, and everyone walked away happy, except that no one’s lives were really enriched.

I recently listened to this podcast episode on the origins of one of the most popular courses at the Naval War College: Foundations of Moral Obligation, alternatively known as “The Stockdale Course,” after Admiral James Stockdale, who developed it after returning home from seven years as a POW in Vietnam. (Listen to it – it’s really very good.) It gets at the fundamental reason why studying philosophy is useful: because it gives one a moral framework to operate in when life gets hard, which it inevitably does.

Everyone has a moral framework; it’s just that some are intentional products of reasoning, and others are basically ad-hoc. It’s my experience that most people need to mature, and often encounter significant challenges in their life, before they’re able to understand why having a moral framework is not just important in an abstract sense, but practically useful for living a good life.

That being the case, sitting in a seminar listening to a lecture is not the most effective way to learn about, say, Aristotelian ethics (or many other things). It has to be a more active, guided process of listening, responding and interacting with others digesting the same material. Participants need to be willing and interested in order to invest the effort necessary. This all being the case, I’ve now come to see why including an “ethics class” in business schools would probably be pretty ineffective at instilling better standards of behavior.

“Let’s do crimes!”

Back when I debated in college, we referred to this thing called the “Skeletor fallacy.” For anyone who wasn’t a little boy in the 1980s, Skeletor was He-Man’s arch-nemesis, and the personification of evil. In fact, Skeletor’s whole deal was that he was evil. Skeletor did not think he was a good guy.

While this made him the perfect comic book foil, he was obviously an unrealistic villain. (Besides, you know, all the glowing skull stuff.) In reality, almost no bad guys think they’re the bad guys. Everyone thinks they’re a good person in an imperfect system grappling with forces beyond their control. No one thinks they’re Skeletor.

Consider any of the most important far-reaching criminal conspiracies in recent history: Enron, for example, or Lehman Brothers, the mob, the Trump administration. Each one involved literally thousands of people making tens of thousands of small decisions that ultimately amounted to some great evil being done that directly injured millions. How does that happen? It’s not as if thousands of people shrugged their shoulders, looked at each other and said: “Let’s do crime!”

For most, rather, the path to ethical perfidy is not a sudden, conscious choice. Rather, it’s gradual, and paved with small compromises made along the way. Once you take one step, it’s easier to take a second, third, fifth, fifteenth and five hundredth. What makes this doubly difficult is that compromises are unavoidable. Life is nothing but a series of negotiations of hard choices that only become more important and difficult as you go on. Add family, a career, financial obligations, sickness and health, cultural expectations and more to the mix, and “doing the right thing” can become a fuzzier and fuzzier target. For people in positions of power, the moral responsibility of “the greater good” can make this an even more challenging proposition.

Which is why you need a moral framework.

I like to think that my ethical track record is a good one – which is to say, as imperfect as anyone else’s. I’ve been very fortunate enough, particularly professionally, to not have been forced into any really high-stakes ethical quandaries thus far. But I suspect I will be eventually, and I’ve certainly seen friends and colleagues in the tech industry in them before. The way I personally prepare is to recognize that while life is one big gray area, the way you creep into chaos is usually by gradually moving yourself there, not by jumping in one leap. Guarding against that requires the courage to stick your neck out sometimes. If more people had done that, sooner, at some of those organizations above, the world would be a lot better for it.

 

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