Archive for the ‘Ethics’ Category
“Childcare is a collective responsibility” – Women’s Agenda
“Keeping deserts clean is a collective responsibility” – Gulf News
“Eradicating corruption is a collective responsibility” – Nigerian Tribune
“Let’s take collective responsibility for our problems” – President Mahama – Ghana
“Safety, security of women in public places is a collective responsibility”– News Track India
It Takes a Village: And Other Lessons Children Teach Us – Hillary Clinton
“Collective punishment is when a penalty is meted out to all members of a group, without consideration of an individual’s involvement in the group’s activity. Under the 1949 Geneva Convention, collective punishment is a war crime.”
There are elements of the fields of justice and ethics that deal with the concepts of collective responsibility and collective punishment vs. individualism. If something awful happens to an individual because of the actions of a single person or a small number of people, can blame be placed on the larger society? If society as a whole creates conditions which are disadvantageous or worse resulting in physical, emotional or financial injury to a segment of that society, can punishments be meted out to individuals who collaborated, individuals whose defense might be that they were just following “orders” or that everyone else was doing it so why am I being singled out for punishment? Does society as a whole have a responsibility to individuals or small groups within that society to ensure just and fair treatment by others within that society? Protecting minority groups from the tyranny of the majority? Our founding fathers thought so.
Our society which is made up of many different and overlapping groups forces us to consider if we are collectively responsible for the welfare of those who reside within our society or organizations, or to state that it is every person for themselves. Are we a country of fiercely independent individuals who built what they have without any external help and societal benefits or are we all interdependent products arising from a culture of collaborative assistance that we have created? Does it in fact take a village, a whole civilization to allow those who reside within it to flourish? And who gets to decide if certain segments of that society get benefits or advantages beyond what others do? If we are in fact all in this together, is it acceptable to have some segments of society treated as second class members, without all the privileges that others within that society enjoy? You wouldn’t think so, would you?
Oliver Wendell Holmes, the Supreme Court justice, famously stated that “Taxes are what we pay for a civilized society”, and that quote is chiseled on the facade of the IRS building in Washington DC. The implication of the quote is that taxes provide the infrastructure and fulfills the basic needs of the nation which allows for civilization and individuals within that civilization to flourish and certainly takes a “we are all in this together” viewpoint.
This is a very tricky and subtle topic however, which many people want both ways. They want the benefits of collectivism when it suits and the sense of larger freedoms, or should I say the sense of carefree existence of individualism. For instance, many CEOs work to create a sense of “we are all in this together” and “everyone together is responsible jointly for our success”. And they work just as hard when something goes wrong, the London Whale for instance at JP Morgan, to characterize the misdeeds as a rogue person, a one-off event and that the organization as a whole is blameless. The US Government seems to go along with that except in very rare cases. Most often when a misdeed within a company occurs it is an individual that is charged with a crime not the company itself, unless a finding is made that the criminal activity is widespread and pervasive (societal) throughout the organization. When a company or an organization is charged with a crime and found guilty, that company or organization rarely survives.
If we are in fact all in this together, where we are collectively responsible, what about collective punishment for societal misdeeds? The Geneva Convention seems to frown on that, but that is exactly the concept behind reparations to a group that is harmed by society overall. Germany paid and is still paying reparations to Holocaust survivors and the notion of providing reparations to the descendants of slavery here in the USA comes from the same place. I was not a slave holder and none of my ancestors were, but I live in a society where that event occurred and because of that, the society I live in can be seen as having a collective obligation to those harmed. Even to those descendants of those harmed, given the degree of harm that occurred. Others reject that notion and object that they have no obligation to a group harmed by events that happened long ago and did not involve them or any of their ancestors.
The guilty finding in the Steubenville, Ohio high school football player rape case was a finding against two individuals who committed rape. But the media frenzy that the case generated was not so much about whether the 2 boys committed a crime, but about the society pressures that came to bear regarding what to do about it and how the whole thing was playing out in our new collective conscious called social media. The Steubenville society as a whole, as well as the individual members, is being judged. And there is now talk about a grand jury to determine if charges should be filed against parents or any others that allowed 16 and 17 year olds to consume alcohol at their homes and against the football coach who may have tried to squash the whole investigation, a hint at a broader sense of blame for people who created conditions that led up to the rape or tried to cover it up. What about the mom of the 16 year old girl who drunk herself into oblivion, does she have any responsibility for monitoring the behavior of her young daughter? The young woman is the victim of a crime, but there is likely enough blame to go around for the people who created conditions that allowed the crime to occur. Individualism vs. collectivism; the individual boys are being held accountable, but the next question is about whether the society, the culture of Steubenville, created the conditions that allowed this to happen. Are we collectively responsible for looking after the welfare of individuals, of our children? If so there is a much larger problem to fix there, a problem that sending two boys to detention for a year or two, by itself, will not fix.
The gun violence that permeates our society is another area where the debate is not only about guns but about the responsibility of the individual vs. society. Do individual freedoms give way to collective benefits to create a safer society? The data seems very clear that in states with tougher gun laws there is less gun violence per capita including suicides that make use of guns.
Individualism vs. collectivism is debated within work environments very frequently as well; it may just not go by those names. How many times have you heard organizations talk about the expected increase in performance they would achieve if only they could break down organizational silos and have the organization work more cohesively? I have heard it plenty of times. And in preparing for a panel discussion I am chairing at a conference in a few weeks on Steve Jobs’ leadership style, I came across an interesting tidbit. He had his company operate using only one overall P&L statement. In other words, each division, whether they were the pc group or the phone group or the software group etc., did not have their own profit and loss statement by which to judge their performance. The performance of the company overall was the benchmark of how well the individual components were doing. That increases the need to have all pieces of the organization perform well, and the desire of the individual components to help each other, if you want the organization to look good financially. Collectivism, in one of the most individualistically, from a talent perspective, driven organizations that there is. And it seems to have worked pretty good for them.
There are no easy answers as to when we as an organization or as a society should lean either towards individualism or collectivism. What does seem clear is that those who espouse all one way or the other have much to learn from the lessons of history and the lessons of organizational performance.
© 2013 by Jeffrey M. Saltzman. All rights reserved.
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Suppose you worked in a company that had 20,000 employees and was overall very successful, but had a dirty little secret, one that was widely shared by most of those in its employ. Those who worked in marketing, accounting, sales, human resources, treasury, logistics, engineering and most of the other departments were well treated. They were often described as being well paid. They were treated respectfully and had generous benefits. They enjoyed development opportunities, so that they could stay sharp and employable in their various professions. The company had never experienced a layoff and people felt secure in their jobs. In general people liked what they did and they liked their immediate supervisors. It was a very collegial atmosphere and after work people would often get together and visit socially. What was the dirty little secret?
Deep in the bowels of this organization’s headquarters there was one worker who did a job that was critical, more than critical, it was essential to this organization’s manufacturing process. Without this one person doing this critical job, this organization’s product could not be produced and the organization would cease to exist. It would have to shut its doors and layoff its entire staff. To say that this one person’s job was mission critical was an understatement. Unfortunately, this one job had a nasty side effect. After working at this task for 6 months the worker would perish. You see this job was 100% guaranteed to be lethal. Being on this job was a death sentence, no ifs, ands or buts. And no one could prevent, reengineer, modify or otherwise change this task from its ultimate lethal consequence. Every six months the one person who worked at this task died so that the rest of the organization, the 20,000 others could flourish. Now, also suppose that workers were hired from the outside for this job and were not told about the ultimate price that they would have to pay after working on the job after six months. They worked in ignorance, happy, well paid, until exactly on the six-month mark they would drop over dead.
How would you feel about working at that company? Would you? Supposed now that instead of one person dying every six months to ensure happiness for 20,000, it was 5, no make it 500, no let’s make it 5000. Supposed every six months, regular as clockwork, 5000 people had to die to ensure the success of the organization, so that 20,000 others could lead their lives in a secure fashion. Would you work at this organization? Would you let someone else pay that price for your security? What if it ensured the security of 20,000? Do you feel any differently about the death of one, so that 20,000 could be secure vs. the death of 5000, so that 20,000 can be secure? Should you? If you happen to be the “one” hired into this position you are just as dead after six-months as if you were “one of the 5000”. Is your one life any less valuable than the lives of 5000? Your shortened life was as meaningful and as full of happiness as anyone else’s until you took the job. What if the person toiling at this lethal task was an informed volunteer? Someone who knew the price that was to be paid, but for the sake of the 20,000 decided to pay the ultimate price. Does being a volunteer, someone willing to die at a task, so that others can live pleasant lives change anything?
Suppose instead of the total organization being 20,000 it was 20,000,000. Yes, 20,000,000 people could live happy harmonious lives, if only one-person performed a task that every six months led to their death. How would you feel about being associated with that organization now? Is one life too much to ask for the happiness of 20,000,000?
Now suppose instead of six-months carrying the death penalty for this task it was 5 years, no, let’s make it 10 years, no, let’s make that 25 years. Now, to-the-day, after 25 years on the job, each and every worker who performed this job would drop over dead. Does that make you feel any different about working for this organization?
What variables matter when it comes to paying a price as an individual so that society as a whole can benefit?
Let’s twist this just a little bit more. Suppose instead of the consequence of death being the price paid, it was that the workers on this mission critical task simply had to toil away at an assembly line sixteen hours a day, six days a week for a salary that barely allowed them to put food on the table. Instead of a quick death, after six-months, it was a very slow death, allowing them to toil away for their entire lives, barely able to stay alive at starvation wages, never able to get ahead or exit the harsh realities of their low pay world. The idea being that this group of workers being paid as little as they were allowed the organization to stay competitive globally, allowing the larger organization to flourish and all the other people within it to live happy lives. Does that change the picture? Does that make it any better?
Now, suppose you were the leader of this organization. You have the ability to decide where to locate jobs, how much to pay your workers, how to compete in the marketplace, what conditions you were going to allow some in your employ to suffer in order for the others to flourish. What would you do?
There is an old folktale that begins with two travelers, strangers walking down a long dusty road. As they walked, one of the strangers asked the other “What say you, shall I carry you or shall you carry me?” The second traveler ignored the statement for he was not about to carry the other. Later on the traveler asked a second question as they passed a field of barley, “Has this barley been eaten or not?” Once again the second traveler ignored the first for it was obvious for all to see that the barley was still growing in the field. Later on they passed a funeral procession and the one stranger said to the other “What do you think, is the person in the coffin alive or dead?” The second traveler could no longer contain himself and asked the first why he was asking such ridiculous questions. The first one said, “When I asked if I should carry you or if you should carry me, what I meant was shall I tell you a story or shall you tell me one to make this long journey easier for us. When I asked about the barley, what I meant was has the growing barley already been sold to a buyer, for if it was already sold, it is as though it has already been eaten for the farmer and his family cannot eat it themselves. And when I asked about the person in the coffin, being alive or dead, what I meant was, do you think they have descendents, for if they have descendents who will carry on their legacy it is as though they are alive, but if they passed away with no one to remember them and carry on their work they are truly dead.”
Sometimes there is meaning within meaning and vast misunderstanding.
One recent research study looked at whether one laboratory rat would be motivated to ease the suffering of another. The question was would rats feel any moral obligation to help another rat? Or in the rat world, is it every rat for themselves? In this experiment one rat was placed inside a clear cage that could be opened only from the outside. A second rat was allowed to freely roam around the caged one for one hour at a time. After about 7 sessions where a roaming rat encountered a trapped rat, 23 out of 30 roamer rats learned how to open the cage and set the second rat free. (Some rats are simply not that smart). Once learned, a roamer rat upon the start of the experiment would immediately proceed to the cage and set the trapped rat free. After setting the rat free there would be a “frenzy of excited running”. Inbal Ben-Ami Bartel, a psychologist at the University of Chicago who ran the experiment stated, “It’s very obvious that it is intentional. They walked right up to the door and open the door.” Only 5 of 40 rats learned to open the cage door when the cage was empty and similar findings were observed upon placing a stuffed animal in the cage instead of another rat. When 2 cages were set up, one containing five chocolate chips and the other a trapped rat, the rats were equally likely to free their trapped companion as to go after the chocolate first. Freeing a trapped companion was equally as motivating for the rat as obtaining the chocolate. But here is where it gets really interesting. Those rats who went after the chocolate first, slightly more than half the time, left one or two chips for the other rat to eat after freeing them. Sometimes the chips were taken out of the cage and left near where the other rat was going to be set free, so it was not as though the rat missed a chip or two. He ain’t heavy….
Clive Boddy a professor at the Nottingham Business School at Nottingham Trent University has been collecting data on the incidence of psychopaths in Wall Street firms related to the 2008 financial collapse. He posits that at least some of the individuals involved in the behaviors that led to close to total economic collapse were psychopaths.
Psychopaths, estimated at perhaps one percent of the general population, and five percent of business executives (Babiak & Hare 2006) are individuals who due to chemical imbalances or physical abnormalities in their brains lack a “conscience, have few emotions and display an inability to have any feelings, sympathy or empathy for other people.” When you think of what often gets rewarded by corporate boards and investors it is not the executive that holds onto people in the midst of a downturn, even though there is a lot of research that suggests that is the best long-term financial strategy (cf. Casio), but rather it is the executive that ruthlessly downsizes, restructures and streamlines operations. Who better to cold-heartedly cut and reshape an organization than someone who is without emotion, a task which many executives find themselves unable to undertake? I say that sarcastically as there are many drawbacks to having psychopaths in positions of power. Psychopaths cannot feel regret for their actions and are bewildered when asked about the human toll of their actions. No one for instance would want a psychopath anywhere near a nuclear trigger, or in charge of a powerful military force.
I want to describe how psychopathology is measured in an individual and scored to illustrate a point, so please bear with me. Whether or not someone is psychopathic is often measured using the Hare PCL-R.
“The Hare PCL-R contains two parts, a semi-structured interview and a review of the subject’s file records and history. During the evaluation, the clinician scores 20 items that measure central elements of the psychopathic character. The items cover the nature of the subject’s interpersonal relationships; his or her affective or emotional involvement; responses to other people and to situations; evidence of social deviance; and lifestyle. The material thus covers two key aspects that help define the psychopath: selfish and unfeeling victimization of other people, and an unstable and antisocial lifestyle.”
The twenty traits assessed by the PCL-R score are:
- glib and superficial charm
- grandiose (exaggeratedly high) estimation of self
- need for stimulation
- pathological lying
- cunning and manipulativeness
- lack of remorse or guilt
- shallow affect (superficial emotional responsiveness)
- callousness and lack of empathy
- parasitic lifestyle
- poor behavioral controls
- sexual promiscuity
- early behavior problems
- lack of realistic long-term goals
- failure to accept responsibility for own actions
- many short-term marital relationships
- juvenile delinquency
- revocation of conditional release
- criminal versatility
“When properly completed each of the twenty items is given a score of 0, 1, or 2 based on how well it applies to the subject being tested. A prototypical psychopath would receive a maximum score of 40, while someone with absolutely no psychopathic traits or tendencies would receive a score of zero. A score of 30 or above qualifies a person for a diagnosis of psychopathy. People with no criminal backgrounds normally score around 5. Many non-psychopathic criminal offenders score around 22.”
The point of describing in detail the way psychopathology is measured and scored illustrates an important point, like many traits that humans exhibit, psychopathology is not an all or nothing condition. It is not binary. Even though the diagnosis is often stated as the person is psychopathic or not, the condition like many others exists along a continuum. At a certain point along a continuum of behavior we switch from calling someone mentally healthy to mentally ill or psychopathic, but the reality is there may not be all that much difference between a score of 28, 29, 30, and 31 other than a diagnosis.
Similarly, the rat behavior described above could be thought of as also existing along a continuum. Think of the rats that first freed the trapped rat before going for the chocolate as being at one end of a continuum of caring, feeling empathy, for their fellow rats. The next point on the continuum would be the rats that went for the chocolate first, but left some for the other rat to also enjoy. The next point on the continuum would be the rats that ate all the chocolate before freeing their brethren, next the point is the rat that ate all the chocolate and never bothered to free the other rat.
I would bet heavily that should rats that freed the trapped second rat before going for the chocolate, be rewarded for their behavior, perhaps by doubling the amount of chocolate they ultimately got, that you would see a dramatic rise in rats first taking care of their fellows before taking care of themselves (from the roughly 50/50 odds that were seen in the experiment). I would also argue that we have a decision to make about what we want to be as society, perhaps what we have been evolving to anyway (see Hope…). Do we want to reward people for taking care of themselves, perhaps to the exclusion of taking care of others, or do we want to reward people for taking care of others first and then themselves? What would our moral code suggest?
I don’t mind feeling that by taking care of others first I may be in good company, the company of a few good rats. I also believe that with the exception of those far away enough from the norm that we consider them mentally ill, that we all, by and large, want to live in similar worlds, where people feel safe, secure and respected, where they feel they can have a bright future for themselves and their children, but I also worry that as we humans walk down the long road that we are on together, as we talk we sometimes really don’t understand what we are saying to each other.
© 2011 by Jeffrey M. Saltzman. All rights reserved.
Is it time to abandon ethics as a construct? Organizations come in all shapes and sizes ranging from governmental entities (cities, states, countries and cross-country entities), private sector corporations, NGOs, not-for-profits, educational institutions, and criminal organizations, not to mention within any one of these there can be departments, divisions, business units and enterprise-wide structures each a unique organization unto themselves. Each of these organizations internally develop codes both formally and informally regarding what acceptable organizational behavior is, often thought of as ethics, and what is beyond bounds.
Externally, organizations are held up to societal standards to determine if they are operating in an acceptable fashion, with the degree of oversight to determine that being a hotly contested point of contention. Society debates and struggles with the degree of regulation required to promote and safeguard the greater well-being vs. the ability of organizations to offer products and services in a competitive unhindered fashion. Some organizations are exceedingly profitable because they operate at the very edge of general acceptability, performing services or providing products that most others choose not to or view as too risky, and there are CEOs who routinely retain criminal attorneys in case they are perceived as going too far. Organizations themselves though are rarely charged with a crime, unless the criminal activity suspected is seen as having become institutionalized and a part of the way the organization does business. When an organization is charged with a crime (e.g. Enron, Arthur Andersen) they rarely survive.
Some of the hotly charged emotions surrounding the debates of acceptability of behavior may be driven by the word “ethical” and the construct of “ethics” in and of itself. For the word ethics sets up a potential false dichotomy of there being a clear right and wrong, a good and bad, a moral and amoral path of decision making and behavior.
Is organizational behavior ethical because it follows various laws, regulations and guidelines or do the guidelines, regulations and laws arise from the behavior we define as ethical? This illustrates the classical correlational conundrum of cause and effect. But in this case if we state that behavior gives rise to rules, we can also state that the rules are unnecessary for there are those who would behave ethically regardless of whether the rules or societal standards are in place, and that the standards are there only for those who actually need guidelines to know and define what is ethical.
In a sane version of the world we would want every person, every organization to have an intuitive sense of right and wrong, ethical and unethical, with rule-based or legal guidelines being unnecessary, but given that organizations are made up of people, some of whom are operating at the edge or beyond the edge of acceptability, that is just not going to happen. Additionally, past research has shown that what employees (people) define as ethical behavior by an organization varies by position within the organization, with line workers, professionals, lower and higher levels of management each having their own unique twist to their definition of ethics. This implies that the difficulties in measuring ethics and providing guidance on ethical behavior may not lie with people but with the construct of ethics itself. What one person may perceive as ethical another may perceive as unethical.
An important question that should be explored is how the construct of ethics can be improved upon, perhaps shifted away from the emotionally laden right and wrong, moral and amoral, and more to this is what individuals and society deem as acceptable or unacceptable.
- One organization will make extensive use of temporary and causal labor, creating a continuing sense of uncertainty among the workforce, while another will hire permanent labor.
- One organization moves its production off-shore eliminating jobs, while another chooses other paths to cost cutting to keep its production local.
- One organization may make a decision to layoff a woman, 7-months pregnant, and think nothing of it, while another would never consider that behavior as acceptable.
- One organization may decide to partner and work jointly with its unions; another will choose to hold the union at arm’s length, while another will treat the union as the enemy.
- One organization chooses to offer development opportunities to all employees while another views that expenditure as unnecessary, as the CEO has a point of view that employees should come to work completely trained up.
- One organization uses a meritocracy approach to promotions another uses tenure.
- One organization eliminates testing and quality control oversight that is not regulatory in nature as a way to save costs, another views that as an unacceptable risk with the potential of putting harmful product in circulation.
These are, along with a myriad of other “muddy” business decisions, are the kind of decisions that many of us may be called upon to weigh in on or decide upon ourselves. What should we consider as we deliberate on our course of action or advice?
- What does the research show?
- What will the impact be on the effectiveness and the vitality of the organization?
- How do we interpret what people desire and expect from the organization?
- How will these various decisions affect the motivation of others in the workforce?
- How can these decisions bind the organization together, creating common purpose or how can they damage that?
While important questions and worthy of exploration, these decisions are not clear cut at all from an ethical perspective, being seen from various points of view as having competing or conflicting objectives. Those objectives can be viewed, each, as having varying degrees of ethical acceptance by differing groups. And just because a decision path does not violate any laws, regulations or guidelines it may not be an ethical thing to do, or is it?
Some of the lack of clarity here may be due to the debate regarding the role of organizations in society. Are private organizations simply there to maximize the profit for their investors? Do they have other responsibilities to society (which could be argued enabled them to come into existence in the first place)? Many organizations, including my own, have signed on to the concept to operate in a sustainable fashion, being simultaneously concerned with the 3Ps – Profit, People, and Planet. And if you take the long term view of organizational performance rather than a short term orientation the wisdom of that approach is inescapable.
In bringing about better “ethical” decision-making processes and communicating decisions in a manner that creates acceptance by as large a group as possible, there are some unique skill sets which can play a constructive role, such as:
- Unbiased data-based observer
- Behavioral Interpreter and
- Scientifically based cause and effect determiner.
In today’s world, it could be argued that we all need to build additional skill sets and decision-making paradigms to facilitate decision-making that is viewed by as large a percentage of the organizational population as possible as ethical and proper. The issues that organizations face today in order to succeed are not unique but are enduring, however, the current environment greatly magnifies them, necessitating greater skill at handling them and facilitating a common, scientifically sound understanding of how to resolve them. _____________________________________________________________________
© 2011 by Jeffrey M. Saltzman. All rights reserved.
Have human ethical standards been fundamentally the same over the millennia?
“What would Zeus do?” Given the ethical abuses that we constantly read about in the news and now about the news, I have been thinking quite a bit about ethics and whether changing ethical standards have an impact on our societies and organizations. As you consider the relative constancy of ethical standards over time there are only two possibilities. One is that human ethical standards are constant and the behaviors that we witness which implies differing ethics over time are really an expression of changing standards, driven by societal levels of economic well-being, sophistication or technology as humans search for what the ancient Greeks felt was a major driver of human behavior, called eudaimonia or happiness. Or second, the possibility those fundamental ethical standards do indeed shift over time.
I would argue that at any moment of time, were you to objectively measure the level of ethical behavior shown by every individual person on the planet, that you would find a normal distribution of ethical behavior, with some behaving with the highest level of ethics (by my standards of course), others would be considered on the edge and still others would be behaving in quite an unethical manner. Further, I would argue that the distribution would be broad enough that you would find more variation in ethical behavior among people within any period of time than you would find across time periods. Those people who operate significantly below the mean or the norm, we call abnormal or criminal and attempt to stop their behavior. Now if we have a normal distribution that means that ½ of the human population is below the mean, so obviously we don’t lock away ½ of the human race, but what we do is to determine heuristically where to draw the cut score. At some point, maybe one standard deviation below the mean or perhaps two, we say that the behavior is sufficiently abnormal to be considered criminal and lock those people away or send them for treatment.
Historically, the Romans had the Coliseum in Rome and 200 other similar venues elsewhere, whose contests resulted in the deaths of millions of animals and the slaughter of uncounted numbers of people. Most of us today would find the killing of people for sport abhorrent, most but not all. But today we do have sporting events held in venues similar to a coliseum aimed at like outcomes, producing a winner and loser and entertaining the masses (or more cynically, providing an outlet for aggression not aimed at the powers that be). On the face of it they seem quite different, for instance after a baseball game rarely do you see the losing team impaled on stakes or fed to the lions. But underneath it all, are the two events playing to fundamentally the same principles in the human psyche, the need for competition, for a winner and loser to emerge, and the need to root for one’s “champion”? Is the popularity of some TV shows really due to nothing more than their nature as virtual Roman Coliseums, allowing us to peer into how people perform under stressful circumstance? Are some news shows that allow us to track crime investigations or court trials similar to the struggle for survival that the Romans so enjoyed viewing? (The normal distribution argument would imply that some Romans enjoyed the blood sport while others tolerated it and others still were perhaps appalled by it. Similarly today some are glued to their sets watching championship wrestling or reality TV shows, while others are not.)
There are layers upon layers to think through as this point is considered. Certainly ethical theories and the corresponding theories of justice have changed and have evolved over time, but the question I am posing is more fundamental. “Have humans changed?” Has our fundamental psychology changed over the last few thousand years causing our ethical standards to shift? Or are we still the same humans, psychologically, that strode the earth during Golden age of Greece, the epochs of the Pharaohs, the rise and fall of the Roman Empire, the age of Confucius or of the Buddha, or when the 10 Commandments first appeared?
I have to admit to some pre-determined bias, for when I look at the so-called “generational” differences that are supposed to exist among worker attitudes, regardless of what you read in the lay press, I can find no evidence in the data to support the notion that what the various generations want out of the world of work is different on a fundamental level. The differences that do exist are primarily driven by differing economic opportunity, life stage and technology rather than differences in human psychology. For instance you would be very hard pressed to find a worker who did not want to be treated with respect and dignity, have a sense of accomplishment or a sense of fairness of treatment and equity of any generation in any area of the world. And the workers today around the world who accept working conditions that you and I would find unacceptable do so out of economic necessity and for no other reason.
You may consider some ancient practices barbaric, but they were no worse than what people perpetrated on their fellows a mere 70 years ago during WWII. And today things are little better, with an estimated 12.5 million humans living in slavery with 2.5 million of those being bought and sold like cattle (Dahan 2011). Yet we could also point to progress that has been made in the USA over the last few decades with the abandonment of laws that created second class citizen status for many of our fellow humans, and the passage of laws giving equal rights to others.
Yet positively, sports like baseball can also have a helpful effect in bringing together people who can find common cause in their efforts, including those that go beyond the sport itself. In tsunami ravaged sections of Japan, baseball is providing an aura of normalcy at some schools allowing people to see beyond the day-to-day devastation they are dealing with (New York Times 7/10/11). So I want to be careful and not paint with too broad a brush in my statements about various activities.
Here is a statement for which I have no evidence, since I did not measure the attitude nor have I been able to find any organization or person who did, but never-the-less I would argue is accurate: “Slaves were never in favor of slavery”. Those who got the short end of the stick due to the unethical behavior of others were never pleased with their lot and why should they be? Humans have had an uncanny knack, an ability to take advantage of other humans for as long as we have been walking this planet. At the same time others give unselfishly of themselves to benefit the broader society of which they are part.
I recently got back from a trip to Costa Rica (go if you ever have an opportunity), and during the trip we stayed for a few days in a town of about 1500 people called Tortuguero. We went to this location which is accessible only by boat or plane, to see the Green Sea Turtle lay its eggs, during the start of the annual mating season. You need to have a permit to go onto the beach where the turtles aggregate and a registered guide needs to take you to make sure no damage is done to the turtles or their nests. Our guide happened to be a fellow named Fernando, who went by Don. It was truly an honor to spend a few days with him and to learn from him about the wild life and plants in the area. Don and I had several conversations over the course of a few days about how the town of Tortuguero is structured socially and politically. Tortuguero’s original residents were escaped slaves from Caribbean islands and from a slaving ship that had sunk. They chose to make a life, however hard, rather than return to slavery, they were searching for eudaimonia. Remember, “Slaves were never in favor of slavery”.
Interestingly, Tortuguero has no local government. There is a provincial police station manned by federal police, but there is no mayor, no elected officials, no one in authority to get things done. Over the last few years though cement walkways have begun to replace dirt paths in town, a major recycling facility has been built, in line with the theme of Tortuguero being an eco-vacation location and importantly creating jobs for residents, potable running water has been supplied to each house and other improvements have been made.
How do these things get done? Don indicated that a group of about 7 citizens who simply want to make things better get together regularly and figure out how to accomplish them. I asked if they were elected, but he said they were volunteers. My feeling is that they were volunteers that the other residents of the town greatly respected and willingly followed their lead in decision making, making life better for all. These volunteers in my opinion are operating with a great deal of ethical integrity attempting to improve life for all 1500 residents of the town (they are also likely acting with self-interest). And if anyone is listening, according to Don, what the town really needs next is a bank. A bank would give the residents a place to safely put their money, it would provide small businesses a place to borrow for startup costs, and it would make the town feel more substantial. Don indicated that a bank would give residents more confidence in the future of the town, with all of the corresponding benefits and is sorely needed.
No matter how much we may wish it, ethical issues and challenges, among business leaders, politicians, and others are not going to go away any time soon. Humans are not about to achieve some kind of breakthrough in our evolutionary pathway that will fundamentally change our behavior. But there are a large number of people, and I want to positively think, an increasingly larger number of people who are willing to do the right thing, not giving into the fears of our baser emotions in order to make life better for all as we each find our own personal form of eudaimonia.
Dahan, Y., Lerner, H., Milman-Sivan, F., 2011, Global Justice, Labor Standards and Responsibility, Theoretical Inquiries in Law, Vol. 12, 117-142.
Hursthouse, R, “Virtue Ethics”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2010 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/win2010/entries/ethics-virtue/.
© 2011 by Jeffrey M. Saltzman. All rights reserved.