Posts Tagged ‘Ethics’

The worlds inside our heads

July 31, 2015

Somebody once wrote that the most embarrassing of all studies was intellectual history, because it shows how the ideas that you take as simple common sense were once new and implausible, and the agendas of the people who argued for them.

This was my feeling after reading Charles Taylor’s  2004 book, MODERN SOCIAL IMAGINARIES, as part of an informal study group organized by my friend Paul Mitacek.

It is the story of how Western people once believed and then stopped believing that they were embedded in a divine hierarchy resting on the animal world and lowest human beings, and reaching up to Heaven in a great chain of being.

It also is the story of how Western people once believed and then stopped believing that society is something pre-existing, which people are born into and have to serve as best they can.

Taylor traced the steps by which we came to the present predominant believe, that society consists of separate and independent individuals and exists for their benefit rather than the other way around.

He calls these beliefs “imaginaries” because they form the background of how we perceive our world–a perception that only partly matches up to objective reality, but which we take for granted.

I found his book illuminating and disturbing because it showed me how many of the things I believe in are based on assumptions I can’t prove.

Taylor.Imaginaries978-0We modern Americans take for granted, for example, that religion has to do with individual morality and that each person has the right to choose their own religion.

But for the ancient Greeks and Romans, the worship of the gods was something they had to do to avoid the gods’ wrath and seek the gods’ blessings.  The gods didn’t care what individuals thought about them, only that they perform the rituals correctly.  That is why the pagan Romans couldn’t understand the Christians’ refusal to burn incense for the Emperor.

The Hebrew Bible has some teachings about individual morality, but nothing about individual salvation or an afterlife.  Israel as a whole either worshipped God or strayed after false gods, and the nation was rewarded or punished accordingly.

Christianity changed this.   Christians believed they would be rewarded or punished in the afterlife based on their individual faith and works, and that lip service to religion wasn’t enough.  Protestantism took this tendency further.  Then freethinkers and rationalists, rather than assuming morality came from religion, questioned religious dogmas and practices in the name of morality.

Many individual Americans and Europeans believe that the ultimate basis of morality is a transcendent religious belief, but American and European societies are not organized around this belief.  Taylor for this reason calls our society “secular”—not because it is hostile to religion, but because it is neutral to religion.

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Americans are becoming better-behaved

April 2, 2015

Americans—that is, average Americans, not necessarily Hollywood stars, sports stars and the financial and governmental elite—are becoming better-behaved.

  • Homicide rates are down.
  • Domestic violence is down.
  • Child abuse is down
  • Cocaine use is down (although marijuana use is up)
  • Alcoholism is down
  • Drunk driving is down.
  • Cigarette smoking is down.
  • Illicit drug use by teenagers is down.
  • Alcohol use by teenagers is down.
  • Cigarette smoking by teenagers is down.
  • Teenage pregnancy is down.

The main exception to these trends is that Americans are slower to get married than in the past and quicker to become divorced.  But maybe it is better to be unmarried or divorced than in a bad or abusive marriage.

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Are great geniuses above morality?

January 26, 2014

I recently posted a review of a biography of Steve Jobs, the founder Apple Computer, who was a brilliant entrepreneur and industrial designer, but who was a self-centered person who showed no consideration for anyone else, including his closest family, except to the degree that they helped him achieve his purposes.

Recently I finished reading a historical novel about the great German writer and thinker, Wolfgang von Goethe, another selfish genius who achieved great things, but treated other people only as means to his fulfillment as a creator of great works of literature.

Jobs and Goethe, through the force of their intellects and personalities, were able to create a circle of admirers to accepted that they were above the rules that bind ordinary people.

Is this true?  Do great genius or great achievement justify wrongdoing?  Many philosophers have thought so.  The great German philosopher Hegel, for example, thought that “world-historical” figures such as Napoleon set their own rules.

I don’t agree.  I don’t think that being born with great talents creates an entitlement to break laws and treat people badly, any more than does being born to great wealth.

I think great achievers deserve to be honored for their achievements, even though their personal behavior is reprehensible, but that does not excuse bad personal behavior.  I think, for example, that the filmmaker Roman Polanski deserves to be honored for making great movies such as “The Pianist,” but I don’t think his achievements as a filmmaker give him immunity for having committed rape. [1]

I don’t think there is any contradiction between being a genius and being a good person.  But very few people are geniuses, and genuinely good human beings (as opposed to “nice people) are not all that common, so it shouldn’t be surprising that there aren’t many who have both qualities.

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Economic incentives are no substitute for ethics

October 20, 2013

“Yves Smith” wrote an important post on her naked capitalism web log about the claim that economic incentives can be a substitute for ethics and morals.

Economics as it usually is taught considers moral values only as one of the factors that influence free choice.   A few make a specialty of writing books and articles purporting to show that acting on moral intuition always does harm, and that self-interest always works to the greater good.

It is true enough that good intentions can backfire if there is no reality check.  That does not mean simplistic economic goals such as “maximize shareholder value” are a substitute for a moral code.   In our complex economy and big organizations, actions and decisions are so far removed from their consequences that it is impossible to design a set of economic incentives that will automatically generate the common good—especially when the structure of economic incentives is rigged to benefit those who already have economic and political power.

As Yves Smith wrote:

Over the course of my life, one of the side effects of the increased infiltration of economic-style thinking into more and more walks of life has been a decline in a sense of social responsibility among what passes for our elites.

Yves Smith

Yves Smith

To the extent that anyone is tasked to see that outcomes are fair, it appears to default to government (food stamps, early childhood education programs, prohibitions against workplace discrimination, etc).

But at the same time, we’ve also been on the receiving end of a forty-year campaign to discredit, co-opt and shrink government. One proof of this pudding is that formerly competent regulators like the SEC and FDA are shadows of their former selves.

The reason the lack of concern with ethics is a focus is that ethics are an important, perhaps the most important, guide for managing complex systems.

One of the points that John Kay argues persuasively in his book Obliquity is that most systems are so complex that we cannot map an efficient path through them. He’s taken pairs of companies in the same industry, similarly endowed, one of which focused on maximizing shareholder value, the other which set a richer set of goals which seldom included making shareholders wealthy. The ones with the loftier aspirations also did better for stockholders.

[snip]

Highly complex societies don’t simply have rising energy costs, they also have increasingly high information and communication burdens. Those larger spans of control and the difficulties of monitoring make it hard to get incentives right.

It’s brutally hard to define rewards and checks well when you have to manage from afar, through reports, infrequent meetings, and results that depend on environmental and competitive conditions, not just skill and effort.

There just aren’t good substitutes to the owner who grew up in a business, knows the industry well, knows his people and their job requirements intimately, and can reprimand bad behavior and give rewards based on direct observation.

The U.S. Constitution establishes the principle of separation of church and state, which means the government should be neutral between one religion and another.  But this does not mean individuals should be ethically and morally neutral.

One mistake we liberals make is that we try to reduce all issues to procedural questions, rather than frankly stating our moral principles and making a case for them.  This disarms us morally against those who want to bring the values of for-profit corporations into all walks of life.  We make arguments on grounds of procedure or economic efficiency rather than stating our real reasons.

Click on Ethics and Complex Systems to read Yves Smith’s whole post.

Money really is a root of evil

July 29, 2013

My mother always thought that in an election, all other things being equal, you should vote for the richest candidate.  Her idea was that if somebody already was rich, they would have less reason to steal.

But studies by Paul Piff, a social psychologist at the University of California at Berkeley, contradict this.  He found that people in upper economic classes were more likely that ordinary people to cheat, lie and break the law.

Seven studies using experimental and naturalistic methods reveal that upper-class individuals behave more unethically than lower-class individuals. In studies 1 and 2, upper-class individuals were more likely to break the law while driving, relative to lower-class individuals. In follow-up laboratory studies, upper-class individuals were more likely to exhibit unethical decision-making tendencies (study 3), take valued goods from others (study 4), lie in a negotiation (study 5), cheat to increase their chances of winning a prize (study 6), and endorse unethical behavior at work (study 7) than were lower-class individuals.  Mediator and moderator data demonstrated that upper-class individuals’ unethical tendencies are accounted for, in part, by their more favorable attitudes toward greed.

via Higher social class predicts increased unethical behavior.

 Just feeling wealthy, even with Monopoly money, gives people a greater sense of entitlement and lessens consideration for others, Piff found.

The old Stoics believed that wealth and good fortune were as at least as great a test of character as poverty and misfortune.  They were right.

Click on Rich More Likely to Behave Unethically and Yes, Virginia, Rich People Are Not the Same as You and Me for more.

What keeps people honest (or not)

September 23, 2012

In this RSA Animate presentation, Dan Ariely, author of Predictably Irrational, tells what experimental psychology shows about what keeps people honest.  Few people are completely honest, few people are completely dishonest, most people rationalize being slightly dishonest.  But when people remind themselves of their moral code, such as by reading the Ten Commandments, they become more honest.  This works for atheists as well as believers.

One interesting finding was the effect of confession, as in the Catholic church.  Ariely found that once people deviate from their moral code, the easier it becomes to deviate from it more and more.  Confession brings you back to the initial state of moral purity.

Click on RSA Animate for more like this.

Click on Dan Ariely Home Page for more from the author of Predictably Irrational.

Hat tip to The Dish.

The psychology of honesty

July 1, 2012

Dan Ariely, professor of behavioral economics at Duke University, wrote an article in the Wall Street Journal about studies he and some other professors did on the subject of honesty.

They found that most people are mostly honest most of the time, but can be tempted to be a little bit dishonest depending on the risks, the rewards and what everybody else is doing.  No surprises there.  What I did find surprising was the following.

We took a group of 450 participants, split them into two groups and set them loose on our usual matrix task.  We asked half of them to recall the Ten Commandments and the other half to recall 10 books that they had read in high school.  Among the group who recalled the 10 books, we saw the typical widespread but moderate cheating.  But in the group that was asked to recall the Ten Commandments, we observed no cheating whatsoever.  We reran the experiment, reminding students of their schools’ honor codes instead of the Ten Commandments, and we got the same result.

We even reran the experiment on a group of self-declared atheists, asking them to swear on a Bible, and got the same no-cheating results yet again.

This experiment has obvious implications for the real world. While ethics lectures and training seem to have little to no effect on people, reminders of morality—right at the point where people are making a decision—appear to have an outsize effect on behavior.

Click on Why People Lie for the whole article.

My personal 10 commandments

April 17, 2011

One.  The truth is whatever it is.  Do not prefer lies or illusions to fact.

Two.  Do not devote your life to the pursuit of money, popularity or social status.

Three.  Do not use the language of religion, patriotism or idealism to justify superstition, intolerance or cruelty.

Four.  Take time to rededicate yourself to your best aspirations.

Five.  Honor those who nurtured and taught you.

Six.  Do not treat the lives of other people as less valuable than your own.

Seven.  Do not break promises or betray trusts.

Eight.  Do not cheat or exploit people, nor deny them what is due to them.

Nine.  Do not speak of other people falsely or maliciously.

Ten.  Do not envy someone else’s possessions, reputation, achievements or happiness, nor make yourself unhappy by comparing yourself to others.

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