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Paroxysms of Populism

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I simply can’t believe what I see when I look at the candidacy of Donald Trump. How has the Republican Party, a main-stream political party devolved to reach such a low as to nominate a candidate that has the Klu Klux Klan, the American Nazi Party and other assorted racists and white supremacists advocating for its candidate? A candidate who numbers among his supporters a former KGB leader, Vladimir Putin, an autocrat and dictator running a corrupt kleptocracy, whose political and otherwise perceived opponents mysteriously disappear or die, who thinks nothing of bombing hospitals, and who actively supports Trump’s bid for the USA’s highest office with espionage.

Other support from the world of national leaders comes from Kim Jong-un, the missile-firing dynastic despot who kills people for “not showing the right attitude” during meetings, or for being perceived as a threat to his rule and from the Iranian hard right who want to dismantle the treaty that reduced their nuclear capability. So 2/3rd of George Bush’s “Axis of Evil” support the current Republican candidate. With this kind of support and role models it is no wonder that Trump threatens to imprison his political opponents, to make it easier to go after critical journalists and who constantly states that they only way he can lose is if the system is “rigged” against him. While it is easy to despair about the candidate, calling into question not only his policy positions but also his mental fitness, it is even more disappointing that he has garnered any support, let alone significant support from a proportion of the American public. This is not who we are or at least, based on the ideals of the founding fathers, not who we are supposed to be.

But we have been here before. Previously during times of economic and demographic transition the country has lurched toward populism, nativism, protectionism and the fear-mongering that we are currently seeing. And while as a national movement these periods have been relatively short-lived, there always has remained an undercurrent of baser populism by people who feel threatened by change or are simply racist, misogynist and xenophobic.

John Adams, perhaps the most religious of the founding fathers, signed a series of laws collectively called the Alien and Sedition Acts in 1798, which made it harder for an immigrant to become a citizen, allowed for the imprisonment and deportation of non-citizens deemed “dangerous” or were from a hostile nation, and criminalized the making of false statements against the federal government. The argument was made that these laws were required to strengthen national security during a time of uncertainty.

The rise of the Know-Nothings in the mid-1800s, which began as the American Republican Party then became the Native American Party, and then later simply the American Party, came about because of a fear of the immigration of large numbers of Germans and Irish Catholics. A California chapter opposed Chinese immigration. This anti-immigrant party, whose base was protestant men, saw conspiracies everywhere they looked and when members carried out various criminal acts and were questioned their response was “I know nothing”. Abraham Lincoln despaired about the No-Nothings: “As a nation, we began by declaring that ‘all men are created equal.’ We now practically read it ‘all men are created equal, except negroes.’ When the Know-Nothings get control, it will read ‘all men are created equals, except negroes and foreigners and Catholics.’ When it comes to that I should prefer emigrating to some country where they make no pretense of loving liberty – to Russia, for instance, where despotism can be taken pure, and without the base alloy of hypocrisy.”

And more recently, after the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor by the Japanese, during the spring of 1942, well over 120,000 Japanese Americans were forcibly relocated to internment camps because of fears over their loyalty. Reviews of this policy later on could find little to no evidence of disloyalty among these citizens and the motivations for this forced internment were identified as institutional racism.

While it is easy to say that these episodic periods of populism were economically driven, and to an extent they were, they are also driven by some basic human tendencies towards tribalism and to see “otherness” as a threat rather than a benefit to society. But the evidence is incontrovertible, immigration rather than being the threat that these movements perceive has powered this country to the heights of economic prosperity and to be a leader in scientific and industry innovation. After all, except for a very few of us, we are all immigrants.

From a business and organizational health standpoint prosperity is not achieved by walling yourself or your organization off from the rest of the world, but by embracing it. Ronald Reagan who is often used as the ideal icon of the Republican Party stated in his farewell address to the nation: “I’ve spoken of the shining city all my political life, but I don’t know if I ever quite communicated what I saw when I said it. But in my mind it was a tall, proud city built on rocks stronger than oceans, wind-swept, God-blessed, and teeming with people of all kinds living in harmony and peace; a city with free ports that hummed with commerce and creativity. And if there had to be city walls, the walls had doors and the doors were open to anyone with the will and the heart to get here. That’s how I saw it, and see it still”. You have to wonder what Reagan would say about what his party has become.

   

Written by Jeffrey M. Saltzman

October 10, 2016 at 11:10 am

A-7713

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Dehumanization. A reference number tattooed on an arm is a powerful method of turning a person into something less. Dehumanization when paired with and justified by vilification eases the gathering and slaughter. Dehumanization is a slippery slope and those who initiate the process count on it being that way in order to help gather and maintain their power. It takes a group and turns them into the “other”, the source of a society’s problems. It takes the causality of problems from being systemic or internally focused and moves it to a sub-group within society or an outside group that can be labeled as threatening to that society. In either case the thinking is that the group needs to be dealt with and cast out. The logic is that if only we dealt with the “other” we could go back to the good old days or the way things should be, that our lives would be improved. The good old days themselves are a fantasy that exists only in the mind of the angry and aggrieved for they were never good for most. It may start with rumor, a libel, and then proceed to claims of injury, injustice, criminality, and how the “other” receives unfair benefits at your expense. It then moves to humiliation of the “other”, the use of symbols and identification to make them better stand out, for without the symbols and identification we may not be able to tell if they are them or us. The next step may be the building of a wall to keep them out or perhaps inside a ghetto, followed by legislated de-legitimization of the “other”, taking away rights or the ability to receive fair treatment perhaps imposing penalties for being “other”. Once legislation is in place the next steps are easy, for solutions can be found, perhaps even a final solution. Conducting horrendous acts against the “other” can bind the rest of the group together more strongly and helps unite them in common purpose.

Yet, even as there are those who are ready to vilify “others” for their own gain, there are those who are willing to stand against this pattern of human behavior that has repeated itself over the millennia. It cannot be allowed to happen once again. We must remember that we are more similar than we are different, that we all potentially can succumb to human bias and prejudice and most of all we must remember that we are all human. One person who stood against this pattern of abuse has left us. He was numbered A-7713 by the Nazi’s, but his human name was Elie Wiesel. I will always remember him and I will also remember what he stood for, his dignity and desire to fight against injustice rising out of the ashes and tragedy of his childhood.

Written by Jeffrey M. Saltzman

July 2, 2016 at 6:25 pm

Posted in Ethics, Human Behavior

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OV co-sponsors Psychology Day at UN – Jeff Saltzman’s opening Remarks – 042816

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Thank you all for coming. It is most gratifying that such an urgent issue as the migration crisis brings forth such a high level of interest among both our clients and friends.

I hope you find today’s panel discussion on the migration crisis, whether caused by global warming, war, violence, or other factors facing so many of our fellow humans both educational and inspirational.

From an educational standpoint, what you may find is that traumatic events which displace people don’t necessarily bring forth new challenges that we have never faced before, but greatly magnify those that exist around all of us every day. Displacement, the loss of identify, the need to reintegrate people into society and help them find their worth are challenges that occur every day all around us, but are greatly magnified, more challenging and often more urgent with migrants.

During 911, for instance, we were in the midst of an employee survey for a financial services firm and part of the employee population completed the survey prior to 911 and part afterwards. One conclusion from that study was that traumatic events greatly magnify challenges that exist daily, challenges that must be met for the successful operation of our society and the organizations that reside within.

Organizations and the employees within go through changes in leadership, reorganizations, mergers, acquisitions, new people coming and old friends going. They also experiences changes in the environment in which they operate. Each of these events can cause changes in status, influence, security, and the sense of having a positive future for oneself and potentially one’s family. These challenges, while they do not rise to the level of those who are displaced in a migration event, never-the-less share some common characteristics.  So as the panel discussion unfolds ask yourself how these same psychological concepts play out in your own organizations.

I hope you draw inspiration from the efforts that people around the world are putting forth to assist migrants and from the migrants themselves. There is, of course, always more that can be done. In our upcoming book, Creating the Vital Organization, Scott Brooks and I discuss the resilience that people have when given an appropriate environment to recover from challenges. It is truly remarkable. To quote the noted Psychologist, Ann Masten, an expert on human resilience, “The greatest surprise of resilience research is the ordinariness of the phenomena”.

The lesson learned – if we reach out and help those who are suffering from migration events, or when we reach out to our own employees experiencing various challenges, they can bounce back. They simply need a helping hand.

OV is proud to support the UN and help enhance UN deliberations through organizational psychology. Should anyone want to stay afterwards and continue the discussion we would be happy to join you. Thank you and enjoy the day.  Jeff

Written by Jeffrey M. Saltzman

April 29, 2016 at 7:05 am

Absolute vs. Relative Morality

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I was raised to think of morality in an absolute sense. I think most of us were. There was right and wrong, just and unjust. It was binary. For instance, if a child was living on the street, hungry, that was not right, plain and simple. A hungry child was never discussed in a relativistic sense, in terms of it being ok if the child was less hungry than another.

We raised money for all sorts of causes back then, putting pennies and nickels into small blue collection boxes. Any spare dimes went into the March of Dimes collection boxes. When I was very young in Jackson Heights, Queens, my mom would take me and my sisters (if they were not in school) to do the food shopping rounds. Depending on the day, we went to the dairy to pick up milk in glass containers, to the fish monger, where if I remember right she leaned towards sole and haddock, the cheese shop, the butcher and the bakery. I have a recollection of not being able to get out of the cheese shop without being given a piece of Muenster or Swiss cheese to eat on the spot, a slice of salami from the butcher, or a butter cookie with sprinkles from the bakery. (The big soft chocolate chip cookies were my favorite though). Other groceries were purchased at the King Kullen store on Roosevelt Avenue, which gave green stamps, redeemable for merchandise, along with your purchase. Things were different then. Not better, not worse, just different. Morality was learned by what was taught and the behaviors at home, as well my daily interactions with and listening to the conversations of others.

Some of the shop keepers bore the tattoos of numbers on their arms, signifying that they had spent time in and were survivors of Nazi concentration camps. At that time, as a young child, I did not know what the numbers meant. Later on, as a graduate student in Ohio, I found a bakery similar to the one of my youth on Cleveland’s east side, where almost all of the people working the counter, they all looked like my grandmother, had also been branded by the Nazi’s. It was emotional for me to go there as I thought of what these people had gone through, but I went as often as I could. Every customer was patient there, no matter how long the line was and each was greeted by the women working the counter as an old friend. Years later I traveled back to Cleveland to see them again and they, like my own grandparents, were gone. These were my teachers of morality. It was not a specific class, it was not pounded into my head. The values were absorbed through my day-to-day childhood interactions.

Today, morality is seemingly taking on more of a relativistic tone. In a recent dust-up between the British and Israeli Prime Ministers, the Israeli Prime Minister and others within his cabinet, lectured the British Prime Minister on how much better the Palestinians in east Jerusalem have it than their brethren in Arab countries. One of his cabinet members also stated that the Palestinians have it better than when they were under the British mandate. All of these statements are true, but that does not make them right.

In what can only be described as a substance-free, circus or carnival barker environment the Republican Presidential primaries have come down to which candidate can out insult the other. Whichever one’s morals sink the lowest, relative to the others, whomever becomes the best insulter, will be poised to win. Any absolute sense of right or wrong on their conduct or on any issues has gone out the window as they pander to the lowest common denominator.

This is a trend that I am sensing in other sectors of our society as well. For instance, organizations today face many pressures that push them towards relativistic definitions of morality rather than absolute ones. I am a supporter of globalization, but globalization in some respects has become a race to the bottom. There are some organizations whose notions around globalization center on issues like finding a location with the loosest environmental laws, the cheapest energy no matter how dirty, the lowest taxes, or the country with the least amount of worker protection and compensation. Finding all of these things make these organizations better able to compete in the marketplace, but it doesn’t make it right. Not for all of us, and not in the long-term.

Many in the United States take pride in the notion that somehow what the USA stands for, freedom, liberty and justice for all, makes us exceptional. That exceptionalism is thought to have ushered in a level of peace and prosperity never before seen by humans. Some, perhaps many will call this notion simplistic and we can argue from here to eternity about what the absolute standards of morality should be, but I am sorry, being exceptional from a morality standpoint is not relativistic, it is absolute. It is time for all of our organizations and our leaders as well as potential leaders to start acting that way.

Written by Jeffrey M. Saltzman

February 28, 2016 at 8:20 am

Posted in Ethics

Exceptionalism

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Did you ever notice how perfectly the morning sunlight streams through the kitchen window? Or how the positioning of the house allows for gorgeous winter water views? Or how the crackling fireplace creates such a perfect atmosphere in the family room? An owner who has spent years living in a house typically knows each and every one of its strengths and views them as something special or exceptional. They put added value on the house due to those characteristics. (They also know the house’s short-comings but often overlook them).  Each person sees this added value in their own house. After all, if it weren’t special or exceptional, what would it say about me for living there? (Cognitive dissonance). As I continue to invest my time and resources in improving my house, from my perspective, my beliefs and values about my house simply become stronger (Sunk Costs). And with limited house owning experience some assume that it just couldn’t get much better than their own house (WYSIATI – what you see or experience is all there is). If and when they go to sell the house they put that perceived exceptionalism into the price tag and then wonder why the house does not sell. They wonder why others don’t perceive the exceptionalism that they do, why others don’t value the things they themselves value (see Organizational Rainbows Cast no Shadows). They are baffled and when they have to lower their price (the value they perceive in the house), they can get angry. Real estate agents serve a useful purpose as a buffer between a buyer who does not perceive the same exceptionalism and the seller who wants to say, “Why don’t you understand”?

The house example above is both real and metaphor. These principles cause people to see exceptionalism in many of their activities, beliefs and convictions. They do not simply apply to what you own, but also to actions you take, where you work, the religion you belong to, the college or university you attended, the person you married, the country you live in and political system by which you are governed.  But before I am accused of painting with too broad of a brush, it is quite clear that there are plenty of times where people can break out of this pattern, discard or change their own values and see the value, or be convinced of the value that others are seeing in an object, belief system, governance structure, investment etc. Just look at how attractive gold is to most people. Gold in and of itself has limited value, you can’t eat it, drink it, breath it. It does not impart health or wisdom to those who hold it or wear it. Its value comes from the combination of its rarity and desirability, a desirability that shows up as a commonly held value. The same could be said of other objects of limited day-to-day usefulness, but that generally are seen as being of high value – artwork, antique cars and other rare objects are often tagged with the phrase exceptional, and we are attracted to things that are rare as it makes us feel special to be in possession of them.

Describing how humans fall under the spell of exceptionalism as a construct is not meant to imply that there is no right or wrong, moral or amoral, good or evil, that there are only points of view. The notion that there are only points of view is a cop out for there certainly are social structures and social norms, governance systems and other conventions that humans apply to other humans that are abhorrent. Systems that keep some in poverty with a lack of opportunity, that subjugate or do not create equality are systems that need to change. Understanding the psychology that makes it more difficult to change them can help enable the needed change.

 

Written by Jeffrey M. Saltzman

January 16, 2016 at 8:45 am

The Language of Business

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One hobby I have (which I have to admit I have not had much time to engage in recently) is browsing through New York book stores looking for books with old Jewish folk tales or stories of Jewish life from the “old country”. While these old folk tales may seem out of place or out of time in our modern world, I find that sometimes they have enduring kernels of wisdom. I occasionally take these old folk tales and translate them into modern organizational terms which I can use in my day-to-day work.

For instance, 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.

Then 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 has already been sold, it is as though it is already 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 the person had descendants, for if they had descendants 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.”

Communications between two people, between groups of people, or between organizations who do not know each other well is often very difficult and can be subject to vast misunderstandings, even when they are speaking the same language. And with those misunderstandings sometimes comes suspicion and fear. It is as though the two groups who are communicating, whether they be black and white, Jew or Arab, Israeli or Palestinian, police vs. those being policed, are actually having two completely different conversations with neither group able to translate what the other is saying or have an understanding of their actions.

Even when the communication is clear there can be issues of saliency, the importance given to the words used in the communication between the two parties which causes misunderstandings and what can be interpreted as behavioral anomalies.

One story, that is not quite a folk tale but illustrates the point regarding saliency, is about a method that Jews used to obtain passports to escape the horrors of WWII.  Some families, who could not get legitimate documents struggled to obtain fake passports in their attempts to flee. One such story takes place in Poland in the late 1930’s and describes how documents were forged by studying old passports from different countries. Their style and format were then copied, creating new fake passports for those trying to escape.

One day a man, who was part of the Jewish underground, set out to collect old passports through whatever method he could. He was extremely successful and by the end of the day he had collected a large number.

On the way back from his activities he was stopped by the Polish police, was asked for his papers, and then confronted when they discovered the large number of passports he was carrying.

He was sure that they would take him to the police station, torture and then kill him as they tried to learn about the activities of the underground organization collecting the passports.

The man thought about how troubled his family would be if they never saw him again without any explanation. But, it was near the end of the day and the police told the man to go home and then come to the station in the morning for questioning. The man was terrified. The police knew who he was and if he stayed home and did not show up the next day or if he tried to flee that night, they would simply go to his house and kill his family.

If he showed up the next day at the police station he was certain they would torture him to obtain information and then kill him anyway. He did not know what to do. After much deliberation and consultations with his family and Rabbi, he went to the police station the next morning and approached the policeman who had stopped him.

The policeman asked him what he wanted and appeared not to remember the previous day’s incident. The man indicated that he had been stopped and a packet of passports had been taken from him and he was here to collect it. The policeman handed the man the packet of passports and told him to be on his way.

Saliency is a psychological concept which deals with how central an event, object, fact or perception is to you or another person. The amount of saliency an event or communication has is a combination of emotional, motivational and cognitive factors.

To the man with the passports in the story, being stopped by the police was extremely central to his very existence, for it was quite literally life or death. To the policeman, the man was one of hundreds of people that he had stopped and questioned that day.

The man who was stopped and questioned described the incident as a miracle, that his life and those of his family were spared. And from his perspective it certainly was, but what was the underlying mechanism of human perception that allowed that miracle to occur? Saliency.  To the policeman the incident was not nearly as salient, not nearly as memorable as it was to the passport procurer.

I have to admit something to you. Not being all that concerned about fashion, I buy irregular jeans. I grew up wearing jeans (one pair to wear while the other pair was being washed) and even today I am most comfortable pulling on a pair. I like to wear jeans. But I don’t like what jeans cost these days. So I go to a manufacturer’s outlet mall near me and I buy irregular blue jeans.

As I pull each pair off the shelf and examine them I am usually hard pressed to determine why they are called irregular. I look for the obvious, for instance, does it have 3 legs? (Well I could always use a spare, in case I get a hole in one knee). And I usually just can’t find anything wrong with them.

When I wear them, at least at first, I wonder if what is not obvious to me, the irregularities, are likely very obvious to those around me. I am sure I can hear people pointing at me and laughing as I walk by. But maybe it is not the pair of jeans that brings on the laughter.

But the reality is no one is looking at my jeans, let alone looking for the defect in my irregulars. I just think they are, at least for a moment, because the issue is more salient to me, until I forget about it.

When a manager makes an off-hand comment to a worker about that worker’s performance or future, what may be perceived by the manager as a minor topic or issue, just above the threshold of consciousness, may be perceived quite differently by the employee.

To the employee that comment might be indicative of whether or not they have a future with the organization, central to their very existence, while the manager might not even remember the comment the next day.

How many cases of miscommunication in the workplace, in politics, in negotiations, or in our everyday lives, are derived from a comment that has very different levels of saliency to the various people who might be listening to it? Managers may use what they perceive as throw away lines, about “future opportunities” or “earnings potential” not really thinking about just how closely the employee is listening or just how salient those message might be to the listener.

And now another aspect of communication that can impact decision-making has been shown to be whether the language you are speaking is your native tongue (Costa et.al., Your Morals Depend on Language, 2014).

A very common problem used to illustrate ethics as it relates to decision-making, is to ask a listener to imagine themselves on a bridge over-looking a trolley car track. There is a trolley car heading down the track that will shortly run into and kill five people, unless a heavy object is placed in its path. What can you do?

There is a very heavy man standing next to you. You are asked to consider pushing the heavy man onto the tracks to save the lives of five people. Sacrifice the one to save the five? Would you do it?  Not surprising to those of you whose native tongue is English, is that the vast majority of you would not push the heavy man in front of the trolley. That is reactionary thinking, or in the words of Daniel Kahneman, System 1 thinking.

But if the person you are asking is listening in English, and English is not their native tongue, you get a very different answer. Many would say that they would sacrifice the one to save the five. They need to apply some extra effort, which slows down their thinking and allows System 2 decision-making to kick in, which is not reactionary and allows people to consider more slowly, “is it worth sacrificing one to save five?”

Now take the scenario of having a group of managers in a global corporation sitting around making decisions about the operations of a company. The conversation is happening in English, but about half of the participants are not native English speakers. The two groups sitting around the table, the native vs. non-native English speakers may be coming to different conclusions, due to different decision-making systems that are kicking in as they consider organizational choices.

Language and the ability to use it properly is a critical aspect of good business performance. Yet as you dig into the use of language in business, whether it be definitional issues, saliency, or if you are speaking in your native tongue, the challenges of effective language use in today’s large, complex, global corporations are immense.

Written by Jeffrey M. Saltzman

December 24, 2014 at 4:48 pm

Legislating Morality

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Fifty years ago, in 1964, the US Civil Rights Act came into being, signed into law by President Lyndon B. Johnson. The purpose of the law was to make discrimination based on race, religion, color, national origin, and gender illegal. Other protected classes were added over time, such as age in 1967. Beyond simply making discrimination illegal the legislation was attempting a feat of social engineering, changing behavior. And while one could argue that tremendous strides have been made, make no mistake about it, there is still plenty of discrimination going on today.

But questions arise for those of us who work in the space of behaviors and attitudes. Can attitudes and opinions, can thought patterns and morality be created by legislation?  Does legislation and prosecution for violations of that legislation create morality or only an illusion of morality? And if people are behaving according to moral principles, but in their hearts feel differently, do we care?

While we could argue endlessly whose standards of morality, or which cultures and norms we will accept as “moral”, putting all that aside for a moment, the answer from a social engineering perspective is very clearly that legislation can change behaviors and over time those behavior changes will result in attitudinal shifts. In other words legislation does have the power to affect behaviors, and partly though the power of cognitive dissonance, partly through the power of modeling others in the community, over time thought patterns can be altered. Perhaps not for everyone, and not in every instance, but changing behaviors can lead to attitudinal shifts in a large population.

The attempt to legislate behavior is nothing new, as there were many ancient legal codes aimed at instructing people how to live their lives in an attempt to instill order in society. One well known early attempt at legislating morality occurred under the Babylonian ruler Hammurabi about 3800 years ago. The Code of Hammurabi consisted of 282 laws by which people were to live their lives. Hammurabi’s code was the source of the saying “an eye for an eye”. (“If a man put out the eye of another man, his eye shall be put out.”) And it is likely the earliest instance of medical reimbursement legislation. (“If a physician make a large incision with an operating knife and cure it, or if he open a tumor (over the eye) with an operating knife, and saves the eye, he shall receive ten shekels in money”). But medical malpractice carried stiff penalties under Hammurabi. (“If a physician make a large incision with the operating knife, and kill him, or open a tumor with the operating knife, and cut out the eye, his hands shall be cut off”).

An even older set of laws, originating about 300 years before Hammurabi, was created by the king of Ur and called the code of Ur-Nammu. Some of those very ancient laws we would recognize today (“If a man commits a murder, that man must be killed”). And some would be somewhat foreign to us today (“If a man is accused of sorcery he must undergo ordeal by water; if he is proven innocent, his accuser must pay 3 shekels”).

And almost 1000 years later on Moses brought down a set of laws from Mt. Sinai which also was aimed at describing to people how they were expected to behave and live their lives, a moral code (e.g. “You shall not murder”).

While there were certainly differences among these legal codes, there were also some very interesting similarities. For instance look across these 3 sets of moral codes, originating thousands of years apart regarding what they have to say about bearing false witness.

  • Ur-Nammu (4100 years ago) – “If a man appeared as a witness, and was shown to be a perjurer, he must pay fifteen shekels of silver.”
  • Hammurabi (3800 years ago) – “If any one bring an accusation of any crime before the elders, and does not prove what he has charged, he shall, if it be a capital offense charged, be put to death.”
  • Moses (approx. 3000 years ago) – “You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.”
  • And today in the USA (18 U.S. Code § 1621) perjury is still a crime – “…is guilty of perjury and shall, except as otherwise expressly provided by law, be fined under this title or imprisoned not more than five years, or both.”

Apparently bearing false witness has been an on-going problem since the dawn of civilization or there would have been no need to call it out specifically in each of these moral codes.

More recently the case for legislating morality can be seen with the advent of laws in favor of marriage equality and other equal benefits for the LGBTQ community. In this particular case it seems that the attitudes of the population in general were ahead, and perhaps still are ahead of those in various legislative bodies in the USA. There are of course segments of the population who vehemently oppose equal rights, just as there were those who supported Jim Crow laws in the south. What will likely happen to that group? As LGBTQ rights become more widespread, and people/states are held accountable for violation of those rights, the act of behaving in a fashion supportive of those rights will be seen as:

  • normal – people will want to be similar, including in attitudes) to the vast majority of people they are surrounded by (Paraphrasing Tversky & Kahneman 1974, “People will maintain a belief in a position when surround by a community of like-minded believers”).

And again, potentially not everyone’s beliefs will positively shift in every instance (even among those suffering from cognitive dissonance), but across the larger population continuing shifts in attitudes could be measured.

As an aside, in the world of survey research, once we have reached a 51% response rate, in order to drive additional responses, we use this notion to our advantage, by sending out reminders along the lines of, “the majority of people have completed the survey, don’t miss this opportunity to voice your thoughts”). It works.

Today the US military is struggling with the issue of sexual harassment in its ranks. The military code (e.g. article 93 – regarding cruelty and maltreatment) has various statutes in place by which personnel can face court martial trails for sexual harassment offenses. But the rules have been rarely enforced with harsh measures, especially for those with higher rank. Can the military legislate attitudinal shifts among service members? Can they eliminate sexual harassment by simply telling people “don’t do it”? That is a necessary step. And certainly enforcement must be more uniform across the military and the legislation must be seen as having some teeth. But the military must also build standards of behavior that become “normal” and which don’t include sexual harassment behaviors. Once the behaviors are in place attitudes can shift. If all you do is work on attitudes but the old behavioral standards are still there, the attitudes shifts will not “take”.

Legislating morality is possible, but over the long term true shifts in attitudes can only happen if they are supported by the corresponding behaviors.

© 2014 by Jeffrey M. Saltzman. All rights reserved.

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